on April 26, 2000
Ulysses is one of those big, mad bellwethers of a book that X will tell you is the biggest, best, most important blah blah blah and Y will tell you is a load of badly written tripe. Neither X nor Y tend to notice that the book consciously encourages both responses...but, well, I'll get back to the academic riffing in a minute.
I first tried to read Ulysses aged about 14 (I was an annoying little boy that way) and didn't get very far. The first three chapters are set in and around the mind of Stephen Dedalus, one of the most ridiculously clever and over-educated characters ever conceived, as he takes breakfast with some friends, teaches in a school some miles south of Dublin and walks along a beach. Along the way, his mind ruminates on subjects as diverse as 16th century underworld slang, his dead mother, and something he calls "the ineluctable modality of the visible" which I'm still struggling with. But he's a curiously ambiguous character, this Stephen; he fancies himself as a poet and rebel but when, on the beach, he picks his nose, he has a quick look around to see that nobody's watching before he smears the snot on a rock. (Joyce likes to poke fun at pretension this way - although he doesn't suggest that Stephen's ideas or rebel stance are completely hollow, either.)
The 14-year-old me didn't get that far. I gave up. It wasn't until I was 19 or so that I got as far as chapter four and encountered a Mr. Bloom, pottering around the kitchen making breakfast, that I started to get a grip. Bloom is one of the most likeable characters in fiction. He's a quiet, rather shy, oddly intelligent advertising salesman married to a voluptuous siren of a wife, Molly. Either you're prepared to go the distance with Bloom, or else cast the book aside with a hollow oath, because he's about to spend the entire day walking around Dublin. Nothing will happen except that a man will be buried, a baby will get born, and Bloom will help Stephen when the latter gets into a drunken fracas with some British soldiers. (Ireland was still part of the Union in 1904, and Dublin was a garrison town. Many non-Irish readers concentrate on Joyce's innovation or wit or technical whatever, but Joyce is extremely historically aware, and Ulysses, like all his other books, is riddled with the traces of English domination. These add to the book, rather than diminish it.)
Readers who like those clanky, tinpot contraptions known as "plots" may get a tad frustrated. Leaving aside Joyce's gifts for parody (a _tad_ too indulged, in my opinion), the, if you like, human interest in Ulysses is in the details of the to-ing and fro-ing between the characters. A quite banal conversation turns out to have all sorts of fascinating undercurrents; Bloom, who is Jewish and therefore even more of an outsider than Stephen, is extremely good at detecting the hints and shifts in the tones of the people he meets. He keeps running into two things that cause him particular discomfort: anti-Semitic remarks, and reminders that his wife is about to sleep with another man.
Ulysses is about language, but that makes it sound like it's some godawful lumbering doorstop written by an English professor. (John Barth, come on down!) It doesn't feel abstract at all; it's full of sights (the band of old sweat inside Bloom's hat), smells (restaurants, horse urine, flowers) and especially sounds (cats, printing presses, trams). I can't think of any other book which transports you so completely to a different place and time. (It might've helped that I grew up in Dublin and knew most of the places that Joyce is writing about.) Borges described Joyce's prose style, at least in the earlier half of the book, as "strong and delicate" and that's a good description.
As the day wears on, the book starts to rumble at the foundations and it lurches with increasing unpredictability from style to style. Joyce is making a point about language; that things are altered by the manner in which we describe them. This can get a bit wearisome after a while, but when it works well - as in the chapter where the doings of a young girl on a beach are narrated in the style of a girl's magazine story - it can be very funny and rather touching. The book closes with a mighty tour de force as Molly Bloom sits up and thinks about her life and her curious husband.
Okay, that's the beginner's guide. My personal opinion? It's the best Irish book, a constant wonder, irritation and delight to read, and a stunning effort of imagination and intelligence by the most significant and most lavishly talented Irish writer. 20th and 21st century Irish culture is unthinkable without it. I'm grateful that it's there. What else is to be said?
on April 24, 2000
This is a wonderfully crafted book -- the physical object, that is, and not just the text. (Because if you're willing to pay this much for a copy of "Ulysses" you obviously take that for granted.) The volume is larger in size than typical hardcover books today, meaning that the type is a decent readable size and the margins are generous (for the note jotting fiends among us). Great care has clearly been taken in the choice of paper and the sewn binding, which allows the book to lay flat during reading and insures years of re-reading. Although there is no dustjacket the cover is made of very durable material; various cover protectors can be found to stand in or, for the really paranoid, a slipcase can be made or found. It should be added that the text is presented as originally published, so there are no notes or glosses to help the first-time or casual reader; neither are the episodes keyed to any of the line numberings found in other editions. However, those wishing to refer to notes would be best off buying one of the helpful readers' companions by Gifford or Blamires anyway. In relation to other available editions, this one occupies a vast middle ground between the throwaway mass-market paperbacks on the one hand and the out-of-reach collectors' editions on the other. The book's durability and elegant though understated presentation should prove most attractive to those readers who intend to read the text again and again, whether for pleasure or for study. In short, this volume is a keeper.
