Pages: 552 (text only, no notes)
First Sentence: Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
Rating: 2/3 (I don't recommend it but also it blew my mind)
Part I: Introduction
Considering how long it's taken me to finally sit down and write my review of Ulysses, you'd think I wasn't quite ready to finish my time with The List. That's not quite so. I finished reading the book a little over a week ago, but of course any number of things prevented me from taking the time to write down my thoughts on it.
(To get the obvious question out of the way—no I don't feel any sense of relief just yet. I'm saving that for the day my review of Pride and Prejudice goes live on the blog.)
Now, I want to revisit my original mission statement before I get too far in this review. I began the project of reading the Top 100 novels to see if they would speak to someone without an education in literary analysis and criticism, specifically an engineer. While I've semi-abandoned my engineering career, I've stuck with this project. The books themselves have taught me a thing or two, and what with a lot of reading and a lot of life lessons, I'm a much more careful reader than the young woman who started the project by checking The Magnificent Ambersons out of the library in late 2009.
However, I still don't know anything formal or official about literature. I've never read the actual Odyssey yet in any form, despite my ongoing attachment to Greek myth. I I know the broadest of strokes: Ulysses/Odysseus goes to fight in the Trojan War, and then angers the gods such that he and his crew wander the earth for many years before they can return home. Highlights include outwitting a cyclops, being chained to the mast of his ship so he can hear the sirens' song, and getting waylaid by Circe, who transforms the crew into animals. When he gets home, Odysseus has to slaughter a bunch of men who want to marry his wife. I don't know how that all fits together, though, and I don't know anything about the Lotus Eaters, or his son Telemachus, or etc.
Of course I was already somewhat familiar with James Joyce's Ulysses by reputation as well. I knew that it takes place over the course of one day in Dublin (specifically June 16, 1904). I knew that it features, in the role of Odysseus/Ulysses, a man named Leopold Bloom. I also had heard there were some dirty parts, that the style was difficult, and so on.
Having tousled with James Joyce previously over Finnegans Wake (brilliant trolling of the literary establishment that should not be categorized as a novel) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (mostly just boring), and armed with Stephen Fry's praise from this old Youtube video, I dug in to Ulysses with cautious realism.
Part 2: Ulysses as Object
Okay okay, another digression before I actually review the book. In the case of Ulysses, one must identify the edition they've read. I always want to roll my eyes when academic types refer to something as "a text" (even as I acknowledge the usefulness of the term) but Ulysses really is a text. I read the Alma Classics edition, based on the 1939 Odyssey Press Edition. In this edition, 552 pages are the text of the novel Ulysses, 316 pages are the annotations by Sam Slote, Marc A. Mamigonian, and John Turner, and ten pages are the bibliography for the notes. I estimate that I read about 50 pages of the notes. I definitely didn't read all of them because I wanted to get into the rhythm of the novel as much as I could. The highest number of notes I found on a single page was 90 on a page in the Cyclops chapter, which had a long list of actual and invented saints.
Sam Slote wrote the Introduction, which of course I didn't read.
The final thing I'll say about this is that the print in this book was the smallest I've ever seen. I'm sure it would be over a thousand pages if the print were closer to the average size. And it was hard to hang onto already!
Part 3: What Happens
In the following section, every time I state categorically that something happens in this book, that a character is a certain way, etc., imagine that statement followed by a row of question marks in parentheses, like so (????????). I'm honestly not sure I know anything about this, but it would get very tedious for me to be repeating that as often as necessary. I'm happy to be corrected.
The book is split into three parts. The first is only 40 pages and introduces Stephen Dedalus, who you may remember from APotA. Here he's in the role of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, and he's just wandering around Dublin in the morning if I'm not mistaken.
The three chapters in Part I are:
- Telemachus (8-9 a.m. in Martello Tower, Sandycove)
- Nestor (10-11 a.m. in or at Boys' school, Dalkey)
- Proteus (11 a.m.-12 p.m. in or at Sandymount Strand)
Part II is where Leopold Bloom is introduced and goes about his day. He's in his late 30s. He has a wife, Molly Bloom, and a daughter, Milly. The main thing that stuck with me from his introduction is that he loves to eat organs and this smell lingers on his breath. I'm both too dumb and too lazy to enumerate the multitude of styles, modes, and experiments employed by Joyce throughout this core section of the book. Each chapter has its own conceit. There are 12 of them, again covering more than 12 hours and incorporating some gaps to my astonishment:
- Calypso (8-9 a.m. at/in 7 Eccles Street and environs
- Lotus Eaters (10-11 a.m. around the Westland Row station)
- Hades (11 a.m.-12 p.m. in a funeral cortège that starts from Sandymount and travels through the city centre to Prospect Cemetery, Glasnevin)
- Aeolus (12-1 p.m. in the offices of the Freeman's Journal, 4-8 Prince's Street North)
- Lestrygonians(1-2 p.m. in Central Dublin, from the offices of the Freeman's Journal to the National Museum on Kildare Street, via Davy Byrne's pub on Duke Street)
- Scylla and Charybdis (2-3 p.m. at the National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street)
- Wandering Rocks (2:55-4 p.m. throughout Dublin)
- Sirens (4-5 p.m. at the Ormond Hotel bar, 8 Upper Ormond Quay, and environs)
- Cyclops (5-6 p.m. at Barney Kiernan's pub, 8-10 Little Britain Street, and environs)
- Nausicaa (8-9 p.m. at Sandymount Strand, by Leahy's Terrace)
- Oxen of the Sun (10-11 p.m. at National Maternity Hospital, 29-31 Holles Street)
- Circe (12-1 a.m., at Bella Cohen's brothel, Mecklenburgh Street, and environs)
That last bit is the Circe chapter. It's by far the longest chapter in the book, written in the format of a drama, with stage directions, and is overall just very surreal and weird.
