BBC Radio 4

    Reading Ulysses

    Presenter of Saturday Live

    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
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