Monday, November 29, 2010

Ulysses, a Masterpiece, and My New Sixth Favorite Novel for Men

UlyssesSo, I've done it. I've read Ulysses from beginning to end, finding parallels between the characters in Joyce's portrait of Dublin and Homer's epic of Ulysses' return to Ithaca after the Trojan War; slogging through the difficult chapters told in stream of consciousness; jumping from character to character as Leopold Bloom makes his way across Dublin at midday; patiently wading through Joyce's mockery of various affected styles of English prose; enduring the staccato-like catechism (which was apparently Joyce's favorite part of the novel); and winding up with Molly Bloom's internal soliloquy, which is without punctuation and so full of bodily functions and sexual fantasies that it would make even a sailor blush. I didn't do it alone, mind you--I had a Princeton professor to guide me--but it's done. And at the end of the day, I've emerged exhausted, but with a profound respect for Joyce as an artist, as a visionary, but most of all as a humanist.

There are too many dimensions to Ulysses to try to capture more than a handful in any reasonable review, so I won't even try. Joyce himself famously said that, with respect to Ulysses, he had "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." I'm focused here on the three aspects of the novel that impressed me most. In no particular order, they are as follows:

1. Recognizing the epic in the everyday. Ulysses takes place over the course of one day--June 16, 1904--in which Joyce follows first Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's alter-ego and the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and then Leopold Bloom (the protagonist of Ulysses) as they make their way separately from their respective homes, through the streets of Dublin on a variety of errands, toward an unanticipated reunion in the wee hours of the night. The story relies for its structure on Homer's epic, The Odyssey, which first follows Telemachus (Ulysses' son) as he leaves home to search for his absent father, and then Ulysses as he returns to his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War. Numerous episodes recounted in The Odyssey have their corollaries in Ulysses, including (among many others) a humorous take on Homer's sirens and an encounter with a (then) modern-day cyclops, myopic in his view of Irish identity and his own racial superiority.  Part of Joyce's genius is in showing that, viewed from the proper perspective, every life is an epic every bit as adventuresome as that of Ulysses.

2. Innovation in style. Though the original story was serialized and then published as a whole in only three parts, Joyce himself later accepted the addition of 18 Odyssey-derived episode headings. Nearly every episode exhibits a different literary style or character perspective, from stream of consciousness to newspaper headlines to mock Olde English to mythological description to question and answer (the catechism), from the head of Stephen Dedalus to Leopold Bloom to various characters in the Dublin street to an unnamed observer in a Dublin bar to young Gerty on the beach to Molly Bloom's final soliloquy. To anyone that has not read the work, this would appear to be an impossible, chaotic jumble of storytelling techniques and perspectives, sure to derail the main story. But Joyce makes it work, partly because the story that he tells is so simple and straightforward and human (see below) that the reader can easily follow along with a little patience and, if necessary (as in my case), some study. The mix of technique is shocking to modern readers--I can only imagine what it must have seemed to readers in the 1920's--but once you get the hang of it, Joyce's genius really shines through.

3. Daring to tell a story that is human in every respect. As mentioned briefly above, there are more references to bodily functions and sexual fantasy in Ulysses than perhaps in any other book that I have ever read. And while I generally view the overuse of sex or potty humor as a cheap device designed to pander to a lower readership, I think just the opposite is true in Ulysses.  Joyce used the embarrassments and oddities and fetishes of every day to create not only believeable characters, but characters that you would swear that you know personally, even thought they are removed from modern life by an ocean and a century.  The same is true of the misunderstandings, petty jealousies, lethargy, and persecutions that sap their and our strength day after day--theirs are yours and vice versa.  This is Joyce's greatest trick in my opinion: allowing the reader to see him or herself in not only a single character, but in all the main characters of the work, male and female alike.

As a modern reader of what has been often deemed the greatest novel ever written in the English language, the only criticism that I have of Ulysses is that it is too historically tied to the issue of Irish nationalism.  The references to English oppression and the roots of Sinn Fein make the work somewhat less relevant to the modern reader than it might otherwise be.  At the same time, given that one of Ulysses' main themes is usurpation, I am not sure that it could have been written any other way.  And it is for this reason alone that I place it sixth among my personal recommendations of novels for men--those that sit above it (and many that sit below it) are more enduring as expressions of universal human experience not tied to a particular time or place.  This takes nothing away from the work itself, of course--it is undeniably a masterpiece--but reflects only my own personal view.  I hope that in these lines I've persuaded more people to give Ulysses the old college try.  In any case, let me know what you think of Ulysses, whether you've read it or not.

As a result of my experience with Ulysses, I have ordered an old, well-thumbed library copy of Finnegans Wake, which I am resolved to pick up (and review) at some point in the near future.  If anyone has a recommendation for a critical review, please pass it along--I know that I'm going to need it.  In the meantime, I need a little break.           


  1. Bravo! Congratulations!
    You are obviously a far better reader than I; I finished Ulysses feeling like I had been in battle and as a result did not enjoy it.

  2. Hats off to you, sir - both for finishing the novel, and then also for writing such a terrific exposition of it. You really brought a novel I'm terrified of down to Earth - and, even after my Gravity's Rainbow experience, almost willing to give it a try. I still need some time, though. Well, time and some help from Princeton, too! ;) Cheers!

  3. R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Maybe you can now take one of the many Ulysses tours in Dublin, which follow his footsteps?

  4. @Suzanne - Thanks! But I'm definitely not a better reader than anyone. I picked up Finnegans Wake a few years back and put it back down feeling completely bewildered and beaten, but the scholarly input on Ulysses really helped to make a difficult story (and style) more understandable.

    @Greg - Thanks for the kind words. I'd love to hear what you think of it! The experience makes me think that I'm almost ready to go after Infinite Jest again. Gravity's Rainbow, I'm afraid, still scares me.

    @Alex - Thank you, Alex. I did this whole thing backwards - I started Ulysses just after we came back from Ireland about six months ago. And we were there June 6-16, just AFTER Bloom's Day, which is celebrated every year on June 4. I definitely need to go back.

  5. Read & loved this a few/many years ago now, in fact can probably trace my love of stream of consciousness literature partly to this. Reading your post brough it back to me.

  6. I'm so glad to see something positive on Ulysses! I admit I haven't tackled this one yet, though the Joyce I have read I really enjoyed. It seems like those who read Ulysses with no help hate it, and those who read it with help love it.

  7. A correction to my response to Alex above --Bloom's Day is celebrate on June 16 (not June 4 as I erroneously have it above), which means we were there June 18-28 or thereabouts.

  8. @parrish lantern - I'm glad I could bring back a pleasant memory. I've always dabbled in stream of consciousness - mostly the Beat Generation writers like Kerouac, Burroughs, Kesey - but Ulysses has made a full-fledged fan out of me too.

    @IngridLola - Thanks for the comment. I think that's a fair assessment - you'd have to be very steeped in Homer and Irish history (not to mention an aficionado of many literary styles) to really get Ulysses without some outside help. I was struggling until I brought in the reinforcements.

  9. This is truly my favorite novel, but I can definitely appreciate the struggle to get through it. Took me several, several tries to get going, but now I've completed it twice and plan to read it again next June. A book that certainly rewards multiple readings and further exploration. Congrats!