At last we arrive at Part III, where Bloom and Dedalus actually meet up. They vaguely know each other somehow. Bloom is 15 years or more Dedalus's senior. Bloom's only son died in infancy (leading to the cessation of marital relations between him and his wife) and he feels some fatherly affection for Stephen. The two of them leave the brothel and go to Bloom's home.
There are three more chapters in this part:
- Eumaeus (1-2 a.m. in/at the cabman's shelter, near the Custom House)
- Ithaca (2-3 a.m., in/at 7 Eccles Street)
- Penelope (3-4 a.m., in/at 7 Eccles Street and elsewhere)
Part 4: The Dirty Parts
There are a couple of notorious dirty parts in this novel that I would be remiss not to address.
First of all, in the Sirens chapter, Bloom comes across a young girl and masturbates to completion while looking at her, under his clothes. What I didn't realize when I'd heard about this incident previously, is that we get to see a big chunk of it from the perspective of the girl, and she's aware of what's happening and into it. Unless, of course, what we're actually getting is what Bloom imagines the girl's perspective is, which is certainly possible.
Secondly, and I think less well-known, is an incident that's likely to be the first example of transgender fisting in the literary canon. I saw an article that mentioned this and couldn't fathom what it might mean until I got to the part of the book it references.
... (He bares his arm and plunges it elbowdeep in Bloom’s vulva.) There’s fine depth for you! What, boys? That give you a hardon? (He shoves his arm in a bidder’s face.) Here, wet the deck and wipe it round!This is from the Circe chapter, and I believe Bloom has taken the form of a sow at this point in the narrative. Like I said, it's very surreal. There are other dirty parts for sure (Molly Bloom is an undeniably sexual being, for instance). But those are some highlights.
Part 5: So What Did I Think?
I have to admit that my expectations for Ulysses were very, very low, especially after reading APotA, which I thought might be more straightforward and interesting.
In some ways, my expectations were met. I didn't enjoy the act of reading Ulysses. It was more or less hard work the whole way through and frequently I was just reading for the sake of getting through the book, rather than for understanding. It's too long, although God help me if I could figure out exactly what to chop out.
On the other hand Ulysses blew my mind.
There are several aspects of this that I didn't touch on it my relation of the broad events of the book, or only briefly. Leopold Bloom has Jewish Hungarian origins, for example, and no one will let him forget it. Stephen Dedalus has extensive opinions on Shakespeare and his relationship with his wife Anne. Various characters at various times have a lot to say about Irish home rule, the Catholic church, and prominent social and political issues of both their own and Joyce's time. Joyce is constantly referencing specific locations, shops, and offices in Dublin.
More than any book I've ever read before Ulysses captures real people in a real place. (I'm reassured to find that Virginia Woolf agreed with me on the value and boredom of the novel.) The huge specificity of the book is one of the many challenges for the modern reader, though. So many of the particulars are long forgotten, hence the 300 pages of explanatory notes.
And then, even as Joyce achieved that, he also did it while bursting through numerous bounds of the form of the novel. I appreciate this experimentation less, though I do respect it. I especially appreciated the chapter where he moves through a whole succession of literary styles, proving at a couple of points that it wasn't beyond him to write a wholly intelligible paragraph now and then.
More than anything Ulysses made me wonder at and about James Joyce as a person, and the book as a personal achievement. How did this man come to write this book, and cram so much into it? Where did the subjects of his interest end? How did he write this book? How did he know when it was done? If Finnegans Wake hadn't made me so angry I might've wondered the same things about it, except that it doesn't overflow its pages the way Ulysses does.
Ulysses made me think about my world and how I exist in it and what it would take to actually capture that world in the pages of a novel. It made me wonder if there's a 21st century version of Joyce who could write the 21st century version of Ulysses, or if he was truly one of a kind. It made me conscious of what a book is and what it can do.
Part 6: Conclusion
One of the reasons it's taken me so long to write this review (it's now three weeks since I finished reading the book) is that I'm extremely conflicted on where to come down on it.
I'll start with some low-hanging fruit.
Ulysses more than deserves its place in the literary canon. It even deserves its place on The List. No other book on The List works as hard as Ulysses or made me feel the way it did. If Finnegans Wake was trolling, Ulysses is more of an epiphany.
So, if you've ever though of reading it one day, do. I don't recommend going in as blind as I did. You'd be well-served to read one of the many, many introductory texts out there.
But what to say about Ulysses as far as it concerns the average reader? Is it a good book or just an important one? Here at the end of my journey through The List, I'm not sure if I'm an average reader anymore. Certainly I can't separate my feelings about finishing Ulysses after spending over a decade with The List, from the way it made me think about literature, from the overall bad time I had with the book on a page by page level. Despite all the time I spent with Bloom, I was too confused most of the time to feel as if I knew him at all.
I guess maybe the answer can be found back at the beginning of this whole project. I referred to a competing, reader-selected list, with Ulysses in the 100th position instead of first. The further away we all get from the time when Ulysses was written, the harder it will be to decode. If I've learnt anything from The List it's to stop reading books I don't enjoy and I don't think many people in 2021 and beyond would enjoy Ulysses. At the same time, every now and then, I think it's a good idea to experience art that challenges your assumptions.
So I guess that's what I'll recommend. Challenge yourself, or make something that will challenge someone else. I challenged myself with reading The List, and now that I've finished, I'll move on to new challenges.
For now, time is u.p.: up.
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It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don't spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the etherial bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness...
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We can't change the country. Let us change the subject.
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