James Joyce’s Ulysses, to me, is not a novel. It is a puzzle, or a set of puzzles, or even a grand intellectual adventure, but when writers discuss how Joyce subverted the novel form or changed how writers thought of the novel, they are covering for the fact that Joyce wrote an enormous work of fiction that is only characterized as a novel because our language does not have an adequate word to describe it. It’s not a short story, and it’s not quite a collection of short stories, since the eighteen sections of Ulysses share characters and occur in chronological order. It’s hardly non-fiction despite Joyce’s meticulous attention to detail in his settings and historical references. It’s epic in scope and vision, but not in story. The book really has nothing resembling a plot, as Joyce chose to focus on the minutiae of quotidian living without any overarching storyline or narrative greed to drag you through its verbal quagmires. It is its own category. It’s … ulysseian.
The reactions of contemporary writers to its publication were sharply divided, and many authors we still read and respect today though the book was awful for one reason or another. Daniel Burt’s essay in The Novel 100 on Ulysses – in my opinion, the best of the 73 essays in that book that I’ve read so far – quotes many of the critics:
Resisters of Ulysses have some distinguished company. D.H. Lawrence found int he book “Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.” H.G. Wells called Ulysses a “dead end,” and Virginia Woolf labeled it “an illiterate, underbred book … the book of a self-taught working man.” Wyndham Lewis could detect only a vacuum at its core, “An absence of meaning, an emptiness of philosophic content, a poverty of new and disturbing observation” … After violating all of thenovel’s assumptions and expectations, Joyce replaced what was lost with a brilliant technical virtuosity pursued so relentlessly that even a supporter like Ford Madox Ford complained that “I am inclined to think that Mr. Joyce is riding his method to death.” Joyce himself contributed to the notion that the established compact between novelist and his audience has been altered and that his reader must rise to his demanding level, identifying his ideal reader as someone suffering “from an ideal insomnia,” and gleefully proclaiming that he put into Ulysses “so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” Many have been willing to let the scholars tuck in, while looking for their novelistic sustenance elsewhere in books more seemingly designed to be enjoyed rather than studied, to be read rather than reread.
Burt ranked Ulysses as the third-greatest novel of all time, and he clearly does not agree with the various critics of the work even while acknowledging the book’s high rating for difficulty, praising “its status as one of the supreme human documents in all of literature. NO other single day has been as fully or as brilliantly captured than [sic] June 16, 1904, nor has any novelist created a greater protagonist than Leopold Bloom…” I’ll give him the first point, but as for the second, I’m not so sure.
Bloom is fully realized, but he’s pathetic, a deviant, simpering ne’er-do-well with a stunning lack of awareness of the needs or even existence of people around him. Joyce put himself into both Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, but it’s almost as if by splitting his personality in two he created two incomplete characters, as Stephen himself has a dead quality to his moods and speeches, somewhere between disinterest and disengagement, as if he was barely even there to begin with. The lack of any compelling character limited my ability to connect with the book and enjoy the reading, as opposed to the superficial studying tactic I ultimately used.
To understand Ulysses on an initial read without any help, you would have to be an expert in Shakespeare and both books of the Bible, and familiar with English literature prior to the mid-1800s (as many books as I’ve read, I have never read any of what he’s parodied so far in the Oxen of the Sun section), Joyce’s Dubliners and Portrait of the Arist…, contemporary (for Joyce) Irish politics, Irish/English history, Irish slang at the turn of the last century, and Dublin geography. And the Odyssey, of course. And you’d have to have an enormous vocabulary, including a number of words no longer in common usage. It’s a book for polymaths. Or, it’s a book for the people whom polymaths think are “really smart.” I used The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires, an English theologian and literary critic who clearly reveres Joyce’s work, and brings to the reading not just insight and clarity but his own interpretation of religious symbolism and allegory in a work that, to me, was on the whole antireligious.
