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Swimming the Deeper Waters of Joyceana

In place of a video lecture this week, the MVP has commissioned a blog post by Robert Berry, the talented individual behind the Ulysses ‘Seen’ comicbook version of the novel. The Ulysses ‘Seen’ team are also preparing a video, which will appear in this space within a month’s time. Until then, please enjoy the musings below… [SR]

Joyce studies, at least from my rather homespun and narrow view of them, can be a messy business. Still strongly standing very much at the forefront of a disarrayed battle line of modernist thinkers, Joyce, his work and his life, casts a very long shadow on how we look at the world today some seventy years after his death. He is an endless set of puzzles and fresh lessons. Though his work might often be rather specifically linked to the immediate world of its own creation and filled with allusions which today seem vague or enigmatic, it also has served to bring fresh questions to the mind of many readers and critical thinkers since the time of its publication, prompting that wonderful quote from Joseph Frank; “Joyce cannot be read. He can only be re-read.”

(I love that particular quote but, let’s face it, the idea of giving someone a seven-hundred page book to read and telling them, “no, you’ve got to read it many times over” isn’t the best way to attract a new audience.)

New readers, through no fault of their own, are often convinced that these same qualities that make ULYSSES such a compelling work also make it stand outside their comprehension. That’s a damn shame and one of the main reasons we decided to make it into a comicbook: so that new audiences might find an easier way into the experience of reading the novel.

I enjoy making the comic and having people tell me how much it’s helped them understand Joyce. Hell, I live on praise like that. But the real truth is that a comicbook will not help you much in Joyce studies. As faithful and reverent of the original text as I might try to be, ULYSSES “SEEN” is a separate work of art, an adaptation of the novel’s language and events into a completely different artistic medium. The choices made in accomplishing that are largely my own and come from my personal feelings about the novel rather than a catalog of the many theories in Joyce studies. No, we don’t so much offer you a life preserver or even a set of inflatable water-wings on your dive into the deeper Joycean waters. Having a comicbook to look at is more like someone offering to row alongside you with a parasol to keep the sun off your back while you bravely swim the channel. Very nice to have someone there rooting for you the whole way, but it doesn’t make the actual swimming any easier.

What our project does accomplish quite well however is providing an easier web-based way to get behind, or under, the text to all those theories and complexities that make Joyce’s novel so endlessly challenging and funny. Because of the shape of digital textbooks, each drawn page of the comic has a complete Readers’ Guide to help unpack some of those arguments and in-jokes. Written by prominent Joyceheads like Mike Barsanti and Janine Utell, it lets first time readers get a sustained and ongoing classroom environment for learning the novel. The Readers’ Guide includes translation keys to the numerous languages Joyce employs throughout the novel and allows for a complete question and answer section following each topic. In this way, everyone gets an opportunity dive into the deeper waters and feel like they’re not alone.

Currently we’ve got two chapters of the adaptation online and available on the iPad. Certainly that may sound like just a cautious toe-drag to test the temperature of the deeper waters of this novel. But I think 128pages of comics to adapt 36pages of text is a pretty daunting average. We’ll be at this task for some years to come and I hope Joycefans both fresh and well-seasoned, will join us on the website and in the discussions and follow us on the long journey home to “Penelope”.

We’re working on two new chapters for release next year, “Nestor” and “Lotus Eaters”. When I heard about Modernist Version Projects “Year of Ulysses” I knew I’d want to do something regarding those two chapters. So with that in mind, I’ll be on the #yearofulysses twitter chat all day today, August 15th, discussing the stickier points of adapting these chapter. There will be plenty of artwork to link to and, I hope, lots of insights from readers on just how things should look. I’ll defend what decisions I’ve made, answer what questions I can and genuinely be glad for whatever help any of you might bring me. And there’s likely to be some fun Joyce quotes along the way.

But for now, let’s leave all of you at Year of Ulysses with a few as-yet-unseen pages from “Lotus Eaters” to get things rolling.




Rob Berry
-cartoonist on ULYSSES “SEEN”


Associate Professor | English | CSPT | U. of Victoria

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