Author: James Joyce
Genre: Fiction: Classics; Historical-Fiction
Ulysses has been labeled dirty, blasphemous, and unreadable. In a famous 1933 court decision, Judge John M. Woolsey declared it an emetic book–although he found it sufficiently unobscene to allow its importation into the United States–and Virginia Woolf was moved to decry James Joyce’s “cloacal obsession.” None of these adjectives, however, do the slightest justice to the novel. To this day it remains themodernist masterpiece, in which the author takes both Celtic lyricism and vulgarity to splendid extremes. It is funny, sorrowful, and even (in a close-focus sort of way) suspenseful. And despite the exegetical industry that has sprung up in the last 75 years, Ulysses is also a compulsively readable book. Even the verbal vaudeville of the final chapters can be navigated with relative ease, as long as you’re willing to be buffeted, tickled, challenged, and (occasionally) vexed by Joyce’s sheer command of the English language.
Among other things, a novel is simply a long story, and the first question about any story is: What happens?. In the case of Ulysses, the answer might be Everything. William Blake, one of literature’s sublime myopics, saw the universe in a grain of sand. Joyce saw it in Dublin, Ireland, on June 16, 1904, a day distinguished by its utter normality. Two characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, go about their separate business, crossing paths with a gallery of indelible Dubliners. We watch them teach, eat, stroll the streets, argue, and (in Bloom’s case) masturbate. And thanks to the book’s stream-of-consciousness technique–which suggests no mere stream but an impossibly deep, swift-running river–we’re privy to their thoughts, emotions, and memories. The result? Almost every variety of human experience is crammed into the accordian folds of a single day, which makes Ulysses not just an experimental work but the very last word in realism.
Both characters add their glorious intonations to the music of Joyce’s prose. Dedalus’s accent–that of a freelance aesthetician, who dabbles here and there in what we might call Early Yeats Lite–will be familiar to readers of Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man. But Bloom’s wistful sensualism (and naive curiosity) is something else entirely. Seen through his eyes, a rundown corner of a Dublin graveyard is a figure for hope and hopelessness, mortality and dogged survival: “Mr Bloom walked unheeded along his grove by saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults, stone hopes praying with upcast eyes, old Ireland’s hearts and hands. More sensible to spend the money on some charity for the living. Pray for the repose of the soul of. Does anybody really?” (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: I did it! I read Ulysses– and in a reasonable time frame too! I originally had no intention of reading this book in the near future (or possibly ever, truth be told) but Adam announced that he was hosting a read-along of it and I knew that of I didn’t do it now I would most likely never read it. So I did it. I read Ulysses. And while I wish that I had something profound or moving to say about it, I don’t. There are a couple of reasons why.
Ulysses depicts a day in Dublin during the summer of 1904- specifically, the entire novel takes place on June 16, 1904 (although towards the end we do witness some of the early morning hours of June 17). We follow the exploits of Leopold Bloom, his wife, Stephen Dedalus, the son of a friend of Bloom’s, and their acquaintances. But while the book is about what happens to these characters in one day in June, it is also about much more. I think most people know that Joyce’s Ulysses is based on Homer’s Odyssey. The book is composed of 18 sections, each of which mirrors the characters, events, and themes of the Odyssey in someway. I knew this going in but here’s the thing: I’ve never read the Odyssey. I knew that I would be missing things and would not be able to draw connections that I could have done if I had read the Odyssey first. But once I decided to read Ulysses within the time frame of the read-along (I was a day late finishing it but I really don’t care as I am still a little amazed that I not only read it but read it in what I think to be good time) I knew I would not have the time, or the inclination, to read the Odyssey first. So, when I began I was prepared to miss things and I knew that this would not be an ‘easy’ book to read by any means. I also knew that the book would be more heavily focused on a stream-of-conscious technique then anything I had read before and there was a very high probability that I would be confused or lost for some of it. And yet…
…And yet knowing all of this, I was still a little surprised at just how hard a book this was to read. To be honest, I can’t say that I enjoyed the process of reading Ulysses. I gained immense respect for Joyce and his skill as a writer (this was my first time reading anything by him, which in hindsight might had been the best decision) and fully understand and appreciate the praise this book has garnered (and rightly so). But I am unable to say that I enjoyed this book. Upon finishing the last page I only felt overwhelming relief that it was over, that I never had to open its covers again if I chose not to, that I had done it. I’m at the point in my reading where I have read enough to know that I am dreadfully under-read in certain (OK most) genres and feel the urge to remedy it. But I am also at the point where, although I want to read the giants of fantasy, classics, science-fiction, etc, I don’t want to read books for the sole sake of saying that I read them. I want to read to read the ‘classics’ of genres to be ‘well-read,’ yes, but I also want to read books that are worth reading. I want to read books that I enjoy, or at least that I think I will enjoy and appreciate. When I decided to read Ulysses, I made on the decision based on the fact that I thought, as it is the pinnacle of achievement of Modernist Literature, that I should probably read it. In other words, I read Ulysses simply to say that I read it; in hindsight this was not the best way to approach this book, or any book for that matter come to think of it. I know that, but still I think that it was lesson that really needed to be hit home for me to actually really get it, which Ulysses provided.
I feel like I should be saying something profound here which I think is part of the problem; I shouldn’t feel like I have express complex thoughts or opinions on any book I read, even a book like this one, to have considered that I have ‘got it’ or to have had a genuine experience reading it. A couple of chapters into Ulysses I began to read the short summary of each section on Wikipedia before I began it. I needed this to guide me and to make sure that I was ‘on the right’ track as to what was exactly was happening as I read. I know I missed a ton, a ton, while I was reading, and not just those things that were harder to catch. While having read the Odyssey before hand would have helped some, I don’t want to overstate what role it would have played as my enjoying or ‘getting’ Ulysses. And to be honest, I was mostly content with just knowing what was going on on the surface and didn’t really feel the need to even try to understand what Joyce was doing on a deeper level. In some why I feel bad about this, like I should want to dissect it and discuss it to the point of ad nauseam, but I don’t. I’m not sure why I feel like I should want to do this- I think maybe I still have some insecurity in regards to being a ‘good reader’ or ‘well read’ or whatever which seems only to increase the more I read and realize just how much more is out there not only to be read, but that people think should be or must be read, as if not reading a certain book or liking a specific classic makes me less of a ‘real’ reader. Let me clarify: know one has ever said or even hinted at this, either to myself or in general, but I seem to have somehow gotten this twisted idea or complex or whatever it is in my head all the same which is unfortunate. But at least reading Ulysses has brought some of these thoughts to the forefront of my mind instead of continuing to just simmer below the surface.
This review obviously is not really about Ulysses– it’s not really a review at all. Instead, this post is about what I got out of Ulysses, which as it turns out is something far removed from the book and its meaning itself. I know I didn’t come away from this book with what Joyce intended; in fact, I’m not sure I got anything out of the book at all. But in reading Ulysses, in the actual process of reading it, I got a lot in regards to thinking about what I am reading and why and how I should approach what books I not only choose to read but how I read them. For that reason alone I am glad to have taken part in Adam’s event and, of course, I am also somewhat proud to say that I have read Ulysses, all 265,000 words of it! In all likelihood I don’t think that I’ll ever reread it, but I do want to read the Odyssey now and, in some weird way, I’m glad that the book has a place on my shelf, even if it will only sit there to remind me that actually read it once upon a time and that I don’t have to pick it up ever again if I don’t feel like it.