Daunted by Dante? Useless at Ulysses? Fear not: Toby Brothers is there to hold your hand
19 December, 2016 — By Dan Carrier
IT will have been a six-month journey through around 265,000 of some of the most famous and trickiest words ever written, and will culminate in a trip from Kentish Town to Dublin on June 16 to celebrate what has become known as Bloom Day – the date that James Joyce set his celebrated Ulysses novel.
The people heading over the Irish Sea to raise a Guinness in honour of the great Modernist author are members of the London Literary Salon, led by literature expert Toby Brothers, who hosts groups to gently walk together through the greatest novels ever written – and help people understand some of the trickier, most rewarding works of literature that all too often gather dust on bookshelves instead of becoming well-thumbed and appreciated.
Originally from California, Toby has settled in Kentish Town and came to NW5 via Paris. It was there she first set up a literary salon after moving across the Atlantic more than 10 years ago.
“The literary salon draws on the tradition of a regular meeting of a committed group of people for the exchange and exploration of ideas,” she writes on the salon’s website.
“It uses the study of a great work of literature as a springboard to consider the wonder of the human experience – in all its raw and dynamic forms. The discussion resembles a seminar-style study, but the emphasis is on what each participant brings to the conversation. Together we work to develop meaning in response to the language that resonates with our lives.”
As well as a six-month study of Ulysses, she also runs workshops ranging across Ralph Ellison to Shakespeare, Dante, Woolf, the Iliad and beyond: classic to contemporary, the salons provide a place for people to read together and discuss why such texts have become cornerstones of the written world.
“It is about looking at how to understand literature,” Toby says. “It is about the way an artist illuminates or understands a particular experience and looks at it objectively. I suppose meeting like this is talking about those aspects of humanity that are most perplexing and challenging.”
Ulysses was first published as a serial from 1918 to 1920, and then in its complete form in 1922. Its “hero” is Leopold Bloom, and we track him as he goes about his daily business in Dublin one summer’s day.
“What Joyce does in Ulysses is show all the different ways the English language can be used,” she says. “It is a virtuoso performance. Joyce is playing all the instruments.”
She says that the ability to read and digest a book of the size and complexity of Ulysses should not be underestimated – nor the corrosive effect on modern life the loss of such a basic skill is having on every thing from public discourse to the way we make decisions about governance.
With a world where people speak all too often through using 140 characters on social media, or are bombarded with catchy headlines that purport to speak the “truth” without detailed analysis, having your tools sharpened by reading books like Ulysses isn’t just about enjoying a great story.
“We are really in trouble collectively if we do not work on our attention spans,” she says. “I feel Trump’s rise in America is down to this collective loss. If you cannot take the time to think carefully and critically, think deeply about your relationship with others, you are living in a dangerous place.
“Reading helps you to be able to talk with greater confidence, have a broader working vocabulary to express yourself. It helps you become more aware of the power of the words you use.”
And tackling books that are seen as tricky also encourages inquisitiveness, says Toby.
“You need to be comfortable asking questions. You need to be able to say: I do not understand. That is fundamental to a learning process,” she adds.
Joyce’s prose moves between styles, asking the reader to follow carefully – and that is one of the reasons it is so often a book that is discarded before the reader can get beyond the opening few pages. For those starting the book this January, the salon works by gently easing the reader into the book.
They start slowly, taking on 15 pages of text at a time with notes to help untangle what is going on, a “road map to untangle Joyce,” as Toby puts it.
“Talking about literature turns people’s minds on, it makes you more curious about the world around you and gives you the confidence to learn more, explore more,” she says. “What Joyce asks us is to think about the everyday struggle we face to be human in a difficult world.”
• See www.litsalon.co.uk