Some Opening Comments on Joyce’s Ulysses

As long-time readers may recall, one of my goals in turning this blog from a political blog to a “literary blog” was to focus on books that had been sitting on the shelf since I attended college. I have cleared away nearly all the poetry books I bought back in college. However, I still have a few classic novels sitting on the shelf that I purchased from a book club while attending college with every intention of reading them much earlier in my life.

Thus, when a group of bloggers I know decided to read Joyce’s Ulysses as a group, I decided it was finally time to read Joyce’s three books I had on the shelf. Some preliminary reading suggested it would be a good idea to begin with Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist, so I finished that rather quickly before starting Ulysses. While it wasn’t a favorite, it was a fairly enjoyable read, and I finished it in two days.

However, I have spent most of the last two weeks struggling through Joyce’s Ulysses, finally finishing it last night. I’m a fairly fast reader, and it probably should not have taken more than 15 hours to read the book. That obviously didn’t happen. At some points I found the novel almost impenetrable/unbearable. In fact, I rented the movie Ulysses from Amazon and watched it twice within 7 days to try figure out the sequence of events. I even bought a newer movie, “Bloom” which I’ll be watching before I actually try to say something literate about the book. I also found and watched an hour-long biography of Joyce online and watched it twice. The plot summary at Wikipedia also helped me to keep track of what was going on in the novel. I did, however, refuse to buy Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses, a 694 page book explaining the many references found in the novel. I have no desire to become an expert on Ulysses, thank you.

It took me three days, and several naps, to get through one particularly obscure 60 page section of the book. At times I was tempted to skip long passages of the novel, particularly long lists of names that meant nothing to me, but I resisted the temptation and read every single word, though I make no claims to actually understanding everything, or even most, of what I read.

Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations for the novel since it was rated the best novel of the 20th century by several different sources. Let me just say that if I’d been told that as a senior in high school and I had read this book, I would never have changed my college major from physics to English, exactly what I did after discovering Thomas Hardy’s novels.

I doubt that this novel would even make my top 50 books of the 20th century though, in retrospect, I can see how it might have been one of the most influential novels of the 20th Century. Thomas Hardy is sometimes considered the first modern novelist, but the style of his novels seems ancient compared to Joyce’s style in Ulysses. I can even see where many of my favorite novels might have been inspired by this work.

The book raises many questions, but strangely the main question it raises for me, which has very little to do with the book itself, is what is MY criteria for a great novel. It’s obvious that my criteria is obviously quite different from those critics who argue that this is the greatest novel of the 20th century. I’ve never really thought much in terms of “favorites,” whether it be songs, movies, books, or, even, birds. I don’t even know if I would be capable of compiling a list of the 100 best books I’ve read, though I do have a short list of books that have made the greatest impression on my life.

A few favorites, in more-or-less chronological order, are Melville’s Moby Dick, Clemens’ Huckleberry Finn, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Heller’s Catch-22, Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not sure what that tells me about my criteria, but all of them either introduced me to new insights into myself or into the society I live in. All of them made me re-examine my own beliefs and ideas. Some author’s, like Faulkner, for instance, are known for their uniques writing style. Others, are admired despite their “lack of style.” I like to say that I most admire a “simple” style, though Faulkner definitely doesn’t qualify as having a simple style, and I probably admire his sentence structure, his multiple uses of clauses, more than any other writer, except perhaps Hemingway’s very different style.

It’s pretty clear that “style” is not one of the main factors I use in judging a novel. Though I do admire some writer’s eloquence, it’s the ideas behind the eloquence that determine whether the novel becomes a favorite.

It’s also clear that when I encountered a novel plays a major part in determining my reaction to it. For instance, I happened to read Jude the Obscure at precisely the moment I began to realize that all may academic skills and the number of colleges recruiting me was not going to help me to get into some of the elite colleges that wanted me to consider them. My parents’, and my, lack of money was going to be a major determining factor, that and my unwillingness to borrow money to pay for tuition and board and room. In other words, I actually identified with Jude, and still do many years later. Luckily, my future wasn’t as bleak as Jude’s: I was going to go to a local college and live at home, but I was going to go to college. This sense of identifying with the major character(s) seems like an important part of my criteria for a good novel.

I’ve already written about some of these novels and pointed out that a friend sent me Heller’s Catch-22 while I was stationed in Vietnam and I could hardly get through more than a 100 pages before I put it away. It was several years after I returned that I encountered it again in a graduate course that it became a favorite. My Vietnam experience gave me the background I needed to fully appreciate the author’s insights into life. Recent years have given me an even greater appreciation of Milo Minderbinder.

I suspect that if I’d read Ulysses earlier in my life I might have been more impressed with it, though I doubt I would have understood it any better. It is, without a doubt, the most innovative novel of the early 20th century, years before its time.

The book would probably have been more meaningful if I had been Irish, or even if I had been Catholic. Heck, it would probably have been more meaningful if I believed in the concept of sin, but I don’t, and, as far as I can tell, I never have believed in it, though I’m all too familiar with making mistakes, sometimes profound mistakes that have affected my whole life.

Perhaps the novel would have seemed more profound if I had been Anti-Semitic but, having been raised in the Pacific Northwest I hardly recognized anyone’s religion, nor, as far as I can tell, did I ever personally know a Jew until I went into the army. At Fort Knox Officer’s Training I ended up running around with Jewish lawyers who had graduated from NYU. I had no idea they were Jewish until another officer asked me why would run around with “those kikes.” I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about or why it was his concern who the hell I ran around with.

I’ll be out-of-town birding for a while, but I’ll have more to say about The Dubliners, The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses when I return.

