Blog | Literature

James Joyce: Ulysses

. 3 min read

I finally entered the pantheon of readers who have read James Joyce's Ulysses. I first had a go at it when I was at university, having read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners, both of which I loved, but like many people I got stuck (no, not on the first page) having read about one fifth of the novel. However, I was determined to one day give it another try. For years it sat staring at me from my bookshelf surrounded by ever more other books. Over the years it turned from a book I wanted to read into a book I still hadn't read. Every now and then I would look at its spine, but each time I decided to read another book first. A few weeks ago, for no reason whatsoever, I just picked it up and started reading, a dictionary by my side and various online reading guides at hand.

What can I say? It is a marvelous novel of dazzling ingenuity and verbal wizardry. Yes, some passages are pretty incomprehensible and at times I did find myself ploughing through, I found chapter 15 and 16 particularly hard going, but then I would happen upon another beautiful expression or twist of phrase that made it all worthwhile.

Now that I have finished it I feel kind of empty and sad. I know this sounds strange, but to me reading Ulysses is something on par with visiting the Grand Canyon or the Prado. It really is a high point of human creativity and as such one of the wonders of the universe. However, there are still plenty of things to look forward to. I still have to read A la recherche du temps perdu, of which I've only read Du côté de chez Swann, and William Gaddis' The Recognitions; I also still hope to visit the Hermitage one day and I have yet to go to Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat.

What are your favourite chapters?

Chapter 9, the library chapter in which Stephen Dedalus expounds his theory about Shakespeare's Hamlet; chapter 10, which gives a real sense of a hectic city; chapter 11, the musical chapter, and of course chapter 17, the question and answer chapter. Like James Joyce, Georges Perec, David Foster Wallace and Jorge Luis Borges I love lists. I love reading lists and making lists, in case that wasn't obvious yet, and given that it is full of lists it won't come as a surprise that it is one of my favourite episodes. It is the chapter in which Joyce's verbal wizardry is perhaps most visible and digestible. It is also the most David Foster Wallace-like chapter. Simple events are caught in highly verbose descriptions, for example when Leopold Bloom turns on the tap, we get a description of the water flowing from the local reservoir through all the pipes and into the tap and when he puts on the kettle its boiling is described in scientific terms. It is the one chapter that I have instantly reread just to taste the words. It is also immensely funny, at least on several occasions I found myself chuckling, though not ROTFLMAO.

"What action did Bloom make on their arrival at their destination?

At the housesteps of the 4th of the equidifferent uneven numbers, number 7 Eccles street, he inserted his hand mechanically into the back pocket of his trousers to obtain his latchkey.

(..)

Was it there?

It was in the corresponding pocket of the trousers which he had worn on the day but one preceding.

Why was he doubly irritated?

Because he had forgotten and because he remembered that he had reminded himself twice not to forget.

What were then the alternatives before the, premeditatedly (respectively) and inadvertently, keyless couple?

To enter or not to enter. To knock or not to knock."  (779)

(..)

"How did he elucidate the mystery of an invisible person, his wife Marion (Molly) Bloom, denoted by a visible splendid sign, a lamp?

With indirect and direct verbal allusions or affirmations: with subdued affection and admiration: with description: with impediment: with suggestion." (824)

(..)

"What suddenly arrested his ingress?

The right temporal lobe of the hollow sphere of his cranium came into contact with a solid timber angle where, an infinitesimal but sensible fraction of a second later, a painful sensation was located in consequence of antecedent sensations transmitted and registered." (828)

Ulysses is a demanding novel and you need a good grasp of literature and indeed the history of Western civilization up to the early 20th century to appreciate the many allusions and citations. Don't let that put you off. It's also hilariously funny and a feast of linguistic inventiveness. In spite of all its cleverness it's also a book about some very human feelings: jealousy, pride, doubt and remorse. The best way to approach it is to forget about all the weight that has piled on top of it and to just read it.