Thursday 10 May 2012

i am the idiot reading "ulysses" at a cafe near you: coffee tips and a book review

"To tell the truth he was mean in fortunes and for the most part hankered about the coffeehouses..."

For a while now, I have been jealous of people who get up to "serious business" in cafes.

Fountain pen in one hand, designer notepaper in the other, they brusquely march in the front door.  In one smooth, well-practiced motion, their coat, scarf and beard are discarded upon a large communal table, a coffee order is nodded to the barista, and serious business begins.  If business happens to be ultra-serious on that particular day, they will not sit at the communal table, but instead acquire a table all to themselves.  Regardless, within thirty seconds of entering the cafe, pen is scribbling furiously on paper.  Hand is bunched against head.  Facial expression can only be described as "earnest yet solemn".

I, meanwhile, am usually wearing the facial expression of a confused weasel while I try to figure out whether the cafe is a joint where you order at your table, order at the coffee bar, or a strange hybrid somewhere in between.  I long for the mitigated calm of those with serious business.  And I stand in awe of how long those with serious business are able to take up table space without feeling the need to order lunch.

But I have always prided myself on being a do-er, not a gonna-do-er—and thus began my search in earnest for a solution to my jealous ills.  How could I discover the smug confidence of one with serious business, without actually having any serious business to carry out?

 "The keeper of the shelter in the middle of this tête-â-tête put a boiling swimming cup of a choice concoction labelled coffee on the table..."

For starters, I decided that my coffee order was all wrong.  I needed to re-tool my coffee order to acheive maximum arrogance, with a dash of smug.

What I settled on was the long macchiato—the ponciest form of coffee you can order in a cafe.  Why?

First of all, it usually comes in a smaller-sized cup.  Drinking from a smaller-sized cup makes it easy to extend one's pinky finger when raising the cup to your mouth.  This is poncy.

Secondly, it takes a lot of unappreciated effort to make.  "Yes, barista", you say.  "I want you to pull a shot of espresso.  Then I want you to put hot water into it.  Then I want you to steam up a jug of milk.  Then you must put only the tiniest amount of that steamed milk into my coffee."  And then, you say, "and after you do all of that, I am going to reach for my spoon and stir the whole thing up!  To hell with your handiwork, sir!"

Thirdly, not everyone likes it.  It is too milky for black coffee drinkers.  It is far too black for milky coffee drinkers.  I had a very rocky relationship with the long mac, far from love at first sight.  I ordered one here and put sugar in it to "compensate for less milk", as my reasoning went.  Error.  One perfectly good long mac ruined.  Next, I ordered one here and swilled it down, expecting the usual warm milky temperature I'm used to.  Error.  Burned mouth.

My friends convinced me to give it one last try.  "Sit down", they said, "stir it... and sip it".  My lord.  It worked.  And the fourth pillar of poncyness came to me—drinking a proper long mac simply puts a smug grin on your face.

All I needed now was something to do whilst sipping.  Something that takes forever to do.

"Mr Best said brightly, gladly, raising his new book, gladly, brightly..."

I don't know why it didn't occur to me earlier.

Since early March, I have been reading James Joyce's Ulysses.  I was drawn in by the quote on the back cover which claimed that this book was the "greatest novel of the century". 

Lies!  All lies.  Since reading that quote upon opening Ulysses over two months ago, I've griped to countless people about this book, most of whom turn a whiter shade of pale at the very mention of its name.  Nobody I'd spoken to had dared to finish it.  Even the woman who sold it to me wore a look of concern on her face.  Unfortunately, I am stubborn as a mule when it comes to finishing books I've started (and more importantly, paid for).  I also have a bad habit of convincing myself that it'll do me good to read the "classics".  Case in point: forcing myself through the Canterbury Tales a year or two ago, which, from memory, involved little else other than oodles of sin, a handful of sex, and a talking French chicken.

But I had heard good things about Joyce's magnum opus.  Someone told me it was about the Irish revolution (note: IT IS NOT).  So when I got roughly one-third of the way through Ulysses and found that the highlight of the book up to that point was the purchase of a sausage, I was less than impressed.  I was even less impressed when I looked up a summary of the book and found out that I had somehow missed several key plot points—such as a chapter devoted to masturbation, and another chapter devoted to taking a poo in an outhouse.

I was ready to admit defeat; to (gasp) put the book down... forever.  And then it hit me.  What if I combined the powers of the long mac with the dense colossus that is Ulysses?  Would black espresso softly marked with milk help me to comprehend Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style, his surprise shifts into Middle English, his structuring of entire chapters like legal cross-examinations or stage plays, his inserts of shopping lists, budgets and musical scores into the text? 

In short, might I need to read and sip like a snob to fully appreciate an outlandishly snobby book?

Yes.  After this point, everything changed.  I strode into cafes with my voluminous tome and a facial expression so smug, it was almost indecent.  I parked myself at whatever table I desired.  I was ready to hear more about the wanderings of Stephen Dedalus, Irishman of no fixed address.  I cocked one leg upon another, made sure the book's cover was clearly visible, and proceeded to read and sip.  Read and sip.  Read and sip and there I was and was the cover showing there could she see it I've got the book answer the phone answer the phone can you get there very distracting I wonder the eyes leave the page can he see can I see read and sip.

James Joyce imitations aside, I now (with long mac in hand) press on with Ulysses.    I now relish in it; scoff at its indulgence, chuckle at its sex jokes.  People come up to me to chat about the book.  Some say it's next on their reading list, others laugh at (and with) me for the stupendous feat of reading the damn thing. 

I've done it.  I've finally got serious business to attend to.  I've got Ulysses—and only ten pages left to read.

About bloody time.

1 comment:

  1. poncy...the new chotchy? read on, dear wanderer, read on.