by James Joyce
Well, this one’s a doozy. I tried to prepare as best as I knew how, both by reading the Homeric epics beforehand and by waiting to attempt the lofty undertaking that is Ulysses until I had a bit of a grounding in literature that I lacked due to a similar lack of English in my educational past. But that, clearly, only helped me a bit. From some parallel reading since finishing the text, my understanding is that the only true way to break through and come to a true, deep realization of all the richness Joyce had to offer in Ulysses is to read it again and again, and I don’t know if I’m ready for that kind of commitment right now.
But I think I’m getting ahead of myself here. What’s Ulysses actually about? It’s basically a stream-of-consciousness account of an ordinary day in the life of one Leopold Bloom, a Dubliner from the early 1900s. We mainly inhabit Bloom as he experiences the world around him, but we also hop into other characters as they do the same, often in relation to Bloom (i.e. we see what others think about what he says and does from their perspectives). It’s probably the earliest modernist literature I’ve, personally, worked my way through and so, even if I emerged without understanding large swaths, I can appreciate its importance, in that, without it and other similar literature from the era, other literary movements that I love, such as the Beats, wouldn’t exist.
Despite this acknowledgement, Ulysses wasn’t exactly what I’d consider fun reading. It’s reading that required me to cart around a dictionary at all times, and even that only got me so far. For, it doesn’t just contain difficult vocabulary and numerous archaic terms, but words created from combinations of words, parts of words, and gratuitous prefixes and suffixes attached to these monstrosities. So you can imagine that, especially closer to the start, I’d have to sit there and lengthily ponder single words, making an already slow read considerably slower. But, you know, once I was able to get over this hump for sections and get into the flow of consciousness, I caught glimpses of Joyce’s genius. There were two “episodes” which were particularly striking to me in this manner, the first being the long section written almost like a stage production, with speakers and actions indicated as such, in which our principle characters were undergoing absinthe-induced hallucinations. Things were wild and a bit disturbing, yes, but the author was also able to make the worries and fears of these people apparent without being too on-the-nose, namely Bloom’s struggles with his sexual perversions and difficulties of fidelity in his marriage and another character’s guilt surrounding his mother’s death.
The second “episode” stood out even more significantly to me. Partway through Ulysses, we end up inhabiting an unnamed narrator, who not only, very clearly, has a low opinion of our protagonist, but who also trivializes what I’d consider very important things, such as public executions. This takes the form of over-the-top, ridiculous satire, the form of which I’ve come to think of as a Vidalian farce after reading Duluth. And it’s funny, at times laugh-out-loud hilarious, but then I slowly felt this sense of foreboding, even though the farce continues. It starts to turn into a discussion of nationalism, of mob mentality, about ugly prejudice, and things escalate, with Bloom barely escaping violent altercation––started just for the fact that he’s Jewish––and our narrator keeps on making light of the situation. Around then, it hit me: our narrator hates Bloom not for any actual, unforgivable flaws of his character, but for an artificial amplification of his flaws, caused precisely from this narrator’s perception of Bloom as a Jew.
And this isn’t by any means the only good I perceived in Ulysses; it’s just the most apparent to me now, the easiest to explain. When I see or hear others describe a book as “poetic,” Joyce’s writing here is what comes to mind to me. The story takes sudden leaps into passionate verse out of nowhere, with an author capturing a frantic beauty, with thoughts and ideas running, flowing together, bounding in and out of each other until we get an unexpected glimpse of lucidity, and everything feels right. It’s a tough read, yes, and a presumably tough sell, but I fully understand why people suggest that everyone should attempt it at least once.