Can Ulysses be tweeted?

Posted on June 14, 2011


I’m participating in an interesting artistic/social experiment, happening on Thursday, June 16 (Bloomsday), that will involve tweeting the entirety of Ulysses, the James Joyce masterpiece that we all had to read in college but either skimmed, read and forgot, or Sparknoted instead. I was in the “read and forgot” group, though I remember being surprised how much I enjoyed it when I read the book in a lit seminar my Junior year at Middlebury. I had to flip through and refresh my memory for this.

I happened to go abroad to Dublin just after reading Ulysses and liked seeing different areas that I remembered from the book; in addition, the Guinness storehouse, mega tourism-bait that offers a tour of six floors and, of course, a final souvenir shoppe of kitsch, has a very cool “sky bar” on its top floor that is circular and has quotes from Joyce works stuck all over its glass walls, most of them positioned at the spot where you can see the area or landmark mentioned in the text. (For example, a line about Martello Tower is placed at a spot where you can look out and, on a clear day, nearly see the tower.)

Anyway. A brave soul calling himself only “Stephen from Baltimore” initiated the project, made a web site explaining the idea and created the Twitter account (@11ysses) from where the tweets will all be tweeted. Stephen divided the text into 96 portions of about 8 pages each, with one tweeter per portion turning the content into six tweets. Our tweets were due via email and the @11ysses account will tweet them out, in order, with each section preceded by a tweet crediting the author.

Sounds easy enough, but the challenge, of course, was in composing the tweets. How to first make sense of your eight-page section, then condense it into six tweets? That’s 840 characters, total, for eight pages of Joyce.

When I first read about the project, I contacted Stephen right away to hop aboard. Since then the idea has received great pickup in the press, with the project getting coverage from Gawker and the Times I think there have been experiments like this before, but perhaps not so organized and with such preparation.

My section, which by the time I signed up was one of the few left, is an early one (I doubt I’ll even be awake to see if there’s any positive response; the thing begins early in the morning and I believe my section will be tweeted around 6am EST), but one I at least understand well: it’s a relatively straightforward scene (well, nothing in Ulysses is completely straightforward) in which Bloom heads to the funeral of Dignam with some of his friends and neighbors. The span of my eight pages are easy to grasp, plot-wise (they ride in the carriage, talk about Dignam and other things they pass, arrive at the funeral and sit through the service) but there are also bits of psychology you need to understand, such as references to Bloom’s father’s suicide, and various moments of hallucination/imagination as well, such as when Bloom suddenly daydreams that the coffin slips off the carriage, pops open, and Dignam’s body falls into the road.

For the tweets, I wanted to tell what happens, but not in a strictly boring play-by-play, maybe mix it up a bit with some hashtags or different kind of language, but also not too many jokes. The idea isn’t to turn it into a spoof, but give the pertinent info and do it artfully. I’m basically happy with what I ended up producing: I boiled down the events into six tweets, but also played slightly with the form. For what it’s worth, in one of his emails Stephen advised us thusly: “Use Joyce’s words in a unique way, but use his words. A good reading isn’t commentary on the book or a Cliff Notes summary.”

Looking forward to watching the @11ysses account all day on June 16 and re-experiencing Joyce via Twitter. I’ll also post my own tweets here once they’ve gone public, so to speak.

[UPDATE, 6/16/11]

Here are the tweets I composed that just went out as part of my Bloomsday “burst.” I think they went over well; some of them got a bunch of RTs. Feel good about it. This thing was fun…

– That afternoon. The bottle. The coroner. Thought he was asleep. Then saw. Verdict: overdose. The letter. ‘For my son Leopold.’ No more pain.

– BOM! Coffin bumped out onto the road. Burst open. Dignam shot out. Looks horrid. Much better to close up all the orifices… #wasjustavision

– Cunningham to Power: I was in mortal agony when you mentioned suicide in front of Bloom… His father poisoned himself. Power: What? O god!

– He follows the others in. Coffin, mourners. Father Coffey said Dignam was going to paradise… Says that over everybody. Tiresome job. But.

– “I am the resurrection and the life.” That touches a man’s heart. Your heart… One day it gets bunged up. Once you are dead you are #dead.

– O’Connell, caretaker, with a joke: Did you hear that one about…? Rewarded by smiles. That’s all done, Cunningham explains, to cheer us up.

Posted in: DBR Blog