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I am an avid reader. I will often have more than one book on the go at a time. They will usually be different types of books so that I don't get the "plots" mixed up. I will change from one book to another when I start to find one starting to become wearing. I may even finish the new book completely before going back to the original.
In recent years I have been catching up on classic novels and in this way I have now completed reading the works of John Buchan (The 39 Steps, Huntingtower, Greenmantle...), L Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz...), Leslie Charteris (The Saint) and Ian Fleming (Bond). I am looking forward to starting tackling Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and have already downloaded Jude the Obscure. Many of these, being classics, are now out of copyright and so are freely available as eBooks through sources such as The Gutenberg Project.
Jude the Obscure I chose through having read an article listing the 100 [supposedly] greatest books of all time. I was alarmed to discover that of the 100 listed I had only read eight! I determined to improve that record. Amongst those listed I noted one that will be familiar to most people - James Joyce's Ulysses. This I chose as my first.
Ulysses was written by Joyce just after the end of the First World War but is set in a period before this war broke out. The events take place on a single day in Dublin, at that time part of an Ireland still ruled by Britain, and revolve around two principal characters: Stephen Daedalus and Leon Bloom. Joyce achieved huge notoriety with this book, it being banned in many countries, including Britain and America, for many years. I really had to find out what all the fuss was about.
The book is divided into three section which we can loosely describe as a Prologue, Main and Epilogue. The Prologue introduces the principal and secondary characters and the setting of the main section.
Both the Prologue and Epilogue are reasonably intelligible to most readers but seem to contribute very little to the substance of the book. The main section, however is a very different story, if you'll excuse the pun.
Reputedly, the story, split into 18 sections, though there really aren't any indicators such as chapters, to indicate that you have moved from one section to another, is Joyce's re-imagining of the events of Homer's Odyssey into events involving his own characters in the setting of a single Dublin day. The events that Homer described spanned 10 years! OK, I'll take his word for that!
Notwithstanding this section's allusions to Homer, which I confess I couldn't identify, the biggest issue that makes it a challenging read is Joyce's use of a multiplicity of languages, modern and classical, and of obscure words that most readers would need a dictionary to understand. I certainly did. This is clearly deliberate and for the purpose of saying "How clever am I".
However, it seems that the notoriety of this book is largely centred around the final section of the Epilogue of the story, which is probably the most bizarre piece of writing I have ever read. It relates Molly Bloom's (Leon's wife) musings on her relationships with her husband and with other lovers. The whole section, running to many pages, is written entirely without any form of punctuation or paragraphs. It reads like a man's impression of how women gossip, rambling on from subject to subject with hardly a pause for breath.
Yes, there are many sexual references, which may have been considered shocking in their day but over which a modern reader of the "Shades of Grey" generation would hardly bat an eyelid.
I doubt I have ever read a more self-indulgent and pretentious work of literature in my entire life. Joyce clearly wrote this as an exercise in demonstrating that he could fool both his admirers and his critics with a work of seeming intelligence and depth but in truth intended simply to dare anyone to call him out. I was determined to finish the book in order to see if there was any real merit but, on closing the book after the final page, I confess that I could find none.
What I can say is that I have now read Ulysses, so you don't have to. Be sure in the knowledge that if you never read it, your life will not be any the less rich.
Ulysses is both a start and an end. It is the start of something spectacular, exciting, innovative and revolutionary in the medium of the novel, and yet it is also the end of the novel, for post-Ulysses, there is very little left to be said by way of a series of words arranged in chapters and bound under a common name.
Of all the modern classics, it is perhaps the most daunting. More so even than Proust's In Search Of Lost Time which seems as broad and as deep as the very notion of "time" itself. More so than any of the fragmented, challenging, anti-narratives that followed. Ulysses MEANS something more than can be contained in its pages, and most everyone, certainly at this point in western culture, has some sort of grasp on what that meaning might be, or, at the very least, houses some awareness of the fact that there are a great many people who spend a great deal of their time fretting over every comma, every arcane reference to this or the other Irish King or Queen or Chieftain, every stately step of plump Buck Mulligan, every musing of Stephan Dedalus, every hiccup of the cuckolded Leopold Bloom and every breath of his beloved Molly.
So where does one start? Do we force ourselves to ignore the libraries-worth of criticism and analysis and scrutiny assembled thus far? Do we pretend it lives in and of itself and that any outside influence is at best a mild distraction and at worst a hindrance?
Neither of those are especially helpful.
Ulysses is as dense and as thick and as mysterious as the night as experienced on a raft in the midst of an endless, breezeless sea. One can very well flounder about in those waters a time, and many's the grand adventure might one have whilst doing so, but if you want to know where you are, if you want to know what those lights in the miles-away might be, if you want to know where even you're positioned with relation to the nearest landmass, then you need assistance.
And so with this. Absolutely Ulysses is best approached with a map. And those maps may well need a fair few maps of their own. But this is not to say it cannot be picked up and read start to end and that some sense of a narrative and of the characters buzzing around the periphery of said narrative will not take shape. It's just that to get the most from it - and there is so, so much to be gotten from it - you absolutely need either some sort of annotated version or, failing that, some close commentary of some kind to refer to every other line.
