Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ulysses - James Joyce

I finally did it.  I triumphed over James Joyce!

Ok, I'm not actually sure I can say that.  After all, I think I understand about 10% of this so-called masterpiece.  I can honestly say that I have never read a more confusing book in my life.  Anyone who claims to understand this work completely is lying.  There is nothing else to it.  Joyce himself predicted that it would talk generations to get to the bottom of Ulysses's layers.

A quick overview for those of you unfamiliar with the classic: Ulysses technically follows the "day-in-the-life" format.  Joyce follows the life of Leopold Bloom on June 16, 1904.  Bloom's day takes place in Dublin, Ireland.  The book is broken into three parts and eighteen 'episodes.'

Joyce writes different episodes with different writing styles.  For the most part, he relies on a stream of consciousness style.  I had some experience with this style from another Modern Library pick, The Sound and the Fury.  Faulkner, mercifully, restricts this style to half of his book.  Joyce does not use the style the whole time, but also does not choose other styles that are much simpler.

Interestingly, Faulkner was likely influenced on some level by Joyce.  Faulkner wrote most of his best sellers in the decade following Ulysses's first printing.  Faulkner famously said of the novel, "You should approach Joyce's Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith."

Joyce is said to have have written the book with Homer's Odyssey in mind, hence the title.  Each episode corresponds to a part of Odysseus's journey home from Troy.  Joyce's goal was apparently to recreate the epic in then-modern Dublin.  This concept actually sounds fascinating to me.  I think I could have really enjoyed that book.  However, Joyce took the whole thing far over my head.

The actual content of the book was far more risque that I had expected.  Joyce caused quite a stir in his day.  The most controversial passage includes Bloom masturbating.  Joyce also talks freely about sex and other hot button issues.  Considering that the work was published in 1922, the content is shocking.  Little of it would make waves now, but it still caught me off guard.

The most controversial issue surrounding Ulysses, I believe, is not its content, but rather its popularity.  From what I have gathered, most people tend to fall very definitely to one side or the other in this area.  Some people love the book and rave about its genius.  These people are obviously the ones who have given it the reputation of being the best book ever written.  In my opinion, these people are crazy.  I fall with other readers who find the work confusing and far over-rated.  Maybe I am just not smart enough to understand Joyce.  That's a criticism I can accept and with which I can agree.

At this point, I am simply thrilled I finished the book.  It took me just over seven months, an unsurprising fact when you learn that Ulysses contains around 265,000 words.  I am proud to say that I have read the book.  Now, at least, I can hold a (minimally) educated conversation about it and I can say that I have done it.  That alone is a statement few readers my age can make.

Still, after all that, I cannot believe that the reason I choose to read Modern Library's 100 Novel list as opposed to Time magazine's was so I could read this book.  Had I only known...

Pages: 816
Date Completed: September 21, 2013

Have you read Ulysses?  What were your thoughts?  Do you love it or hate it?  Why do you think it's been consistently called one of the greatest books ever written?


  1. I agree that it is a difficult read. I began two different times to read it, unsuccessfully. It wasn't until I added some supplementary reading materials that I was finally able to appreciate it. While I read "Ulysses", I also read Blamire's "The New Bloomsday Book" and Gifford's "Ulysses Annotated". I've also been listening to Frank Delaney's "Re: Joyce" podcast where he masterfully deconstructs and explains "Ulysses".

    Having done all of that, I can say, without a doubt, "Ulysses" is in fact a masterpiece and may be one of the most incredible works of literature ever written. There is no doubt that I will read this book multiple times in my life.

    Taken at face value, I would certainly agree with you that it is almost unreadable. Unless you have advanced degrees in linguistics, philosophy, religion, history, and literature. But, with a little effort and supplemental reading, the book really comes alive. Joyce, as he alluded in the quote you mention, just makes you work for it.

    I can't help but be in awe of the novel. I'll forever be glad that I didn't give up on it after my first two unsuccessful attempts. This book will be with me always.

    1. Thanks for the tip! I'd be willing to give it another try with some guidance.

  2. Steven Moore, novel historian, writes, "Literature is a rhetorical performance, a show put on by someone who possess greater abilities with language than most people. Any literate person can write, just as anyone can sing and dance; what distinguishes artists from the rest of us is that they can do these things better -- and art is a demonstration of how much better they can. The reason some of us consider Ulysses the greatest novel ever written is not because it has a gripping story, lovable characters, or unique insights into the human situation, but because it is the most elaborate rhetorical performance ever mounted, making wider and more masterful use of all the forms and techniques of prose than any other novel." I am with Moore. I am astonished at the number of people who try to read Ulysses without help from a guide. One wouldn't visit a foreign land without consulting a guide; a sea going vessel does not venture into a port without the aid from a pilot. Get a guide: one of the best is Joesph Campbell's Mythic Worlds, Modern Words.

    1. I suppose I should have realized earlier that a guide would have helped me. I just may give it another shot with some help, although I think it will be a while!

  3. Hear Joseph Campbell himself lecture on Joyce's art at: Wings of Art: The material is what is contained in Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, but hearing Campbell lecture is a treat.