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James Joyce - Ulysses
Ulysses - James Joyce
Member Name: DavidJay
Ulysses - James Joyce
Advantages: Among the greatest novels ever written.
Disadvantages: Take a map.
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'."
Summary: Maybe the last novel. Who knows?