There’s a rack of linked sausages, drawn on the back of an envelope. In a collage, someone with the head of a fish is cozying up to a suspicious-looking woman in front of a church. At the orange entrance to a distillery, a long, unattended ladder is propped up next to the entrance to the safety shop.
What does it all mean?
It’s part of artist Tasha Lewis’s project Illustrating Ulysses, on view at the Institute Library until May 29. This multimedia show offers hundreds of delights, both for Joyceans preparing for Bloomsday and those who have never cracked open James Joyce’s famously difficult masterpiece — but might like to.
The premise of Illustrating Ulysses is simple: Lewis took the Hans Walter Gabler edition of Ulysses (the one scholars consider most accurate; long story short, the novel had a lot of trouble in editing, layout, and publication) and made an illustration for every page of the book, responding in some way to the text that she found there.
Those familiar with Ulysses will thus find a lot of characters, actions, and scenes that they recognize. You can trace the plot of the novel — essentially, the wanderings of two men, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, through one day and night in Dublin on June 16, 1904, and the various adventures they have, while Bloom’s wife Molly waits at home — through the illustrations.
But as with Ulysses itself, the pleasure isn’t in the plot. In a formal sense — and this is where the book gets its reputation for being difficult — Ulysses is a display of literary pyrotechnics that had never been done before in a novel when Joyce did it and will probably not be done again in any of our lifetimes. The book is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey and chapters in Ulysses correspond to episodes in the Greek epic. On top of that, the first three chapters of the book place us inside Dedalus’s head. The next three put us in Bloom’s. Then, not content to have mastered the streams of consciousness of two very different people, Joyce embarks on a chapter-by-chapter reinvention of style. One chapter, which takes place in a newspaper office, is written like it’s journalism, complete with headlines. Another is written as if Joyce were composing a piece of music. Another is written as a riff on a Catholic catechism. And at the end, there’s Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, ending with one of the more famous and life-affirming lines in 20th-century prose: yes I said yes I will Yes.
Lewis’s ingenious answer to Joyce’s structural complexity and formal playfulness is to likewise vary up her style from chapter to chapter, with everything from watercolor to collage to photography to cutting up pages of preexisting text (itself nicely incorporating a quote from Joyce that he would be “quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man for that seems to me a harsh but not unjust description”). Lewis finds the methods in visual art that correspond to what Joyce was doing with words, and in so doing, gives the viewer a sense not only of what Joyce was up to, but what the experience of reading it was like.
Which is where Lewis’s project ultimately succeeds. She shows that Ulysses isn’t so much difficult as dizzying. Joyce was to novels as Michael Jordan was to basketball, or Django Reinhardt was to the guitar; there was nobody better at the game while they were in it, and there’s exhilaration in being in the audience. But more important, Lewis brings out that Ulysses is, in a end, a lot of fun. It’s often hysterical, always humane, and full of real heart. Lewis’s project is a deeply engaged commentary on the book and a celebration of it, which is in the end a celebration of people, in all their complexity and generosity — not just on one day in Dublin in 1904, but ever since. Illustrating Ulysses is a way into a masterpiece, and an artistic achievement in itself.