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 H. G. Wells 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 books 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?"
Having aborted six prior reads, I approached my current reading of James Joyce's "Ulysses" with determination and resolve. That is needed. I am sixty-five years old. Twenty-four days after purchasing a New Library hardback edition, twenty-four days of struggling, I paused to glance at the page number. I had gotten to page twenty-one. Needless to say, the pace has since picked up. It took me until about page ninety to get into Joyce's writing. Three things kept me interested enough to stay with it. First, Joyce's command of the English language. Actually, I went along for some time thinking the city we were in was London, instead of Dublin, which it is. This is a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, in about 1904. The young man's banter was more British than Irish. The British Empire was high, and many Irish were profiting. Second, Joyce's command of the knowledge base of the time. He was Jesuit educated. His knowledge of antiquity is astonishing. Third, and this must be the most important thing that kept me going, is that virtually on every page there is a total mind blower. It might come in the form of a description, an impression, a story, or a plain old outburst. The game with Joyce, from my experience, is to know those nuggets are in the mine, and to persevere to find them.--Submitted by Anonymous
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