The Proofreader’s Nightmare

Fancy reading a literary giant in more ways than one? For starters, try proofreading James Joyce’s manuscript of Ulysses.

I first read through James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. I was already curious about Ulysses, but knew very little about one of the greatest twentieth century texts at the time of my introduction to James Joyce and his Dubliners. It was, after all, not a close reading.

I wondered if my motivations for joining a growing group of dedicated readers of James Joyce’s works was pretentious. But, no, I was hungry, perhaps greedy, to learn more. It would be some years before I began my first reading of Ulysses. And only after that reading did I pursue A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. My readings of Joyce’s trilogy of works, at best, have been surreptitious over a period of six months.

Curious, I sat down patiently and doggedly proceeded with a reading of Finnegan’s Wake, hoping that this instalment on the life and times of Stephen Dedalus would offer improvements for me as a conventional reader. While my imagination was now accustomed to being stretched, I was horrified at how difficult this reading was proving to be. To begin, my reading of Joyce’s works had not begun chronologically as it should have. My second reading of Ulysses is an improvement and has been more enjoyable. Reading Finnegans Wake remains a daunting exercise, but through discipline it eases towards enjoyment.

At some stage in the future, I cannot say when this will be, but I will return to the remarkable works of Joyce. When I return, I will read the works in the correct chronological order, beginning once more with Dubliners. But for now, I am absorbed with the works of James Joyce. Honestly, I have enjoyed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the most.


Taking a walk on the wild side of James Joyce’s literary life is no easy task. As an Honours student, I mused on the possibility on doing my independent paper on the literary life of this literary giant, but, for now, this task is too daunting. I have decided to remain poised on my first idea of writing on a South African writer who emigrated to Australia. To borrow a redundant phrase used by Joyce’s excellent biographer, Gordon Bowker, I had an epiphany on one of my characters in a novel I am still drafting. I still feel a sense of liberation in selecting one of Joyce’s grubby female characters that I encountered during my first reading of Dubliners. My creation is a complex, but nicely rounded protagonist.

What approaches should we take when reading James Joyce? And what tools should accompany us during our readings? A few literary devices come to mind, but an appreciation of the modernist’s variations of stream of consciousness prose will be useful. Also, if you are remotely religious or idealistic, try to keep an open mind. A good sense of humour, perhaps an Irish sense of irony will help too. I have that in buckets, but one must be alert at all times when reading Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake.

A vivid sense of imagination is required to read your way through the Ulysses maze, otherwise you will soon be lost. An appreciation, perhaps even a love for the intertext will keep you on course. Perhaps, like me, only after a second reading of Ulysses, you begin to appreciate more Joyce’s motivations for creating complex characters and themes. Or, perhaps you have already reached the status of being described a genius by your peers. Nevertheless, know your Shakespeare and Homer. The first subject seems easy enough, but the next? Well, its all Greek to me anyhow at this stage.

Irish history and politics is a must. Useful too is a cynical dislike of anyone or anything related to the British Empire and colonialism. If you’ve been to Ireland, particularly Dublin, you will recognise many of the realistic imaginings of streets, buildings, names and places which all form part of this epic journey.

Dubliners was first published in 1914. My tattered Penguin Books paperback is dated 1996. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published in 1916. My Collins Classics edition is just four years old. James Joyce’s most famous work, Ulysses, was originally published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922. My second reading is from a reprinted Penguin Books Modern Classics paperback. I am still peering through Finnegan’s Wake which was published by Faber and Faber Limited in 1939.

Finally, I am so glad I have Gordon Bowker’s biography of James Joyce to fall back on. It was first published by Phoenix in 2012. James Joyce died in Zurich, Switzerland in 1941. At some stage in the future, I hope to read Joyce’s works all over again.


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