Joyce shifts styles in each section of the book, often parodying some long-forgotten narrative technique or the overblown vocabulary of an earlier era of literature. That alone makes Ulysses a literary tour de force, as there seems to be little dissent against those who argue that Joyce’s parodies hit their marks, although only two of those sections – those referred to under the Homeric structure as Circe and Cyclops – remained effective and impressive for me. Circe, the longest (by pages) section of the book, is written as a play, in an alley where Bloom’s and Stephen’s paths finally intersect, and where reality and hallucination are interwoven in a way that often leaves the question of what’s real incompletely answered. It’s inventive and crazy and often quite funny, from situation or from simple wordplay:
A PAVIOR AND A FLAGGER
That’s the famous Bloom now, the world’s greatest reformer. Hats off!
(All uncover their heads. Women whisper eagerly.)
(Richly.) Isn’t he simply wonderful?
(Nobly.) All that man has seen!
(Masculinely.) And done!
Joyce takes Bloom’s fears, hopes, memories, and dreams and brings them to life in the alley, putting Bloom on trial, making him a world-renowned reformer, giving voice to inanimate objects or form to intangible concepts, and he keeps it interesting by keeping everything moving, in stark contrast to most of the rest of the novel.
In the Cyclops section, meanwhile, Joyce is parodying people, notably the “one-eyed” outlook of extreme Irish nationalists, but even showing Stephen Dedalus (per Blamires) sympathetically while also exposing his inherent egotism and vanity. Joyce interrupts his own narrative with mock-epic passages to announce the arrival of a new character or a faux-newspaper bit about the transformation of a character’s dog. Even without the basis in prior literature* that might have exposed me to the works Joyce targeted, I could still derive humor from the exaggerations and the abrupt changes in tone that allowed me to alter the way I heard the narrator’s words.
The book’s concluding section is legendary for its own difficulty, even more difficult to read than the 700-odd pages that preceded it. It is the soliloquy of Molly Bloom*, eight brobdingnagian sentences that cover 45 pages and include no punctuation marks of any sort. I have to assume that Joyce did this as some sort of reaction to Marcel Proust’s own logorrheaic style (In Search of Lost Time wasn’t published in English until after Ulysses, but Joyce was fluent in French and lived on the Continent while Proust was still alive and writing), but Proust at least used apostrophes and comma and quotation marks, and his sentences, while long, run 70-80 words rather than Joyce/Molly’s 1500-2000.
*Seriously. I’ve read nearly 500 novels, a huge chunk of them English/British, but aside from Dickens Joyce didn’t seem to hit anyone I’ve really read.
There is a substantial amount of wordplay in Ulysses, much of it buried in seemingly innocuous sentences:
There ensued a somewhat lengthy pause. One man was reading by fits and starts a stained by coffee evening journal; another, the card with the natives choza de; another, the seaman’s discharge.
I don’t think I have a dirty mind, but there’s no way you’re convincing me that was accidental. And he’s funnier with double entendres, hidden meanings, or quiet asides than the truly raunchy parts that helped get the book banned in the U.S. for a decade, despite the fact that none of it meets a modern standard for “pornographic;” it includes brief, crude, graphic descriptions of sexual acts in ways that would probably make the typical reader want to never have sex again.
The problem with Ulysses, again, is that there’s no pleasure – for me, at least – in the reading. It was often dull, occasionally excruciating, intermittently funny, rarely quick, and never compelling. I didn’t care at all about what happened to the characters, and I was only interested in the plot during the Circe episode. I consider myself a pretty well-read person, but much of what Joyce was doing in Ulysses flew over my head, and I think the book’s foundations are set in dated materials and events that just won’t resonate with a modern reader. (Exception: Shakespeare, who gets plenty of screen time in Ulysses, but while I enjoy Slick Willie’s plays I’m not an expert on them and have only read or seen six in total.) It was worth reading for all the references and allusions in later works that I wouldn’t have otherwise caught – Berlin Alexanderplatz certainly makes more sense to me now – and for getting to check it off on my various booklists (including the Modern Library 100, where it was #1), but it’s not an experience I’m rushing to repeat.
Next up: Virginia Woolf’s response to Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, her own one-book-in-a-day novel but written in conventional prose with, to my eye so far, lower overall ambitions.