Literary Salon

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Tackling Ulysses at The London Literary Salon

Happy new year to all you Bookstokers out there! How about this one for a New Year’s resolution? Find out what happened when our reviewer Nicole met Joyce at The London Literary Salon.

After a chance conversation with a friend about life after 50, she casually mentioned that each year she had taken on a new project outside her comfort zone. Reading Ulysses was last year’s challenge and with considerable generosity, she unearthed a niggling desire of mine to read Joyce’s great modernist work and offered to put me in touch with the London Literary Salon and its director Toby Brothers.

Later that dark early January night, I booked the last place on the course. What follows was simply the perfect way to spend 12 Tuesday evenings of those dark winter months…sitting on the tube to Kentish Town, Ulysses in hand (Norton edition with notes was recommended) reading and re-reading the travails, poetry, exchanges, wanderings, musings, loves and longing of Leopold and Molly Bloom and staying the course with Stephen Daedalus as he fumbles his way to full artistic expression.

In six short weeks, we had already encountered new languages and labyrinthine sentences, the criss-crossing of the beach and Dublin streets and immersed ourselves in the newspaper room and the pub as the chatter and 3D surround-sound of Bloom’s external and internal world is revealed.  Anti-Semitism, Christian cant, class difference, and a lengthy listing of Ireland’s cultural forebears are exposed and critiqued before we encounter Molly in bed.

How does it work? How does one gather 10 diverse readers to joyfully engage with the struggle of a highly complex 730 page early 20th century novel. Book Club format or seminar? Daytime or evening?

Its success lies in the focused, light touch of Toby who facilitates each session, drawing each one of us into the discussion gently and with warm encouragement. Welcomed into her home, we are invited to have a cup of tea or glass of wine before settling quickly into sofas and chairs around a low table. Books are stacked in precarious columns by the fireplace; Toby sits Ulysses in hand, each page lovingly ruffled and marked with miniature post-it notes as an aide-memoir to themes or extended references.

After pacey introductions, we are invited to share our thoughts, struggles and response to the first 2 chapters. Always hard in a new group, participants declare whether they are newcomers or old-timers (to either The London Literary Salon or Ulysses) and invited to share what inspired them to join; most of us have a degree in English or wish we did. All are committed; one is even reading and discussing Ulysses for a second time.

Close analysis and attention to the rhythm and nuance of language build as we are each asked to read. In the act of listening, much is deduced about both text and reader, and so the two are interwoven. Our discoveries become personal and collective: one reader understands Catholic liturgy and religious symbolism; another, with therapeutic training is able to offer insight into Bloom’s projection of love and Stephen’s thwarted desires. A woman to my right is musical and not only decodes but sings the Irish songs giving a richer, sonic context to the scene.

Toby teases out our thoughts and refocuses our gaze on the text “I’m going to pull us back to Bloom…” At the end, we have all slowed down in a form of literary mindfulness, but are energised as we are given suggestions of other critics to read and our next 50 pages. It takes us just under six months to explore the creative process and journey through 24 hours of a Dublin day.

Curious about the London Literary Salon? Click here to find out more.

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