When I read Ulysses recently, at the same time I read James Joyce’s Ulysses by Stuart Gilbert and Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford. Doing so made what would have been almost wholly incomprehensible to me merely mostly incomprehensible.
The difference between the two commentary books can be thought of as a forest and trees thing. James Joyce’s Ulysses discusses some of the trees but focuses at least as much on the forest. Ulysses Annotated is about 1% forest and 99% trees. Every time there’s a passing—always unexplained—reference in Ulysses to some obscure Irish politician, an intersection in Dublin, the proprietor of some shop in Dublin, a line from a briefly popular Irish song, etc. (which is multiple times per paragraph, if not sentence), Ulysses Annotated identifies it. (If it can be identified, that is. For quite a few entries, Gifford confesses that his extensive research has failed to come up with even plausible speculation as to who or what Joyce is referring to.)
Ulysses Annotated is basically the footnotes Ulysses lacks. Ulysses cries out for explanatory footnotes or endnotes more than 99.999% of novels, but ironically the very fact that it needs so many of them makes it impractical to include them. (Or maybe some editions try to, I don’t know. The one I read did not.) Ulysses is already a long book; if you added all of this material collected in Ulysses Annotated to it as footnotes it would be three or four times as long.
It is indeed very helpful with the trees, very helpful in informing you about the people of Dublin, the Dublin shops (remember, almost all the characters and locations and such in Ulysses are taken from real life), the historical figures, the Irish slang terms, etc.
But while it tells you what the things are that Joyce mentions, what it mostly doesn’t do is tell you why he mentions them, or clarify the context. I guess that’s somewhere between the forest level and the trees level, but as a reader who frequently got lost in Ulysses it’s something that I particularly needed.
What I mean is, Ulysses Annotated might tell you, for instance, that a certain word in a certain paragraph is the name for a type of flower grown in southern Ireland. But what I needed more of is something along the lines of, “This paragraph is a part of Bloom’s train of thought. He’s still in the pub he entered in the last section. He has been eavesdropping on a conversation between two men at the bar who happened to mention a certain color. This put Bloom in mind of this type of flower, because back when he was a child his mother used to often put flowers of this type of that very color in a vase on the dining room table. This in turn gets Bloom daydreaming further about certain sights and sounds from his childhood, which continues for the next several paragraphs.”
That’s the thing. A lot of my questions while reading Ulysses were not along the lines of “Where in Dublin is North Circular Road?,” or “Who is Bob Doran?,” or “What kind of song is ‘Seaside Girls’?,” but more “What the heck is going on here? Who’s talking, or thinking? Where are they?”
By the way, I found some of the explanations of the references from Ulysses, whatever modest value they might have had in making the novel less incomprehensible, to be of some independent interest. A couple of quick examples:
I’d never heard of the General Slocum. It was a ship that sank and killed a thousand women and children on an annual Sunday school excursion off the coast of New York back in the year (1904) in which Ulysses takes place. It wiped out such a large percentage of the community where these people came from—a German Lutheran neighborhood—that it basically ceased to exist. Almost every family in the community lost at least one member in the tragedy, and the survivors—the husbands and fathers and such—pretty much all drifted away in the ensuing weeks and months.
I was familiar with the term “Macgillycuddy’s Reeks” from the Warren Zevon song of that name, but I had no idea what it meant and had never bothered to look it up to try to find out. In Ireland, a “reek” means a mountain, and Macgillycuddy’s Reeks is the largest mountain range in the country. (Just for perspective, though, the hundredth highest mountain in the United States is about three times as high as the highest mountain in Ireland. So we’re talking more about decent-sized hills here.)
I don’t know what more to say about Ulysses Annotated. It’s very good for what it is, but because it is almost exclusively about the trees of Ulysses rather than the forest, it’s unlikely to be enough by itself to help someone trying to make sense of the novel. I would think you’d want yet more supplementary reading for that.