16 thoughts on “Some Opening Comments on Joyce’s Ulysses

  1. I agree entirely: a novel like Ulysses forces you to define what you mean by “great,” which is another way of saying it forces you to grapple with your own expectations. What is the book really like versus what I expected (or wanted) it to be?

    I’m still trying to get back “into” the book after having fallen off the wagon when J and I were visiting family. In the meantime, it occurs to me that many of my favorite novels (and of these, The Sound and the Fury, Huck Finn, and Moby-Dick also appear on your “favorites” list) forced me to re-think what I thought a “novel” could be. In the case of The Sound and the Fury, it felt like I had to re-learn how to think in order to make sense of the narration…and this is large part of what I liked about the book, once I’d finished it.

    In other words, many of my favorite novels defied my expectations: instead of following all the usual conventions of what I thought a novel was “supposed to” do, these texts did something else. I was surprised, and I had to struggle. I’m guessing (?) this is why folks who finish Ulysses look back and say it was “great.” It’s not “great” because it was flawless or fun or accommodating; it’s “great” in that it forces you to grapple with it, like a worthy intellectual opponent.

    • I’m not sure what it says about the novel that you “fell off the wagon,” but I sometimes felt that I had already grappled with this intellectual opponent, as I was reminded all too much of Ezra Pound as I read the novel, that and Eliot’s “Wasteland.”

      As I remember it, I came in from some intense criticism for my reaction to Pound by those who thought he was the greatest poet of the 20th Century. Of course, I’ve also had this argument with those who think Wallace Stevens is the greatest modern poet. I’m not sure I have a “greatest poet,” but I’m much clearer on defining “not greatest poets.”

      I used to be an INTP; in recent test I tend to come out an INTJ. I’m afraid at 70 I’m pretty close to deciding what I want a great novel to be. The hard part is finding “great” novels that I haven’t already read.

        • Don’t know why that’s true, but it might be WordPress’s attempt to control SPAM. These blogs aren’t really set to enhance intellectual discussion, I’m afraid.

          Most blog entries are probably under 200 words.

  2. My son, Dominic, (made out of words on my side bar) says that Ulysees is by far his favourite book and he has read it many times. I’m sorry Loren but I find it impossible to read – and have long given up trying. But it might be interesting if you were to blog with Dominic (I think you do sometimes) and discuss the book. I know he is reading it yet again at the moment.

    • Yes, I do read Dominic’s blog regularly, or at least as often as he publishes it. I was surprised a long time ago to find out that he was your son, not to mention that he’s somehow related to The Solitary Walker, another blogger I read “religiously.”

      Maybe his comments on it will inspire me to make more comments. Discussion is usually the best way for me to generate new ideas.

  3. Hi Loren, coincidentally, I finished the book last night too. I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about it, and don’t feel ready. Mostly I feel exhausted! As Lorianne points out, it’s a bit like wrestling with a worthy intellectual opponent, but I must say that I agree with a lot of what you’ve written here. As an intellectual and literary monument Ulysses is fraught with “oughts”: I ought to read it, I ought to understand it, I ought to like it, I ought to admit it is great. This morning my mind is rebelling at those ideas, other than the first one, which is obviously now a moot point! Anyway, off I go to try to write a blog post. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to put together a few thoughts, and for your own honest comments and companionship in reading.

    • It’s a little inconvenient that this trip I’m taking came just as I finished the novel and makes it difficult to get all my ideas together, but perhaps a novel this tough takes time to consider, and reconsider.

      I’ll be looking forward to your blog post.

  4. Loren, the big U has always been a struggle for me. When last I worked, I traveled to Oly town and listened to a fourteen (or so) disc version[pierce county library]. I loved the lush music of the language. Thought it a nice way in though I share many of your reactions. I have enjoyed rereading The Dubliners. Last winter it was W & P for me, Tolstoy still sits with the book mark at page 320, maybe with the rain’s return. Enjoyed your post. KJM

    • I’m going to read the Dubliners shortly, maybe that will give me some kind of starting point to actually discuss Joyce’s ideas.

  5. The reason Joyce could and more or less had to write unreadable books like Ulysses and the Wake is because he’s the person who wrote the Dubliners. The focus is so sharp and clear and lucid and indelible.

  6. You say you were in Vietnam. You offer no hint of shame about 4million Vietnamese dead – and rising, with grotesque births and with landmines dropped there, still exploding.

    You are not responsible for this nazi style criminal act of war, but at least offer some personal apology for your part in it, or condemn your murderous government.


    • Don’t really feel the need to discuss my reaction to Vietnam every time I mention I’m a Vietnam veteran, nor make apologies for going where I was ordered to go.

      I have, however, discussed some of my views in other areas of this blog. The blog was started as a protest against the Afghan invasion, which I saw as the moral equivalent of the Vietnam War.

  7. I read this last night, and I had so many thoughts about it that I couldn’t possibly put them all down here. Suffice it to say that I found the whole essay full of interest.

    Just 2 minor comments: I was interested to see that your list of favorites included only male writers. Mine would have been mostly female, though we agree on Hardy. The other comment is that I think The Dead (from The Dubliners) is one of the best short fiction pieces in English. The last paragraphs of The Dead are the most beautiful bits of prose writing I have ever read.

    I have never tried to read Ulysses. I can’t even figure out Pale Fire, for heavens sake. And Nabokov is supposed to be easy.

  8. ‘It took me three days and several naps…’ is a great sentence. Something I have experienced reading a book about bipolar to try and understand my daughter’s behaviour. As hard as I tried I could not get past the author’s fabricated case stories without a good deal of scepticism even though I know the problem is very real.

What do you think?