Joyce envisioned a kind of encyclopedia, and to this end most every paragraph contains one or several or several dozen asides and remarks and insinuations related to - well, just about everything. Botany, history, biology, theology, philosophy, art, literature... One can easily skim over these things and still carry-on their way, but why would you want to? The richness of Ulysses lies in the minutiae, and the greater the lengths you go to get a handle on that, the more well fed you'll feel by the end.
The story - loosely based, as the title suggests, on Homer's Odyssey - concerns a day in the life of, principally, Stephan Dedalus (central protagonist of Joyce's earlier, and much much MUCH more accessible Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man) and Leopold Bloom, both of whom wander about Dublin both as it is physically lain out before them and as it is scrawled about the alleys of their psyches. It is a novel that rarely, if ever, steps out from behind its protagonists eyes.
To tell this tale, Joyce utilises an array of formal tricks and idiosyncracies. Newspaper headlines help illustrate Bloom's visit to the offices of one such publication. A dalliance through a web of past lovers and friends is written as a piece of scripted drama. One section is accompanied by musical notation, and so on and so forth.
Ulysses is perhaps the ultimate modernist novel. Self-reflexive? Fragmented? Kalidoscopic? Drawing on a wealth of other art forms? Obsessed with the changing urban environment? Check to all of these.
It is, at its heart, a reaction to the rise of the modern city that is not reactionary for a moment, but that nonetheless realises art needs to go some way towards understanding the conundrum inhabitants of those sprawling, unmappable, decentralised goliaths find themselves in.
It's my favourite novel for that reason and for many, many others, most of which hinge upon its sheer inexhaustibility, a fact highlighted by those libraries-worth of commentaries mentioned above, and their continued growth.
Like Seinfeld, then, it's about everything and nothing. And it offers no clues about which side it might wish to align itself with.
Or then again, as a great man said to me once, maybe it's all just about "pissin' the bed and wankin'."
Ulysses was one of the first books that I read after my graduation from the university. Having read Odyssey, I was intrigued by the fact that another author, many centuries after and in another part of the world used the same concept to write a novel. Ulysses isn't a easy book and you must be totally committed to it: You should give up time and energy just to read it and must be prepared to read books about the book itself, commentary, essays, annotations.In today's world this is difficult but, believe me, worth doing.The true intricacies of the book will glow with your commitment and its structure will amaze you. Ulysses is a novel of the body, a journey of the body, it is a novel of color, it is a novel of music, it is a novel of a journey of self, it is a novel of a father and a son, it is a novel of a husband and a wife, it is a novel about food, it is a novel about love and adultery, it is a novel about forgiveness, it is a novel about finding happiness in life, it is a novel about death and catholicism, it is a novel about Judaism, it is a novel of genius. In addition Joyce managed to picture Dublin of 1904 quite nicely-you feel like you know the city, that you are a part of it. Each chapter and each section has its own set of symbols: The book as a whole has its own set of symbols, but each fits inside the other, and at the very center of it all is a diamond of understanding. And something final: We've all got this interior monologue, just like that, running through our minds all the time. Not many books have pictured them so nicely... Do read the book,but be prepared for it.It's well-written and intriguing but also difficult and time-consuming.And something else:Don't read it by having Odyssey in your mind-it's something totally different.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is probably the best novel ever written. It has been rated as such by numerous bodies of earnest critics and academics and even by anarchic groups of mercenary readers and general malcontents. You can’t argue with it: it is the best novel ever written. It also happens to be over 900 pages of really rather difficult reading. But it’s not as difficult as you might think (especially if you purchase Harry Blamire’s The Bloomsday Book (which is absurdly expensive (£16?), but worth getting if you’re serious about Ulysses)), and is extremely rewarding when you get into and through it. Ulysses describes a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a nice man who lives in Dublin, is married to Molly and likes to read on the loo. The trick when reading Joyce’s Ulysses, and this is where The Bloomsday Book is so handy, is to relate it to Homer’s Odyssey. Leopold is Ulysses/Odysseus, Molly is Penelope, Stephen Dedalus (hero of Stephen Hero (oddly enough) and Joyce’s later re-writing of that book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) is Telemachus, their son, even though Stephen is only Leopold’s spiritual son. Each chapter of Ulysses mirrors a section of The Odyssey, and The Bloomsday Book explains it all. The reason for this lies in Modernism (modernism to those who know it well and aren’t afraid anymore). Literary modernism is a period and style of writing that is represented by Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Wasteland, and even Picasso’s cubism (all of these artists were working in Paris in the same time, and they released their seminal works within a few months of each other – serendipity!).Modernism was, essentially (and to be simplistic about it) a search, a seeking: they were looking for three things – a new style, connection with the past, and a way out of the crisis of language brought about by structuralism (which showed how, simply put,
