Best Novel of the 20th Century?

I spent far too long attempting to read and understand James Joyce’s Ulysses to simply let it pass without comment, but I’m not going to attempt a literary analysis because I couldn’t come close to sources already online unless I were willing to devote a few more years to it, which I’m surely not. I merely want to address one of the questions I consistently hear about the novel and constantly asked myself as I struggled through it: Is this really the greatest novel of the 20th Century?

Stylistically, Ulysses was definitely a groundbreaking novel. It’s hard to believe Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, one of my favorite “modern” novels, published in 1895 and Joyce’s Ulysses published in 1922 were only published 30 years apart. Joyce’s Freudian, stream-of-consciousness approach changed the modern novel forever. Hardy’s omniscient viewpoint seems archaic compared to Joyce’s viewpoint, though admittedly today’s best-sellers still seem rooted in the more traditional narrative style.

Joyce’s exploration of Leopold Bloom’s mind, his Freudian analysis, as it were, was unprecedented as far as I know, though it seems to have become de rigueur in “serious” modern novels. Judging from graduate school readings, modern protagonists in serious novels more often than not suffer from the same despair and alienation that Bloom and Stephen do.

As Josh Rahn notes in his essay on modernism:

Modernism introduced a new kind of narration to the novel, one that would fundamentally change the entire essence of novel writing. The “unreliable” narrator supplanted the omniscient, trustworthy narrator of preceding centuries, and readers were forced to question even the most basic assumptions about how the novel should operate. James Joyce’s Ulysses is the prime example of a novel whose events are really the happenings of the mind, the goal of which is to translate as well as possible the strange pathways of human consciousness. A whole new perspective came into being known as “stream of consciousness.” Rather than looking out into the world, the great novelists of the early twentieth century surveyed the inner space of the human mind. At the same time, the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud had come into mainstream acceptance. These two forces worked together to alter people’s basic understanding of what constituted truth and reality.

Joyce offers a brilliant portrayal of Leopold Bloom. We not only discover the causes of Leopold Bloom’s despair; we also begin to see the world differently through his eyes. Shown as a victim of a pervasive anti-Semitism, he’s the perfect outsider who, as a result, sees more clearly what is invisible to those who blindly accept their culture. What a brilliant strategy for Joyce who himself had become increasingly alienated from his Irish culture to choose a protagonist who was alienated from Irish culture while at the same time claiming an Irish heritage.

I think if someone asked me to name the most influential novel of the 20th Century I might very well answer Joyce’s Ulysses. After all, I doubt that two novels I actually prefer to Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury and Catch-22, would ever have been written if Ulysses hadn’t broken ground first. Even a writer like Thomas Merton who superficially seems to have little in common with Joyce seems to have admired and been influenced by his work.

Stylistically it’s undeniably a masterpiece. Given my druthers, I prefer to read a novel that seems new, that surprises me. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse were great reads and made a real impression on me when I first read them. Unfortunately, they haven’t stuck with me nearly as long as more traditional novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, certainly one of the 10 best novels of the 20th Century, and one whose definition of courage I’ve held dear all those years.

Style is undoubtably an important aspect of any work, but, for me, content still trumps style. At least in a serious novel that I’m going to spend time studying, it’s the author’s vision of the world that most interests me. Perhaps if I had lived in Ireland in 1922 I, too, would have seen the world from Joyce’s viewpoint and would have regarded Ulysses as the best novel of the 20th Century. It was definitely a time of deep alienation. Darwinism and science had undermined many religious beliefs. World War I had laid waste to Europe. This was the “Lost Generation,” and It’s no coincidence that T. S.Eliot’s “The Wasteland” was the most acclaimed poem of the time. In the end, though, Joyce’s vision is too close to Eliot’s Wasteland and Pound’s schizophrenic view of the world for my taste.

Joyce reminds me of psychiatrists who study the sickest people in society and then use their findings to generalize about human nature — possibly because his portrayal of Bloom seems so Freudian. I can empathize with Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and admire the way he helps Stephen when he realizes he’s in trouble. But I’ve read the original Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom is no Ulysses. He reminds me more of Eliot’s Fisher King than he does Ulysses.

As many critics have pointed out, Leopold Bloom is so ordinary that it’s hard to take Blooms comparison to Odysseus seriously. Odysseus represented the ideals of Greek Culture. Bloom is anything but ideal; he’s certainly not “heroic” in any way I would define the word. He’s a victim of society who still manages to be a better person than most of those who discriminate against him, but that doesn’t make him “heroic,” or worth emulating. I’ve got enough of my own problems without wanting to emulate Bloom. To be “heroic” Leopold, or Stephen, would have to find a way to stand up to those forces that are destroying them, and there’s no indication of them being able to do that.

