so - english isn't my first language, but i've read both portrait of the artist & dubliners in english without any major problems & i'm in love with joyce. however i'm seriously doubting my capability to read ulysses. i know it's a difficult book for people who ARE native english speakers. do you have any recommendations that could maybe help me? did you use any guides/studies/annotated versions while reading it? (i'm sorry if you've answered something like this already/hope that you are well!)
First of all — huge props to you for undertaking Joyce despite the language barrier! That’s really, really impressive. Ulysses isn’t easy even for English speakers, definitely, but a huge part of that is the fact that the language is so fragmentary — it doesn’t look like functional English at all, sometimes. It’s lists, phrases, descriptions, subjects without objects, words omitted because they’re a given (in the same way that you omit some non-essential words when thinking), random associations in a series whose connections are tenuous but present, choppy segments of thought.
First — what edition are you using? I recommend Jeri Johnson Oxford World’s Classics edition. But ironically (or humbly?) she recommends the Gabler edition, while conceding that hers is a lot more extensive. I also don’t know about translations of the book in other languages, but it might be worth checking out — I know nothing about anything, but having two (English and your native language) side-by-side could make the reading process more fun.
There were a lot of books I consulted when reading Ulysses. Here are a few:
Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford and Robert J Seidman — the most extensive guide, by far, & probably a real comfort to anyone approaching Ulysses with English as a second language. Is there any word, phrase, allusion you don’t understand? Do you want to reference the Linati schema? Read the summary of the Odyssey equivalent for any given episode? This is it. The Bible. The grand tome. Sometimes even too extensive — reading this cover to cover slowed me down a lot, but I regret nothing. Would’ve never gotten the historical/cultural context otherwise.
The Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires — Wonderful summaries; this is the book I used when I had no earthly idea what was going on (which was a lot of the time.) Intelligent SparkNotes on crack.
Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce — the print version of a series of lectures; half literary-criticism, half explanation/description. The advantage of this one is that it’s extremely readable, well-written, and engaging. The section on Ulysses is only about 100 pages, as well.
As for straight-up literary criticism, Hugh Kenner probably has the most prodigious & weighty output, though his verbosity can be really irritating (Rule of thumb, I’ve learned, is read it, & if you don’t understand 60% of what he’s saying, well, whatever.) He wrote Joyce’s Voices, Dublin’s Joyce, and (most significantly) Ulysses. (Yes, he named his criticism directly after the book.) Also maybe look at the Yale Modernism Lab pages for Ulysses; their guides are fairly extensive & really good. James Joyce: A Short Introduction by Seidel or The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce edited by Derek Attridge won’t do you wrong (& my idol & favourite lecturer Jeri Johnson has an interesting essay on Joyce & feminism in there.)
I also hugely, hugely, hugely recommend signing up for a beta membership at the Infinite Ulysses project. Lots of annotation & explanation; a huge stride forward in the field of digital scholarship. And the woman who curates it is just really cool.
Also, if you can get your hands on it somehow, the BBC has a recorded dramatised version of Ulysses that would probably really help you! If not, Spotify has some recordings (but save yourself the agony & skip the huge recording of the Microsoft-bot reading the whole book. It’s only funny for about 5 seconds, and excruciating for the rest.)
Hope this sort of helps?! Try to remember Ulysses is a text about pleasure — elucipher said it best: “It wants to wind around your mind, yeah, but it also wants to bypass your intellectual brain and speak a visceral & erotic language of flesh and mouths and fingers and hungers and sex. It wants to get as close as possible to the ineffable experience of being a flesh-and-blood body in the world, about the “play” and profound tragedy and inglorious uproarious comedy of human creatures. it’s filthy and hilarious and it wants to give you every kind of pleasure it can. That’s what got it banned & branded “obscene”; and that’s how you should approach it.” (Here whole answer to this question is also excellent — here.)