Classic Book Review: Ulysses by James Joyce

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The Greatest Book You’ve Never Read

Ulysses by James Joyce (Penguin Modern Classics, RRP £9.99, 1040pp)

Ulysses: Do not be intimidated, do not worry or panic, simply sit back and consider letting your mind do some actual reading for a change. Proper reading: the kind that makes you think, the kind which rewards hard work and perseverance. Do you remember how you read as a child? When each book utterly absorbed you, transporting you into that world, seeming more real than reality. Ulysses is that type of book: it is the greatest book an adult can ever read. An intricately crafted piece of writing, as close to poetry as prose will ever get, it pushes the reader to read as they did as a child; with complete absorption. Joyce created a wonderfully cryptic work in which elements are buried, hidden beneath layers of obfuscation, like nuggets of gold in Irish bedrock. But if you want to find them you will have to work for it, roll up your sleeves, heft your literary pickaxe, and do some proper reading.

As you may have twigged from the title, Joyce employs the framework of Homer’s The Odyssey. The use of the Roman version of the title is as much about the nature of colonialism as it is about the circular, repetitive nature of history: Joyce was interested in ideas of reincarnation in Eastern philosophy. He was also a committed, if slightly quiet, socialist: Ulysses is Joyce showing that the heroic, epic events of The Odyssey could be happening again, right under our noses in everyday life, to everyday people.

And this really is everyday life: the events in Ulysses are there to present all of life in a single day: a funeral in the morning, a birth in the night; sobriety and drunkenness; male and female sexuality. Many of the chapters discuss particular sciences or arts, such as medicine, architecture and literature, highlighting human ingenuity in life; how we have ordered and constructed our world. All but the first three chapters have an organ as a motif, bringing the body in as well, although this can be a little hard to detect sometimes. Another reason for the use of Odysseus is Joyce’s description of him as the only man in literature who is complete: he is husband, lover; father, son; leader and follower. No other figure in literature would be capable of portraying the human world and all that circles within it.

Set in Dublin, on June 16th, 1904, the book opens at 8am with Stephen Dedalus (from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and his friend Buck Mulligan at the top of the Martello tower, overlooking the Forty-Foot bathing pool and the rest of Dublin Bay. Mulligan was based on Oliver St John Gogarty, a friend of Joyce’s whom he fell out with – as he did with most of his Dublin friends. Dedalus leaves to teach at a local school then has a wander on Sandymount Strand. The monologue on the strand in chapter 3, ‘Proteus’, was described by Margaret Anderson as ‘the most beautiful thing’, promoting it from mere text to art-object.

The clock then winds back to 8am and follows Leopold Bloom as he serves breakfast to his wife, Molly, then goes out, forgetting his key. He goes to a funeral, to work, to lunch, to sort out a few more bits and pieces before bumping into Dedalus at the hospital and staying with him during some drinking, eventually taking him home for some cocoa. The book ends with Bloom’s wife doing a famously unpunctuated monologue. Joyce’s wife, Nora, was also very scant in her use of written punctuation.

The stream of consciousness through Leopold Bloom is a joyously evocative literary experience. A Jew who loves pork kidneys, he is an interesting character anyway. But Bloom has an active and playful imagination, a vibrant inner life which covers a wide range of subjects while staying true to the originator. The reader travels much within it, Joyce treating it as much of a viable place as the physical surroundings of Dublin. If you are only going to read one chapter of Ulysses, make it chapter 4, ‘Calypso’, and allow yourself to be sucked into Bloom’s thoughts.

Various other events drift in and around the action. Molly is having an affair with ‘Blazes’ Boylan, causing Bloom to avoid him. Dedalus is frustrated with Irish life and its constrictions, blaming it for the death of his mother. And there are the countless other soap-opera elements of other people’s lives who pop up throughout: like the accidently predicted winner of a horse race, the poor man tormented by postcards bearing only the letters U.P., and the suffering of the woman perpetually in labour. Add to this the political tensions inherent in colonial literature.

There are certain chapters which any commentator will admit are difficult to understand. ‘Oxen of the Sun’ (chapter 14) is notoriously hard to decipher, being a drunken party with many voices, and many conversations overlapping. It does, however show the gestation of language, by the end of which the modern idiom has been born. Or ‘Wandering Rocks’ (10) which is a series of interconnecting vignettes, the reader swooping rapidly round Dublin to follow them. Or ‘Circe’ (15) told as an hallucinatory ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ script.

The best advice I can give to the Ulysses newcomer is to read it as a Radio 4 afternoon play, or, better yet, an overheard conversation. Accept that the narrative is largely interior monologue and, as such, should be listened to carefully. As with eavesdropping, the interesting parts are often in the half-finished sentences, the realistic unwillingness to broach a particular subject. As such, Ulysses is ultimately a movement away from the artificiality of romanticism and the over-developed fin de siècle and towards a psychological realism and directness of report – ably demonstrated on 322-4 as young Dignam’s voice moves from clichéd, teenage bravado to a more honest use of language, revealing how he really feels about the death of his father. In Joyce’s schema many of the details important to the forwarding of plot are not signposted,  unlike other forms of fiction – highlighting how artificial those works are. Romance writing was extraordinarily melodramatic, even the Realism of Balzac, Flaubert and Zola relied heavily on the text being separate from the world it was describing. Joyce tackles the fundamental truth at the heart of literature: who is telling the story? An omniscient, unexplainable narrator? Or the character within the fictional world? Joyce’s realism goes beyond even that though. During interior monologue Ulysses demonstrates the ontological world: that representing the real world is not made up of exterior objects and objectivity, but through an objective rendering of the interior subjective. Most people perceive the outside, observable world as only a sliver of their existence, the rest made up of memories, thoughts, reflections and daydreams. And thus you have stream of consciousness. Joyce was not the first to do this, but he was the first to do it well.

Since the inhabitants of Dublin do most of the narration there isn’t much visual description (do you describe your house to yourself as you wander round it?) – so when Joyce said to Frank Budgen ‘I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book’ he isn’t talking about a physical city, but the social one; one built out of human interaction and achievements.

War and Peace is a big book, but it doesn’t require anything from the reader, everything is presented, clearly and identifiably to them. Ulysses requires a huge amount from the reader. You cannot just let your eyes wander across the page; you must engage with the text to understand it. If you read this like a normal book it will seem empty: Joyce doesn’t highlight important points, they are presented but easily missed, much like the overheard conversation, meaning inferences must be pieced together from snippets and snatches. Writing, and the stylistics of writing, really mattered to Joyce. He once said that a good writer should be remembered for their unforgettable sentences, not just their plots.

And discovering more about what’s in there can be enormously satisfying; there is obviously too much to Ulysses to fully explore here. Get the Annotated Student Edition, also from Penguin Classics, for £20. Can I also recommend: Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, written with the co-operation of Joyce in 1930 and still one of the most definitive commentaries; Frank Budgen’s The Making of Ulysses, a  memoir of his friendship with Joyce; and this website: which is genuinely brilliant. It has pictures of the locations in the book, albeit from 100 years later. Please also click on the ‘Images’ link at the bottom of the main chapter list: this is 1904 contemporary advertising, paintings, theatre bills, musical hall posters, engravings and photographs, etc., bringing extra texture to Joyce’s book.

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