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  • A Lifelong Odyssey, Ulysses and MeThe Gifford and Seidman Annotation
  • Robert J. Seidman (bio)

I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.

—James Joyce

They find the annotations more interesting than the text. They set more store by the crutches than the legs.

—Gustave Flaubert

Although these notes, in conformity with custom, come after the poem, the reader is advised to consult them first and then study the poem with their help, rereading them of course as he goes through its text, and perhaps, after having done with the poem, consulting them a third time so as to complete the picture.

—Charles Kinbote, the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, further advises the reader is best served by "purchasing two copies of the same work."

In the late winter of 1966, just after Patti and I were married, Don Gifford called and asked, "What are you up to?" I told him I was working on a novel. (Published in 1979, One Smart Indian is still in print.) Don said, "We ought to get started on the annotation." I replied okay, then asked a truly dumb question, "How long do you think it will take?" Giff replied, "Four or five years." The first edition, Notes for Joyce, was published by E. P. Dutton in 1974. [End Page 37]

In the beginning was the 3 × 5 card . . . more than 9,000 of them. In those pre-Internet days all of our research, including the infernal index, was recorded by hand on lined 3 × 5s. Over seven years, we hired eight or nine researchers, usually Williams College undergraduates, to do the mind-numbing, pre-computer work of collating the index. Some we fired, some quit, one ran away after two days, but eventually we did finish—32 pages of double-column entries. The index is an indispensable tool for those who use the book. He and I have always hoped that the annotation would be open-ended, an ongoing communal effort by those who care to emend or correct or add to our entries. Don Gifford died in 2000.

seidman's role

By fall 1970, we had made substantial progress on the annotation. The timing of our year in England could not have been better: Don had a sabbatical from Williams, and he and his wife, Honora, arranged to live in the tiny, picturesque seaside Cornwall village of St. Mawes (population 1,000). Our rented home was a thatched-roof cottage in North Leigh, Oxfordshire (population 1,919), which meant I had the Oxford libraries at hand. The idea was to commute back and forth between the two households while we two males laboriously putt-putted onward with the Notes. I had been corresponding with three of the key experts on English linguistic esoterica—Eric Partridge (1894–1979), author of the delightful Shakespeare's Bawdy (Dutton paper, 1960), Slang Today and Yesterday (Routledge, 1933), A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (Stein and Day, 1977) and, most serviceably for us, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, London, 1937), a monument of its kind. When first contacted by mail, Partridge was standoffish, wondering if our project was worthy of his valuable time. I wrote a second note, explaining how important the annotation would be to Joyceans, in particular, and literary types in general, and suggesting how helpful he could be as the leading expert on the most ephemeral aspect of speech and literature. (He was right about the significance of his time and effort because no one else was then tilling with such acute husbandry the colloquial outliers of the English language spectrum.) An extensive correspondence ensued, in which I asked questions about slang: What in the world did Joyce mean by: "lagged" (originally "transported as a convict," later, "arrested") (12.801); and "takes the biscuit" (proverbial since 1610, well before "it takes the cake") (12.1227); "wild sea money" (Stephen is walking along Sandymount [End Page 38] strand crunching the sea shells under his boots as he proceeds. "Shells" is slang for money.) (3.19...


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