Some might claim that Ulysses’ emphasis on alienation as a defining characteristic of modern life and the victimization of the individual makes it a seminal work, but I didn’t find Stephen’s reaction against Irish society particularly new or particularly revolutionary. Society has always pressured people to conform, probably more in the past than in modern times. From what I’ve seen of small-town-life, there is more pressure to conform in villages then there is in large cities. Emerson argued convincingly nearly 100 years before Joyce that “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” The difference between Emerson and Joyce is that Emerson offered “self-reliance” as an alternative to those pressures, whereas Joyce suggests no alternative.

Ulysses has forced me to consciously examine what it is that I look for in a novel and, in turn, decide how important various elements of a novel are to me. This is one of the hardest blog entries I’ve ever written and has required far more thought than I usually put into an entry. It’s even made me appreciate the novel more than I originally did.

Having to reconsider your criteria for judging a book probably makes the novel worth reading, even if you decide in the end that it's not even close to the best novel of the 20th Century. While trying to discover who was in the Modern Library group that decided what the greatest novels of the 20th century were, I found another list called the “Readers List” that said that ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand was the best novel of the 20th Century. In fact, Ayn Rand and L Ron Hubbard dominated the top ten novels. Given those options, I would have to concede that Ulysses was clearly the greatest novel of the 20th Century.

9 thoughts on “Best Novel of the 20th Century?

  1. My son (made out of words on my side bar) would totally agree with you Loren. I have never got beyond Page 4 however hard I try. I would be hard pressed to say what I thought was the best novel of the 20th century.

  2. Wow, Loren. This is making me think very hard. I’ve never read anything about Ulysses whose writer was ultimately more affected by the unhappiness and unfulfilment of the characters than by the novel’s revolutionary form or the richness of its language. This despite the fact that most readers and most writers about novels habitually focus much more on character than anything else. It’s as if the novel’s formal iconoclasm sends our humanism into retreat.

  3. I’ve often thought that the key starting point of Modernism was disenchantment — a distrust of Western culture and language as well as the consciousness embedded in culture and a failed history. This reaches its most despaired and outraged statement from Adorno post-WWII: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is an act of barbarism.” Artists and writers take an oppositional and suspicious stance towards the traditions in which they have been trained and assume the position of the outsider, writing from the margins or in self-imposed exile. This is core to Ulysses.

    And so we find ourselves not dealing with some normalised human ‘stream of consciousness’ as a mere literary device but disrupted and contingent utterances to point to a landscape of discontinuities, incongruities, displacements and dispossession.

    • It certainly seems to me that even the Romantic poets, like Blake, took “an oppositional and suspicious stance towards the tradition in which they have been trained.” Generally, though, they try to lead change, and that’s what I find missing in Joyce.

      Would Heller, Catch-22, be part of Modernism? His “hero/victim” constantly fights the system, trying to compensate for a system that uses people and discards them, all in the name of profit.

      • Loren we’re talking about different things here — it isn’t just the attitude it is the way in which Modernists writers and artists began to disrupt genres, traditions and language. You don’t find that in Heller. Modernism was a revolution in terms of form as well as content. If you look at Gertrude Stein and Picasso, you’re looking at the destruction of older forms of representational or pictorial art as well as the fracturing of narrative.

        Kafka for example, isn’t always working within Modernist paradigms, but look at A Country Doctor and you get that challenge to straightforward narrative. Faulkner too —

        • You’d have a hard time convincing my ex-students that Catch-22 was a straightforward, traditional narrative. The story is certainly as disjointed as Ulysses. His use of Milo Minderbinder to attack Capitalism also seems within the Modernist tradition.

          But I do understand your point that the Modernists take a totally different approach.

          And, as far as that goes, I have a much better background in poetry than in fiction, per se.

  4. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please check out this reference which is an introduction to The Orpheum Trilogy. The author was Orpheus except that he returned from the under-world fully awake.
    http://www.cesnur.org/2009/slc_skalsky.htm
    There is a section in The Waste Land by T S Eliot titled What the (Divine) Thunder (Da) Said. Adi Da was/is The Divine Thunder.
    Joyce also wrote Finnegan’s Wake which was effectively a wake on the corpse/ruins of the entire Western literary, philosophical and cultural tradition. It was of course published in that fateful year of 1939 when Europe began the process of finishing off the self-destructive process begun in World War I.
    It was no accident that Adi Da was born in 1939, and in new York too.

    • I checked out the link, John, but I don’t think that would be my thing. I’m more into the Zen tradition of quiet meditation, or long walks in Nature, than into esoteric views.

What do you think?