I loved Ulysses
so much that I'm sad it’s over. Sad also that if I want to read more Joyce, I have to read Finnegans Wake, and that’s not likely to happen any time soon. I’ve been curious about this book since I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school years ago. My teacher went on at length about Leopold Bloom’s journey through a day in Dublin as a parallel to Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca, how a bar of soap in Bloom’s pocket had its own journey to mirror Bloom’s and Odysseus’s, etc. It all sounded both difficult to understand and a little insane, which, now that I’ve finally read it, I think are fair assessments. Books have been written about Ulysses
, as well as some excellent reviews on Goodreads, and I’m not going to attempt to review it comprehensively. Instead I want to talk about a couple of things which surprised me about it. Ulysses
is known for its stream of consciousness style (although it is only one of the many styles Joyce employs). At first this style feels random and chaotic, which isn’t surprising, given that there is a certain randomness to the millions of stimuli we process and think about during a day. As the novel progresses, however, it becomes obvious that almost nothing is really random here. Everything from Bloom’s travels, to the things he sees and considers, to the wandering soap is extremely structured. The characters' most minor thoughts, even when they are just little details that are noticed and dismissed in a sentence fragment (Bloom in the Lestrygonians episode noticing food-related things everywhere, for example), are all relevant to the whole.
You can find the Joyce-approved analysis of the novel printed many places and on Wikipedia, which outlines the symbol, art, color and so forth for each chapter, but this isn’t so much what interested me about the structure. The symbolic interpretation didn’t contribute much to the enjoyment of the novel for me. What I found more striking is that the organization is present down to the level of sentence fragments which keep coming back like little melodies that are strange at first, but after frequent repetition start to make sense, and even help anchor the prose. In the Sirens chapter, this is especially apparent. The first few pages are a confusing mess of ideas until you realize that they are phrases from the chapter to come, and then some of those phrases (for example, “Bronze by gold”) reappear later in the novel. Joyce puts the reader in a strange world where very little makes sense at times, but in this huge and complex novel I had the feeling that everything was there intentionally. The structure keeps things from going haywire, and made the novel easier and easier to read the further I got into it.
The other thing I wasn’t expecting was how funny this book was. I even googled “Is Ulysses supposed to be funny,” and felt a little better when I found that Joyce wrote to Ezra Pound complaining that he wished the critics had said how “damn funny” it was. The critics had a lot of other things to talk about, presumably, or maybe Joyce was being ironic, but at any rate, I thought parts of it were hilarious. His parodies and pastiches of prose styles from the Bible to legal and scientific jargon to Dickens to catechistic exposition are dead-on. These are woven into the story without missing a beat. At times he couples those styles with his insane, elephantine lists, like his anthropological style description of a Dublin resident whose “nether extremities were encased in high Balbriggan buskins dyed in lichen purple. . . From his girdle hung a row of seastones which dangled at every movement of his portentous frame and on these were graven with rude yet striking art the tribal images of many Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity” as well as images of at least fifty other people, from Dante Alighieri to Christopher Columbus to Lady Godiva to The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. Why Joyce does these things isn’t always clear, but once I got into the spirit of it, it was a lot of fun.
One of the more amusing episodes is the Nausicaa chapter, told from the standpoint of 17 year old Gerty MacDowell in the style of a Victorian romance novel or magazine, but with Gerty’s less admirable thoughts intruding from time to time. Throughout the chapter Gerty’s more earthly musings compete with the high-flown Victorian narrative.
The waxen pallor of [Gerty’s] face was almost spiritual in its ivorylike purity though her rosebud mouth was a genuine Cupid’s bow, Greekly perfect. Her hands were of finely veined alabaster with tapering fingers and as white as lemon juice and queen of ointments could make them though it was not true that she used to wear kid gloves in bed or take a milk footbath either. Bertha Supple told that once to Edy Boardman, a deliberate lie, when she was black out at daggers drawn with Gerty (the girl chums had of course their little tiffs from time to time like the rest of mortals) and she told her not let on whatever she did that it was her that told her or she’d never speak to her again. No. Honour where honour is due. There was an innate refinement, a languid queenly hauteur about Gerty which was unmistakably evidenced in her delicate hands and higharched instep.Ulysses
is notorious for its difficulty, and I did find parts of it tough going. Joyce alludes to a wide variety of topics, so many that probably few modern readers (or even his contemporaries) would catch every one. Joyce seems to know about everything - Greek and Irish mythology, Catholic mass parts, opera, medieval church musical modes, Irish nationalist songs, Irish nationalist history, Hamlet, Yeats, scientific theories, medicine (I think there may have even been a prescription in Latin), not to mention the long list of literary styles he parodies. There were untranslated phrases in at least eight languages I could identify and probably a couple more I wasn’t sure of. These phrases were often in slang or misspelled, probably deliberately.
It all sounds crazy, but with the help of Google Translate, the dictionary, and Wikipedia, it really wasn’t that bad. I did not use a guide or annotated edition because I didn’t want to disrupt reading it too much, but I had a low threshold to look up anything I found confusing. I also referred to Paul Bryant’s wonderful chapter-by-chapter review (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/6752242) after each episode. I can see why Ulysses
is not for everyone. It certainly required more patience and effort than most books, but I thought it was absolutely worth it. And happily I’ll be able to read it several times and keep finding things I’ve missed.