Rating: 4 Stars
So, I’ve done it.
I’ve read Ulysses. This is a major milestone on the road to my final goal, which is reading Finnegan’s Wake. Having completed Ulysses, I have to say that that final destination has never looked further away.
Usually I try to start a book post off with a quick plot summary. I’m not even going to bother, other than to say that it’s a day in the life of Leopold Bloom. The rest of this blog is probably just going to be a random set of thoughts, which is probably appropriate considering the subject material.
Back in 1998, the Modern Library published the list of 100 best novels of the 20th century. Not all that surprising, Ulysses topped the list. Somehow, I don’t remember how it happened, way back before Facebook and Twitter, but the list went viral. Back in those days, Amazon was still primarily known as a bookseller. Accordingly, for a short period of time, Ulysses was the number one bestselling book on Amazon. Even at that time, I found that fact to be quite amusing. I can just picture, I don’t know, possibly tens of thousands of people saying to themselves, well, if this is the best book, then I must read it. A week later or so (remember, this was before Prime), it’d showed up on their front door step, they’d crack it open, and there must have been a collective “Holy, What the Fuck” tidal wave of opinion crashing across America.
Even more amusing, due to feedback regarding the closed process of how the 100 best novels were selected, Modern Library later did a reader’s choice list based upon popular vote. The main winners? Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard. In case you needed any further evidence of the general internet audience composition in the year 1998.
I think it was T.S. Eliot who said that all literature is contained within Ulysses. I have no doubt. One section is written in the form of a play. Another section is written in the form of a catechism. Another section is pure stream of consciousness. Yet another section encapsulates the entire history of literature temporally. It starts off in Latinate prose, moves on to Anglo-Saxon, parodies the King James bible, Bunyan, Gibbon, Dickens, and finally ending up in early twentieth century Irish slang. All the while it’s doing this, it’s still telling the story of Bloom’s day. It’s an absolutely brilliant tour de force, although possibly at an insane level. I read a review on Goodreads where the reviewer said something like, she was awed at the brilliance of the novel but also wanted to dig Joyce up, resurrect him, and then beat him to death. I have to admit there were times when I could relate to that.
All of the time that he’s doing this, he’s juggling multiple themes. The overarching theme is, if you know anything about it at all, the retelling of the Ulysses. Instead of the conquering hero desperately trying to return home to his wife and son, you have an inconsequential man kind of wandering around Dublin. At the same time though, each section (as I’ve just described) is focused on a different aspect of literature. Each section also usually is based on a color. Each section is also based upon an organ (ie heart, kidney, stomach, etc).
Of course, one of the themes is Ireland itself. As Bloom wanders around Dublin, Joyce takes special care to exactly, precisely, minutely detail where and what he’s doing. In one of the supporting materials that I used while reading it, references that Joyce made can be traced specifically back to a house or to a shop on a specific street in Dublin in the year 1904. Considering the fact that this was way before the internet, he was writing Ulysses ten years (or more) after 1904, and living in continental Europe, this seems to me to be an amazing feat. Did he have a prodigious memory or access to materials or friends that could confirm its authenticity? This extends beyond Dublin’s geography. He also included a vast array of Irish mythology and Irish politics. He wasn’t just trying to write the great novel but he wanted to write the great Irish novel. He wanted to place Irish literature in the same sphere as English.
At the same time, he’s slips in low brow humor, including phrase such as, “If you see Kay, tell him he may see you in tea”. If not obvious, speak aloud the first four words and the last four words in the phase. He uses low slang for sex, body parts, condoms, etc.
And, oh yeah, by the way, the last page or so of the novel is absolutely breathtaking in its beauty. Seriously. It’s possibly the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever read.
Pretty clearly there are many aspects of Ulysses that have inspired other authors. Samuel Beckett (who was Joyce’s secretary at one time) certainly later made heavy use of stream of consciousness. Numbingly long lists of items (on a variety of subjects) shows up in multiple places, most recently for me as I was reading Danielewski’s House of Leaves. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the absolutely immersive nature of Ulysses is later found in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Ulysses is patient zero for a number of trends that unfolded in the literary world during the remaining part of the twentieth century.
Maybe now you’re starting to see Eliot’s point. There is possibly everything that is literary encompassed within the pages of Ulysses (well, with the possible exception of the graphic novel, which maybe didn’t exist at that point yet). It’s truly a breathtaking work of a genius that really can’t even be imagined.
So, why the four stars? Well, as brilliant as it is, there is no getting around the fact that it’s also, unless you’re willing to spend quite literally your entire life diving deep into its complexities and nuances, not an enjoyable read.
In an earlier essay, I hearkened it to climbing Mt Everest. I have a friend that’s a serious biker and she abides by the rules of the Velominati (it’s a thing, look it up).
Rule #5 is: Harden the Fuck Up.
So, if people ask me why I read Ulysses, when it was such a long, difficult, and not in any conventional sense, an enjoyable experience, I’d have say that I did it because of Rule #5.