on July 17, 2006
I have frequently heard Ulysses proclaimed the best book ever written, but I could never understand why. I purchased this edition of the novel three years ago, and since then it sat on my shelf, a mighty 900 page undertaking that I kept putting off. I was reluctant to read it, for I have often heard how difficult it was to get through. Finally, I have read it, and though I believe it presumptuous to call any one book "the best book of all time", I certainly believe that Ulysses could claim that title. First off, it is not a difficult read. If you could get through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, you can get through Ulysses. I heartily recommend this edition because of the brilliant introduction by Declan Kibard. Before I read Ulysses, I could not understand how this could be the best book of all time. According to my understanding, it was a novel detailing, in 900 pages, one day in the life of a Jewish Irishman, Leopold Bloom. A totally unremarkable day at that. After reading Kibard's introduction, I was fiercely eager to begin the novel. In his introduction, totally some 70 pages, Kibard answers the precise question I had: Why would this book be called the best of all time? This book is never boring, and is actually a quite enjoyable read. It is arranged in 18 chapters, and to me, the most astounding aspect of this piece of literature is the fact that every chapter is written in a different style. Joyce wanted to show that "originality" in terms of style was merely a new arrangement of previous styles, and so shows his brilliance as a writer by changing his technique and method completely in each chapter. It is indeed difficult to believe they were written by the same person. The styles are listed as: Narrative (Young), Catechism (Personal), Monologue (Male), Narrative (Mature), Narcissism, Incubism, Enthymemic, Peristaltic, Dialectic, Labyrinth, Fuga per canonem, Gigantism, Tumescence detumescence, Embryonic development, Hallucination, Narrative (Old), Catechism (Impersonal), Monologue (Female). Some chapters, such as the Cyclops, done in Gigantism, are deliciously satirical and overdone, while others, such as the Lotus-eaters, are sharp and direct. Though Joyce is often called a "stream of consciousness writer", only a few chapters are the truly chaotic stream of consciousness, such as the Oxen of the Sun, the Proteus, and the Sirens. The culmination of absurdity and abstraction occurs in the massive Circe chapter, a play styled as a hallucination in the brothels of Dublin. This novel is nearly impossible to take in with just one reading, and I will be reading it again shortly. On this note, I would say that I heartily recommend reading Ulysses straight through in its original form, rather than labouring under the weight of the hefty annotated edition. A true masterpiece, one of the best books I've ever read, and yes, quite possibly the best book ever written.
on September 10, 2003
O.k. to start with...for all of you out there who are interested in reading "Ulysses" but are intimidated by all of the rest of you out there who say it's unreadable, take my advice. Read this book. It's absolutely ridiculous to say this book can't be read. I can't say you're going to find it interesting or enjoyable, but you can read it.
There are people who would have you believe you have to wage a massive campaign of pre-"Ulysses" study before delving into Joyce's novel. I've heard it's necessary to read biographies of Joyce, read all of his other literature, read about the history of Dublin, read Greek mythology...even study Dublin city maps!!! Don't you believe any of this. "Ulysses" is perfectly approachable having read none of the above. I admit that reading "Portrait of the Artist" first is helpful, and at least having some passing knowledge of "The Odyssey" won't hurt, but being familiar with these other works will only help you appreciate some of Joyce's nuances. Being unfamiliar with them will not prevent you from digesting "Ulysses."
Now, for the book itself. Is "Ulysses" good? That's become an almost irrelevant question to ask. Do you have to like "Ulysses?" No. Do you have to admit that it is the greatest novel ever written? No. Anyone denying that the book was influential in altering the course of literature would just be foolish. However, I don't think "Ulysses" is the be-all and end-all of 20th Century literature, and the new ground that Joyce broke would have been broken anyway had he not done it first. He was certainly an innovator, but other authors (Faulkner comes to mind) use Joyce's modernist approach to fiction and do it better.
For ultimately, Joyce is a lousy storyteller. Notice I did not say he is a lousy writer. One can't deny the absolute mastery of language apparent in "Ulysses." But Joyce is almost completely unable to connect with his reader. Parts of this novel come close to doing just that, but in between there are vast numbers of pages of dull, dull prose that set out to be as incomprehensible as possible. What was Joyce afraid of? Was he scared that what he actually had to say wasn't either particulary interesting or profound, so he had to bury it underneath layer after layer of obscure allusions and writing styles? I didn't understand every part of "Ulysses," and I don't believe all of these so-called Joyce experts do either, despite the massive amount of critical study done about it. However, understanding every single part of the novel and understanding the novel are two different things, and I believe I understood "Ulysses." And what I found is that it's not the beast everyone's made it out to be, but neither is it particulary interesting or profound.
