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Feature: Interview - Toby Brothers

Toby Brothers

Published: 12 January, 2012

It is the Modernist classic – but so many bibliophiles find themselves throwing it down in exasperation.

James Joyce’s Ulysses has the reputation of being one of the greatest books in the English language – and one of the most frustrating to read.

If you have want to be one of those who can say you completed the Irish author’s Dublin-based masterpiece – but are rather daunted by the tome that defeats so many – then help is at hand.

Kentish Town-based English teacher Toby Brothers runs a literary salon – and she is tackling Joyce’s tome in a series of workshops this spring.

Brothers first started offering group discussions on the book when she lived in Paris five years ago.

“I was at a party and met people who said they were frustrated by the lack of a decent book club reading works in English,” she recalls.

“I was itching to talk about literature, and this was the answer.”

So she set one up, and since her move to London in 2008, has tackled Ulysses with other Joyce fans.

The plan is to work through the book at a rate of around 30 pages a week, gathering the group together to discuss each section.

“It is the great, unread novel,” Brothers says of Joyce’s classic.

“There are so many people who say they have started the first 20 pages and then given up. But Joyce didn’t make his work intentionally hard. He wanted to gather all that had come before in English language and then try to discover through the book something new about the human experience.”

Brothers says meeting to discuss the book is a fillip and motivating factor for those who want to enjoy Ulysses but may find it daunting to read it alone.

“It’s a great work, and hard work,” she says. “Joyce’s narrative asks you to step out of your own perspective, nationality, age and gender.

He spends time trying to understand the individual’s place in the world, the physical experience of being male and female, politics.

“By concentrating closely on one character and using him to view a city, a time in history, a collection of ideas and impulses and prejudices, Ulysses explores the gap between our interior world and what we expose to others. Ultimately it rewards you with a glimpse into human experience that is rare.”

And this is made more enjoyable by gathering to discuss the ground you have covered each week.

“Reading Ulysses requires technical and emotional support because it’s challenging in its scope and form,” she says.

“You learn from hearing different perspectives: someone might have expertise in theology or music or Irish history. Ideas get pushed back and forth.
“But you don’t need an academic background. Reading Ulysses together allows people to say ‘I don’t understand this!’

“Discussing literature forces you into the moment and demands that you pay detailed attention. And, above all, it’s fun.”

Brothers has planned the salon to run weekly up until Bloomsday – June 16 – the date the novel is set.

“Few people finish Ulysses – when you do, you realise it is a lifetime achievement,” she adds.

And with Toby’s help, you can be one of those select few who can say they have read the book.

• Discuss Ulysses in the London Literary Salon from January 16/17 to mid-June (Mondays 1.30-3.30pm or Tuesdays 8-10pm). Cost: £75 per 5-week session. Special offer for New Journal readers: try the first day for free. For details email, visit or call 07792 748 866


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