Schenker Will Be Leading Group on a Joycean Odyssey

James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is a “scary old masterpiece” in the eyes of many readers, notes Yale College associate dean Mark Schenker, but he believes that those who refuse to be intimidated by the novel will discover — as he did many years ago — that it has the power to “take your breath away.”

Schenker, who is also dean of academic affairs for Yale College, will lead a six-part discussion series on “Ulysses” March 11-June 10 at the Ridgefield Library as part of its multi-media exploration of the life and works of Joyce. He hopes to help make the book accessible to those who haven’t yet read the work, and to re-engage others with it.

The series is one of many book discussions the Yale administrator has led over the past two decades, and “Ulysses” is one book that he is enthusiastic to be tackling again with readers.

“It’s a book that people are prepared to be stunned by but not be won over by,” comments Schenker. “But it is full of tenderness, sentiment, bawdy humor, goodwill and wit.”

Schenker recently spoke to the Yale Bulletin & Calendar about the upcoming series on “Ulysses” and his longtime interest in sharing in literary discussions with audiences throughout the state of Connecticut. Here is what we learned.

Out of love: Most people feel that “Ulysses” is too difficult to read without some kind of guidance, which makes it the “perfect candidate” for a scholar-led book discussion, says Schenker, who has a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature. While he used to be a part-time lecturer in English at Yale, his administrative responsibilities now prevent him from having the time to teach.

Despite his professional credentials, Schenker doesn’t pretend to be a scholar of Joyce. “My background is in Victorian literature, so while I have taught Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ or ‘Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man’ to freshmen or sophomores, I haven’t had the opportunity to teach ‘Ulysses,’” he says. “The series comes out of my love of Joyce and ‘Ulysses’ and the fact that the library is eager to have a program in which readers can explore the novel in small doses.”

Schenker has read the book in whole or in part many times — sometimes as a result of a pact with his brother-in-law, a fellow Joyce fan.

“Joyce, like a handful of great artists such as Dante or Shakespeare, is at once overwhelming and very intimate,” says Schenker. “I think ‘Ulysses’ is a dazzling testament to his creativity and genius.”

A reader’s odyssey: His series at the library will allow readers of “Ulysses” to explore three chapters of Joyce’s 18-chapter text at each of the six discussions.

Schenker stresses that while Joyce’s novel is a modern re-invention of Homer’s “The Odyssey,” readers do not need to know that mythological tale to appreciate the book.

“The novel is actually more about real-life Dublin — its people, its streets and neighborhoods, and this sort of naturalistic feel of the place,” says Schenker. “If you want to understand the book, you are better served thinking about the naturalism of the piece than about the mythological symbolism.”

His series will examine Joyce’s various writing styles and characters’ points of view, as well as such topics as Irish politics, turn-of-the-century Dublin and some of the “gritty” aspects of life Joyce depicts, he says.

“The novel is one that allows you to be chatty about a lot of things,” Schenker comments.

He is quick to point out, however, that he doesn’t expect his readers to understand everything they read in “Ulysses,” and will discourage them from using guidebooks to help decipher the fiction.

“You don’t want to read the novel through Venetian blinds,” he remarks. “You have to let some of it flow over you. It’s a little like going to an opera where you don’t have the benefit of English translation. You are not going to get all of it, but are going to get a lot of it.”

Schenker admits that as often as he has read the novel, there are still parts of it that mystify him.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Who’s talking in this passage?’ and I’ll have to say, ‘I don’t know,’” he acknowledges. “And I’m not sure Joyce knows!”

Traveling book leader: As an assistant professor at Trinity College in the mid-1980s, Schenker was invited by the Connecticut Humanities Council to design and lead book discussions to engage readers with each other. He has since done so at libraries throughout the state, and is also hired frequently by private book groups to lead their talks. He has been with one private group for 16 years.

He has served as a facilitator for several hospital-based book reading and discussion programs for health care professionals that link literature and medicine, as well as for book-discussion groups at senior citizen centers. He has also trained new book discussion facilitators through the Connecticut Humanities Council or at the request of public libraries.

His audiences, he says, are mostly people who simply love to learn. “These are discussions, not lectures, so they are interactive,” says Schenker. “People are genuinely happy to be part of them, and it allows me to have a different life from what I do all day. Sharing in a discussion about literature is very satisfying for me in the same way teaching undergraduates is for me. I’m happy to be part of a community where people come together and make a ‘class’ for a little bit of time.”

Over the years, Schenker has covered every literary genre, from mystery novels to poetry to drama to autobiography. “There aren’t many books that I’ve wanted to do that I haven’t been able to get in during these various discussions,” he comments.

The end goal: Schenker acknowledges that the six sessions in the ‘Ulysses’ series is not enough to cover the whole of Joyce’s epic novel.

“What I want people to recognize at the end of the day is that this is a work of art — that even though it is quite playful, somebody labored to make it. The author made choices, and his work gives us a kind of recreation. To have them leave with that — that’s why I teach.”

He also hopes that the discussions might make his audience delve into the book more deeply on their own.

“I do think readers will at least have a sense of what is in the book to go back to,” Schenker says. “I’m happy if they can leave with that.”

Schenker’s talks will take place at 7 p.m. on March 11, April 8 and 29, May 13 and 27, and June 10. They are part of the “Enjoying Joyce” series at the Ridgefield Library. Registration for the free discussions is not required. For information, visit www.ridgefieldlibrary.org or call 203-438-2282. The library is located at 472 Main St., Ridgefield, Connecticut.

— By Susan Gonzalez

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