language works, and how meaning is by and large arbitrary and socially agreed upon, as opposed to essential and intrinsic). So, by echoing The Odyssey, Joyce links Ulysses to classical literature, and so offers not just a new narrative and an experimental novel (Joyce invented, in the final chapter (more about this later) the interior monologue) that tussles with how to use language and explores a new style, but also makes a connection with the foundation of classical literature. It is a double eclipse, a waxing and waning – link to the past, to tradition, but break away from it as well. Hence, Stephen Dedalus, walking on an Irish beach, has a vision of ancient ships coming in to land, sailing into the bay. Or he imagines an umbilical cord that connects him to his mother and is a kind of telephone to the divine, coming out of his navel, his omphalos (the navel, the hub, being a central image of connectivity in the novel). Each chapter is also written in a different style from each other chapter. This is Joyce showing off, but also Joyce challenging the whole of Western literature: again, he is mimicking it so as to move away from it. He is like the pupil who establishes his mastery over his masters by writing a better book in their own style. The Bloomsday Book (the Ulysses bible), again, explains all this as you read (the page numbers refer to the Penguin edition, I think). So, at the end of the novel you reach some of the finest writing ever offered up for us to read – the famous last chapter, the Penelope chapter, wherein we sink into the mind of Molly Bloom. Penelope is written in eight enormous sentences, and thus the entire chapter has only eight punctuation marks (full-stops). The number eight is, of course, significant, because on its side (Molly is lying on her side in bed, thinking to herself) it is the symbol for infinity. Molly’s interior monologue is a grasping at eternity. She draws us into her memory, of how she met
Leopold, of falling in love, of having sex with him on a hillside, of sleeping with Blaise Boylan that afternoon, and so on and so on. My favourite bit is when she remembers squirting her breast milk into Leopold’s tea for him (perhaps that reveals too much about me). This monologue is intensely erotic, not just because of what she remembers, but also because of the languorous, lovely, lusty way in which Molly thinks and the way in which Joyce transmits that to us. I know people who have spent a good deal of their lives reading this novel, but are obsessed with this chapter in particular: it is an amazing thing. Ulysses, when you’ve finished it, will stay with you: it resonates in your mind and in your life, in your ‘breaking brain’. Don’t be intimidated, but do buy The Bloomsdy Book and use it as you read. Each re-reading, by the way, gets easier and easier, and you find new and amazing things in it. Bloomsday (the day the novel describes) is the 16th of June. Light a candle or something, or more fittingly, do something erotic – Joyce would appreciate it, I’m sure.
When I was at university, we had to pick courses in our second and third year, and there was a three-figure code for each course. Of course, there was a clever Joyceian pun in the number for the Joyce course. It's precisely this kind of smart-arsery that surrounds Joyce and 'Ulysses' which probably puts people off. It's not as long as 'Clarissa', for example, and is considerably funnier (mind you, what isn't?). I made a couple of attempts to read it (I gave up as a student), and having finally completed it a few years back, I know two things: that I didn't get all of the references, and that I couldn't adequately sum up for anyone what it's 'about' as I don't think I really know. I think you get out of it what you take to it, and I know that parts of it use the English language in a way that beats anything else I've read, that much of it is very funny and the final monologue is breathtaking. I definitely think it's worth the time for anyone who wants to give it a go, and that it's probably easier to read if you've eased yourself in with first the Dubliners, and then 'Portrait of the Artist'. Allegedly, having read 'Ulysses' I am now equipped to tackle 'Finnegan's Wake', but I'll get back to you on that one.
Yes, this is a book surrounded by a high fence of erudite opinion. It is one of those texts used by some as a test of whether you are a member of the club of educated opinionators. But this doesn't mean that you shouldn't read it. I was intimidated and baffled by Ulysses for a long time - until I heard somebody read it aloud. At that point it became hypnotically fascinating. It helps having some explanatory commentary to help you along. It also helps to know that it doesn't have to be read in sequence (although the opening episode is a great beginning) or all in one sitting (you can intersperse episodes between other things you have on the go). It also helps if you relax about the obscure allusion. It's a bit like listening to a foreign language of which you have a fair (but not fluent) grasp - you can get a great deal without understanding all of the detail. If you take the trouble, this could be one of the books that you will cherish the most and which will have the deepest impression upon you. It opens up the imagination. It creates whole new ways of seeing and hearing language. It makes you laugh.
I think people have the general impression that this book is difficult to read. Certainly the book seems to be the subject of myriad analyses by reading groups, especially in the USA. I read it, and apart from a couple of chapters, I am mystified by it's 'difficult' tag. It is simply a very good story told in very imaginative ways. One chapter where I feel Joyce went over the top was when he starting writing in historical literary styles, starting with ancient latin and progressing to the modern day. This takes a lot of hard work to understand, or alternatively use one of the many guides. I loved the book, most of it was very easy to understand and flowed beatifully. The last chapter, a stream of conciousness-style monologue from Molly Bloom, is in my opinion a masterpiece. It has no punctuation whatsoever and is yet beautifully easy to read and follow. A masterpiece, yes, but not an impenetrable one. Read it!
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 H. G. Wells 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 the modernist 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.