In short, I would recommend that everyone read "Ulysses," if for no other reason than that you can have an opinion on it. I won't be reading it again, so I guess I'll have to just live in ignorance of all the hidden delights Joyce offers his readers. I neither loved it or hated it---there are many books I've enjoyed reading less and many more books I've enjoyed reading much more. Before reading "Ulysses" I was reluctant to state that I didn't like Joyce's writing, feeling that any opinion about Joyce without having read his masterwork would be uneducated. Well, I've read the damn thing now, and I can state with a very educated opinion: "I do not like Joyce's writing."
on November 24, 1999
I had heard about Ulysses all through my literature-loving youth. When I was 16 or so, I tried to find Ulysses in the St. Cloud Technical High School Library. It was listed in the card catalog, but it was never on the shelves. Finally, I asked the prim-and-proper old biddy librarian where the book was. She fairly shuddered and asked me with a cockeyed combination of excitement and accusation "why" I wanted to read it. I told her I'd heard it was a great book and so please hand it over. Sure enough, it was in a back room and the old battleaxe crept forth with the book, jacketed in a beautiful red. At home I opened it and tried to make sense out of the first page. I dipped around in it and finally threw it hard as I could against the wall of my bedroom. "This is gibberish junk!" I said to myself. Later, I kept hearing more about the book and thought, "well, maybe I'm just dumb," which really teed me off. One day I found a book called "Re-Joyce" by Anthony Burgess (of Clockwork Orange fame). He was a Joyce fanatic and wrote a book about how to read Ulysses. And so I read Re-Joyce as I read Ulysses and, wonder of wonders, what an experience! That was back in 1965. I still read Ulysses. It's the one book I re-read more than any other. Oh, and when I look back, way back to my high school library, I know now how Joyce would have roared with merriment at that biddy librarian. He would have been honored in his sly way to see his naughty book kept behind that bun-haired spinster's iron petticoats. Don't give up on Ulysses! Get the Burgess book as a guide, or the Gilbert guide. But don't give up. Riches, great riches, await you!
on April 19, 2001
The Orchises Press edition stands out for three reasons. The first is that it reproduces--with impressive attention to detail--the first edition of Joyce's novel. The second reason is that the large, widemargined pages add the pleasure of reading to the pleasure of reading Ulysses (there is something missing, after all, in the insubstantial, tinytype levity of the paperback editions). Finally, the weight of the paper, the strength of the binding makes this edition one that will last (and you will not, as with the paperback editions, be forced to transcripe all your notes from a book that falls apart after three readings). For those who seek the "authenticity" of a first edition, who admire Joyce or who will be studying the novel for years to come, this is the edition to buy.
on July 26, 2005
Stuff you probably want to know:
1. It's read by two people: one guy, who does absolutely everything (including Molly) up till the last chapter, then the last chapter, which is read entirely by a woman.
2. The guy is supremely talented at reading. It's a dramatic reading, in which he imitates the voices of the others and tries to get into it. I would regard his imitation of the voices of others as supremely believable.
3. He has a light British accent (London), but switches to a convincing Irish brogue when reading straight spoken dialogue for most characters. Excellent French and Latin pronunciation. His Italian and Spanish are less successful. The woman is certifiably Irish.
4. There are no sound effects (footsteps, keys, etc.), but there are a few songs interlarded, usually at the beginning of each CD.
5. If you're a Joyce scholar, you are doubtless using the Gabler edition of 1986, WHICH WASN'T THE EDITION USED FOR THIS. I think they're actually using the 1922 edition! Anyhow, this is a constant irritant for serious Joyce fanatics, as, since you are doubtless using Gabler, there'll be something in almost every paragraph that's just a whit different. It's a constant distraction, alas!
6. He reads it a little fast for my taste (especially in Circe).
7. Yes, it is totally unabridged.
8. There are 22 CD's total.
9. You should buy it. I had read Ulysses twice before I got it, and going through it with this CD set really opened up the book to me, in a way I couldn't have gotten with any other type of ancillary aid. It was like reading the book for the first time! Wasn't so incomprehensible after all!
I should warn you that one thing you might find thoroughly infuriating is that the title tracks / id tags of the CD tracks are totally in chaos. It's so bizarre, it smacks of sabotage. (For example, the title track of the 1st track of the 2nd (!) CD is: "Time for lunch. 1 p.m. After Dignam's funeral . . ." While the actual content is the "ineluctable modality of the visible" passage. It's craaaaazy!
