So here’s the thing.
Yes, I got a degree in literature lo these many years ago.
Yes, we were exposed to the Great Books in English. And because I studied in Canada, they were really English, most of them. I have great gaps in my reading of American literature — no Moby Dick (we did Bartleby instead), no Twain or Hawthorne or Wharton or Dickinson or Frost. We read Henry James and called it a day, And believe me, I did read James from cover to cover — particularly The Golden Bowl, don’t ask why (Portrait of a Lady got itself skimmed).
The main focus of my 400 level modern novel course was British and some Commonwealth authors. The early 20C greats — Joyce, Woolf; the more-or-less contemporary Brits like Murdoch; the Commonwealth greats like Patrick White (no literature by anyone whose skin colour was less than white, however — the mid-eighties hadn’t yet brought colour into the English canon). And of course Atwood.
And now for the kicker. I skimmed a lot of those books. I hated most of them. Perhaps “hate” is a strong word. Most of them didn’t appeal to me. At the same time I was reading 18C literature, the beginning of the novel, and enjoying those books far more — the concerns of Sterne and Swift, of Defoe and Fielding and (to a lesser extent) Richardson, spoke more to me than the concerns of the late twentieth century novelists, who all seemed to enjoy writing about people who were dying and taking a long time about it — the lead character of Murdoch’s Bruno’s Dream, for instance, and the constellation of characters around the terminally ill Elizabeth Hunter in White’s The Eye of the Storm. It occurred to me that the concerns of 18C Britain were far closer to the concerns of the late 20C Caribbean than those of the white 20C world, where individuals had little left to strive for and where the mystery of life had been rendered commonplace.
And so I skimmed the Great 20th century writers (or at least those that English Canada in the eighties deemed great) and stuck with the 18th century ones. So I can tell you with confidence what Defoe wrote in A Journal of the Plague Year or what Hogg’s Private Confessions were all about but I still don’t care how and why and when they all got to the damn Lighthouse.
And I never read Ulysses all the way through, despite several tries. Read bits: beginning, extracts from the middles, the end (of course!). But not the connecting stuff in between.
Bloomsday having just passed, and various meditations having appeared online, I have decided once again — now that I also have a book reader and an electronic copy, not the huge grey Penguin version with the yellowing pages that I have been using in my previous attempts — to read it cover to cover, as I once did the Bible, rather than to dip into it as a reference. So here we go: Ulysses at last.