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Ulysses "Seen"

iPad app
Production credits: Throwaway Horse
Launch date: Jan 2012 with recent updates

Throwaway Horse

Initially skeptical Joyce fan James Higgs is quickly won over by a new graphical Ulysses app for iPad

Ulysses has never not been controversial. Since publication it has been subject to accusations of prurience (and worse), of unreadability and of pretentiousness. It has featured in legal action, suffered bowdlerisation and been the victim of esoteric textual debates. Joyce’s estate has been diligent in protecting his work from unseen foes, and indeed the story of Ulysses’ text is almost as interesting a story as the novel itself.

Last year, Joyce’s works came out of copyright, and the estate lost much of its power to control his work. As a result, academics, critics and fans can finally quote the text or create derivative works without fear of legal action.

I must confess that I had my doubts about whether I wanted to write a review of Ulysses in graphic novel form. As a fan of the novel and a purist about the text, I couldn’t see how I could have anything positive to say about it. I’d rather say nothing about it than write negatively.

I was, therefore, absolutely astonished to find that I loved this app. In fact, I like it so much that it has caused me to entirely rethink my attitude to the idea of textual purity.

Ulysses is a massive work, and the app makers have so far only produced versions of two of its 18 episodes. They have made the wise decision to start by presenting the first episode and the fourth. These two episodes introduce us to the three central characters of the novel: Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly.

What Ulysses Seen does so well is to place us in the head of someone else’s reading of the novel. Decisions that are left entirely to the reader in the original novel – what characters look like, or how a house is laid out – are made for us. As a result, we are placed more immediately in Joyce’s imagined world. For all Joyce’s efforts to create a numinous work that somehow gets injected directly into our brain, his erudition can get the better of us and make us conscious of the process of reading. While much is lost – Joyce’s prose is after all absolutely wonderful – there is a greater directness in the graphical treatment than in the text. Maybe this is my own failing; I’m sure that a sufficiently educated Joycean doesn’t feel this slight distance, but I can’t be the only one to lack an education by the Jesuits.

It’s not without its drawbacks. Rob Berry’s drawings are a little bit too romanticised for my liking. Buck Mulligan looks more camp than he does stately, although he’s plump enough. Bloom looks a little bit prissy to me, and Molly reminds me far too much of Tamara Drewe. And shouldn’t  Stephen look at least a little bit like Joyce himself? But these are perils of making a visual version of any novel and can’t be avoided. The gains are far greater than the losses.

What surprised me is that the result is still very strange. Bloom reaching into his pocket and being comforted that he has a potato there is no more comprehensible here than in the novel. “Potato I have”; what on earth does that mean?

For those who do seek explanation, there’s a truly excellent commentary from Mike Barsanti, which is highly informative while still being approachable. It has a wonderfully exploratory and ruminative quality as he reflects on the novel and on Berry’s drawings of it. The secondary literature on Ulysses is immense, but I’ve read very little as good as Barsanti’s notes here.

However, I do wonder how much knowledge the commentary takes for granted. There are quite a few forward references – to Paddy Dignam’s funeral for example. I’m not sure how this would seem to someone experiencing Ulysses for the first time. On balance, I suspect that it does a good job of being informative enough for the new reader, while still providing insight for people who have already read the novel and other commentaries.

The app itself can be a little bit confusing. I found it difficult to master the controls to turn the commentary on and off and I found myself making the same mistakes over and over again. But these are small points.

Ulysses Seen is a truly wonderful app, and a brilliant companion to the novel. It could never actually replace it – Joyce’s form and content are in a sense inseparable – but if this is the sort of thing that the Joyce estate has been “protecting” his work from, they’ve done it a massive disservice. In fact, this app is one of the best arguments I could think of against excessive copyright terms.

If you have any interest at all in Joyce’s work, I urge you to try Ulysses Seen. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Personally, I can’t wait to see how the team continue their exploration of this great masterpiece. If they live up to the standard set so far, they’ll have created a masterpiece of their own.

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