by James Joyce
The Bodley Head (London)
1992 reprint edition of text re-set in 1960
Ulysses is the strangest book I�ve ever read. It�s brilliant, poetic, funny, disgusting, challenging, compelling, overblown, inspiring, frustrating, confusing, and truly a pleasure to read. Joyce was a genius. He was bored. He was mad. He knew too much. In fact, it�s quite possible he wrote Ulysses in an attempt to unburden himself of his knowledge. He failed. By the time he was done, he was smarter than ever, and so he took it out on the world by writing Finnegans Wake, a book I might or might not read before I die.
That�s the short version. Here�s the slightly longer version:
Ulysses is about a guy named Leopold Bloom, and another guy, Stephen Dedalus. It�s also about a guy named Mulligan, but Mulligan doesn�t figure in as strongly as the first two guys, even though the book starts with him shaving in a tower by the beach. The action takes place over the course of a single day � a very long day, a day that feels like a twenty-year voyage at sea. On the surface of this day, nothing much happens. Mulligan irritates Stephen; Stephen takes a walk; Stephen worries about money; Bloom uses an outhouse; Bloom thinks about women; Bloom thinks about money; Bloom attends a funeral; Bloom tries to sell advertising; Bloom goes to a bar and is insulted; Bloom ogles a young woman; Stephen gets drunk with some friends; Stephen meets up with Bloom who then takes him home long enough to sober him up; Stephen leaves; Bloom goes to bed and falls asleep next to Molly, his wife, who is still awake, and who just happens to be one of the smallest-minded people in Dublin.
So. What do you think so far? If you wonder how Joyce managed to spend seven years and 933 pages on such a trivial plot, read on.
First, Joyce invented the English language. This is an exaggeration, of course, but only a slight exaggeration. He expanded the language by combining words that weren�t � and still aren�t � usually combined. When that wasn�t enough, he invented words. Then he altered the order words typically appear in sentences. He used them to create a rhythm, and to create a powerful visual effect � not in the overtly typographical way e.e. cummings did in his poems, but in a hypnotic, comforting way that can be likened to waves lapping against a wooden vessel.
It doesn�t take long to realize that Joyce�s mastery of English and understanding of language in general � its roots, symbols, and possibilities � places him at the center of an ever-expanding linguistic universe in which chapters are galaxies, passages are constellations, and words are brightly burning stars. Even so, there are times when his brilliance works against him � when his brilliance is not brilliant, but a limiting factor. There are times when he takes pages to say what can and really should be said in a sentence. There are times when the reader is buried beneath an avalanche of knowledge, and when he is expected to wade through language that is so convoluted that it might be called gibberish.
Now, I�m sure there are devotees of Joyce who will smirk at such a statement. �Joyce knew what he was doing,� they will say. �He had an epic purpose that you, a crude ox of a writer, could not perceive or understand.� And they�re probably right. I am an ox. But my question is, how many genuinely sincere and reasonably intelligent readers has Joyce lost over the years? And at what point is a writer writing only for himself? I am not exaggerating when I say that Joyce, especially in the latter part of the book, dares his readers to jump ship before they�ve reached the end. I don�t know. Maybe it was his way of saying he was sick of the project himself, or confused by it, or disappointed in it. Or maybe he was simply trying to figure out how to introduce certain facts about Bloom and Dedalus that could have been woven into the text more easily had he taken a more conventional approach. And by �conventional� I don�t mean dull. The Brothers Karamazov is �conventional.� The Grapes of Wrath is �conventional.� But they are anything but dull.
Now, before we touch on the structure of Ulysses, I should mention that there is also a fair amount of Latin scattered throughout the text, along with local forms of speech, as well as French, Italian, Spanish, Yiddish, and probably a few other languages I�ve forgotten. Although I understand only about twelve words of all these tongues combined, glutton for punishment that I am, I made a point of reading each and every word. They, too, are part of the rhythm and poetry that is Ulysses. The book would not be the same without them.
Ulysses is divided into three major sections. The first section contains sixty-four pages, the second 638 pages, and the third 231 pages. There are no chapters � or, if there are, they are not designated as such. In the Bodley Head edition, divisions in the text are marked by ornamentation, some black, some open. As far as I can tell, they serve little purpose, because only someone walking in his sleep could miss the noticeable shifts in language and narrative approach. In the early going, these shifts hit you like a ton of bricks. But once you get used to the idea that Joyce is out of his mind, and that if you�re not already you will be soon, the transitions are easier to make.
Several of the subsections are relatively straightforward. I think it�s because Joyce was either in a good mood when he wrote them, or he could find no difficult way to introduce the information they contain. Maybe he was being kind, and lulling his readers into a sense of false security before clobbering them with more unorthodox material. For instance, one subsection is set up as a play. In it, characters are introduced willy nilly. Some have appeared previously; others step in with the express purpose of uttering a single line, then they disappear. This goes on for pages and pages. By the time it�s over, you have a fair idea of what has taken place. In fact, the entire drama can be boiled down to one simple sentence. It�s one of those times in the book when Joyce seems to be challenging his readers with the hope that only the strongest will survive � as if only they will be worthy of hearing the grand summation of his message. But there really is no message � unless you count futility, hopelessness, and the transitory nature of our being. Joyce offers no shining beacons of hope, only the wonders of language and music, and the small truths floating in glasses of stout.
If you haven�t read Ulysses, I urge you to do so. Ulysses will expand your idea of literature � what it is, what it is capable of doing. Ulysses is a feast of language that can be read almost as if it were a musical score. It will make you think of things you haven�t thought of before, and help you see the world in a different light.
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A few words about my favorite dictionary . . .
by James Joyce
. . . What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit. . . .
. . .
�I am the resurrection and the life. That touches a man�s inmost heart.
�It does, Mr Bloom said.
Your heart perhaps but what price the fellow in the six feet by two with his toes to the daisies? No touching that. Seat of the affections. Broken heart. A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else. The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job. Get up! Last day! Then every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps. Find damn all of himself that morning. Pennyweight of powder in a skull. Twelve grammes one pennyweight. Troy measure. . . .
. . . The air without is impregnated with raindew moisture, life essence celestial, glistering on Dublin stone there under starshiny coelum. God�s air, the Allfather�s air, scintillant circumambient cessile air. Breathe it deep unto thee. . . .