Rest assured, this is just the names your computer sees: everything is there, and in the correct order. My point is that if you plan on porting everything over to your iPod, you're gonna have some tedious clerical work ahead of you.
on October 12, 1998
There's probably not much about Ulysses that hasn't already been said, but having just spent well over a month of my free time struggling through this book I thought I would put my two cents in.
In my opinion, Judge John M. Woolsey's synopsis in his 1933 ruling on the work's obscenity charge sums up the book almost perfectly. It is indeed an astonishing achievement and a literary tour de force. It is, as he says, by turns brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure. And of course it is unprecedented in its exceptionally honest treatment of sexuality.
I really can't agree with his contention, however, that every word of the book is purposeful in its contribution to the whole. In some ways, particularly the incredible realism of its characters' interior monologues and its ability to make a particular place and time come alive for the reader, Ulysses is perhaps the most well-written novel I've ever read. In other ways, namely Joyce's frequent inability to resist showing off his erudition and mastery of language, it is one of the worst and often cries out for editing. While there's not a word of Hades, Wandering Rocks or Penelope I would change, some other chapters (e.g., Cyclops, Oxen of the Sun, and Ithaca) become downright tedious despite their conceptual ingenuity and flashes of brilliance. Additionally, the book is sometimes cloyingly self-referential, plausibility too often bows to symbolism, and many of Joyce's allusions are so esoteric or ambiguous that they can only serve to distract the reader. While it has faults (and despite the book's deification in literary circles, I can't see any other way to characterize many of its quirks and stylistic excesses), Ulysses is nonetheless well worth the exceptional effort required to read it due to its penetrating and poignant illumination of human desires, delusions and relationships. As an added plus, at many points it is nothing less than hilarious.
Personally I found it very helpful to listen to a recording of the text on audio to get through the book (the version narrated by Donal Donnelly and Miriam Healy-Louie published by Classics on Cassette is extremely well done), as twice previously I had attempted to read it without such support and couldn't get beyond six or seven chapters. I would also suggest having at hand an unabridged dictionary, a book of scholarly annotations, and especially Harry Brimes' Bloomsday book for those passages where, despite your best efforts, you still can't figure out what the heck is going on (occasionally Brimes can't either).
Four stars may seem niggardly for a masterpiece, but I'm comparing it with King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov. If you're an Irish Catholic literary scholar with doctorates in western religion and etymology and an upcoming sabbatical, by all means add half a star.
on July 15, 2004
I have listened in the past to the taped rendition of Ulysses, and I pushed my way through it for the bragging rights. This new version is just so superb and so amazing in its vitality.
While at times Ulysses is still a challenge to grasp, I can guarantee that the whole book is much more comprehensible, and wonderful, to hear it read so well. It suddenly makes sense.
As a by-the-way, the Naxos packaging is second only to Apple's iPod in the pleasure I got from handling it and opening it.
on July 6, 2001
There is not a book out there that is more frustrating than James Joyce's Ulysses...unless, of course, it is Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. The problem lies in the fact that this novel is such an amazing piece of art that the reader can feel like Joyce forgot all about him. It is almost impossible to read by oneself with it's seemingly garbled maze of words and phrases and madness. However, this is what makes it such a joy to read. Imagine that an author decided to do away with any and all rules concerning fiction and to write a book that was it's own entity, showing you what it wanted to show you, telling you what it wanted to tell you and acting like its own character. This is what Joyce has accomplished with Ulysses. I was fortunate enough to read this book in a class, four months of nothing but Ulysses, and I have to warn would be readers that I don't think I would have made it through without expert guidance. I would advise anyone wishing to tackle this literary giant to gather some book loving friends, and a guidebook or two for Ulysses, and to take it very slowly. Read a chapter a week and then meet up with you group to discuss and puzzle out what you have just read. I am willing to bet that your weekly conversations will be a greater work of art than any book out there, and I think that Joyce would have liked that, would have enjoyed sparking debates and conversation, its probably the main reason why anyone creates anything; for it to be enjoyed and shared. The story line is simple, you have two main characters, Stephen Dedalus, the brilliant but alienated loner. You have Leopold Bloom, a simple man who is as alienated as Stephen, but not for his mind, for his cultural background and meek manner. The entire book takes place over the course of one day in Dublin, and after the first three chapters the entire book simply follows Bloom around during a day when he knows that his wife is having a romantic meeting with her lover. It is hard to sum up such a giant book in a few sentences like this, but basically Bloom is trying to set his life back on track, trying to reconcile himself with his wife's betrayal, and trying to reach out to Stephen who he feels could use a loving family. Of course, you could read this book and not find any of what I am saying in there, but the beauty of Ulysses is that I would love to hear what it is that you found in this novel as much as I would love sharing what I found.