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Reading Ulysses

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Reverend Richard Coles Reverend Richard Coles 11:07, Friday, 15 June 2012

On Saturday 16th June, Radio 4 is broadcasting a seven part dramatisation of James Joyce's Ulysses. To mark the occasion, Saturday Live will be in Dublin. Here, Saturday Live presenter Reverend Richard Coles talks about his experience of reading Ulysses.


I had a fight with a monk a couple of years ago. I was staying at a monastery in Yorkshire and I was obliged to watch one evening a DVD of the Lord of the Rings. This, for me was purgatorial, and I'm afraid I couldn't resist sighing and tutting at its more egregious moments. This, understandably, annoyed everyone, especially this one monk who turned on me for sneering at a film so faithfully based on what he called "the greatest novel in English".

Outraged, I shouted back, "ULYSSES!" and our argument got so heated others had to intervene and we went grumpily back to our cells.

I think I was at least partly right, though. Ulysses is certainly up there, with Moby-Dick and Middlemarch and possibly the Map and Lucia novels of EF Benson, but its almost certainly the least read among them.

I have read it, first as a teenager, partly because I was dutifully working my way through a list of Penguin Classics, but mostly because I was anxious to display my prodigious erudition to an indifferent world. I carried it around faithfully for weeks, making sure the advancing cracks in its spine were visible, and read it on the bus in what I hoped was a posture of devoted attention. How I managed to do this without being punched is a wonder.

I read it as an enthusiastic neophyte might read the wisdom of his ancients, diligently, religiously even, but without taking much of it in. The urinous kidneys, the various voidings of human waste and the sex briefly held may attention, but the rest might as well have been a telephone directory for all the good it did me.

It was only later, reading it as an adult, that I think I actually read it at all. I had browsed the Idiot's Guide to Modernism by then, and didn't feel duty bound to plough through it as I would a detective novel, carefully, from beginning to end and in the right order so as not to miss anything; its formal difficulty began not to seem so difficult as I gradually got more and more interested in what was happening at narrative's edges and in its backwash; also I was better tuned to its music, finding the once bewildering torrent of seemingly undifferentiated stuff now resonant, humming with something I recognized from my own experience of life in all its peculiarly lovely banality.

Also, it occurred to me after Compline when we were - infuriatingly - in Greater Silence, it isn't a film script waiting to happen. It can't be turned into a film at all, though a couple of people have tried. What better endorsement could there be?



Revered Richard Coles presents Saturday Live

  • Visit the Ulysses website and listen to audio clips of the drama
  • See when the episodes of Ulysses are being broadcast on Saturday 16th June
  • Visit the Saturday Live website and subscribe to their newsletter


  • Comment number 1.

    So, what is the Rev Coles saying? He's read Ulysses a couple of times, found it meaningless and meaningful, and it isn't easily transferred to film. Really? Is that it? I was hoping for a little more... reverence.

  • Comment number 2.

    Rev, remember Joyce saying in it ''he couldn't tell poetry from cabbage''?

  • Comment number 3.

    I have LOVED the Bloom's Day broadcasts so far today, as well as all the BBC coverage. So many important comments about Ireland today still reverberating throughout Ulysses, plus the gorgeous language - mighty, altogether...

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Richard...it seems your opinion about Ulysses readers' and their dis-ing of Lord of the Rings is only too typical. I contend that both works have a lot in common...they both take myth to make a template for their respective stories. Both delight in using language in peculiar ways. Strange that you should use the term telephone directory to describe your early efforts at reading Ulysses as some critic, whose name I can't remember, once said of Tolkien's Silmarillion that it was a telephone directory written in elvish. Literary folk have a blind spot when it comes to Tolkien...Joyce is The Man. I actually whole heartedly agree that Joyce is The Man but also that LOTR and related works of JRRT do achieve a very high level of language & myth. Tom Shippey (professor I think) hits the nail on the head when he says that Tolkien's sin was using the vulgar (that is English) tongue rather than the Classical (Latin/Greek) roots. Both works are life affirming...and although Joyce is The Man, Tolkien has the edge on philology.
    Having trouble reading Ulysses, then practice reading poetry, then read it as a poem...just read over what you cannot understand, there's plenty you will and meaning will be revealed...it's likely to be your version but that's valid as that is the case with all texts, we bring our own understanding to them.
    Take care...Philip

  • Comment number 5.

    i've made Finnegans Wake far more readable yet keeping Joyce's words -
    here for an example -


    I've done the whole book if any publisher is interested

  • Comment number 6.

    Brought up in Liverpool in 1960 I went to sea as a Midshipman in the Merchant Navy at eighteen a girl I was very keen on went up to Cambridge. By the time I came home on my next leave she had changed, she had new friends and moved on and I was left in her wake. Humiliated in their company by talk of Eliot, Huxley etc. and some bugger called Joyce I was derided as an uneducated Liverpool oik. Determined to show her and them, I bought a copy of this book called Ulysses and attempted to read it, but it was written in Swahili.
    I got over her and moved on. Eight years later married with two children I had the most unholy row with my wife and storming into another room I ripped a book of the shelf, broke it open and forced myself to read. Four pages later I was entranced as the words poured of the page like music. ‘Who the hell wrote this? James Joyce!’ I was amazed and have never stopped reading it. For me the indubitably the greatest book in the English.


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