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Ulysses Paperback – December 7, 2013
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Ulysses has been labeled dirty, blasphemous, and unreadable. In a famous 1933 court decision, Judge John M. Woolsey declared it an emetic book--although he found it sufficiently unobscene to allow its importation into the United States--and Virginia Woolf was moved to decry James Joyce's "cloacal obsession." None of these adjectives, however, do the slightest justice to the novel. To this day it remains the modernist masterpiece, in which the author takes both Celtic lyricism and vulgarity to splendid extremes. It is funny, sorrowful, and even (in a close-focus sort of way) suspenseful. And despite the exegetical industry that has sprung up in the last 75 years, Ulysses is also a compulsively readable book. Even the verbal vaudeville of the final chapters can be navigated with relative ease, as long as you're willing to be buffeted, tickled, challenged, and (occasionally) vexed by Joyce's sheer command of the English language.
Among other things, a novel is simply a long story, and the first question about any story is: What happens?. In the case of Ulysses, the answer might be Everything. William Blake, one of literature's sublime myopics, saw the universe in a grain of sand. Joyce saw it in Dublin, Ireland, on June 16, 1904, a day distinguished by its utter normality. Two characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, go about their separate business, crossing paths with a gallery of indelible Dubliners. We watch them teach, eat, stroll the streets, argue, and (in Bloom's case) masturbate. And thanks to the book's stream-of-consciousness technique--which suggests no mere stream but an impossibly deep, swift-running river--we're privy to their thoughts, emotions, and memories. The result? Almost every variety of human experience is crammed into the accordian folds of a single day, which makes Ulysses not just an experimental work but the very last word in realism.
Both characters add their glorious intonations to the music of Joyce's prose. Dedalus's accent--that of a freelance aesthetician, who dabbles here and there in what we might call Early Yeats Lite--will be familiar to readers of Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man. But Bloom's wistful sensualism (and naive curiosity) is something else entirely. Seen through his eyes, a rundown corner of a Dublin graveyard is a figure for hope and hopelessness, mortality and dogged survival: "Mr Bloom walked unheeded along his grove by saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults, stone hopes praying with upcast eyes, old Ireland's hearts and hands. More sensible to spend the money on some charity for the living. Pray for the repose of the soul of. Does anybody really?" --James Marcus --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Ulysses will immortalize its author with the same certainty that Gargantua immortalized Rabelais, and The Brothers Karamazov immortalized Dostoyevsky.... It comes nearer to being the perfect revelation of a personality than any book in existence."
-The New York Times
"To my mind one of the most significant and beautiful books of our time."
-Gilbert Seldes, in The Nation
"Talk about understanding "feminine psychology"-- I have never read anything to surpass it, and I doubt if I have ever read anything to equal it."
"In the last pages of the book, Joyce soars to such rhapsodies of beauty as have probably never been equaled in English prose fiction."
-Edmund Wilson, in The New Republic --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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?
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."
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