Ulysses by James Joyce: A review

You know how writers sometimes seem to fall in love with a word and they use it over and over again? For James Joyce, that word was snot. In the first section of his magnum opus where we meet Stephen Dedelus and Buck Mulligan, that ugly word appears incessantly. People are snot-nosed, they carry snotrags, objects are snot-colored. Suffice to say if I had been playing a drinking game with snot as the trigger word, I would have been thoroughly soused by the time I finished this section.

It's not like I didn't know what I was getting into. I first read this book back in 2008 and the first sentence of the review that I wrote at the time was, "This was one of the most difficult books I've ever tried to read." The only change I would make to that assessment eleven years later is that it is the MOST difficult book I've ever tried to read. I did rather enjoy it that first time around, especially the last section which I think of as "Molly's soliloquy". I enjoyed the novelty of it and the knowledge that so many very intelligent critics considered this the greatest work in English literature in the 20th century. Maybe my patience has become more strained in the intervening years but this time I was mostly just annoyed by it. Starting with the word snot.

After that first section, we meet our Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, and we walk with him through Dublin on this one day in his life. It's a day in which he attends the funeral of a friend and spends much of the day imbibing and conversing with a coterie of mostly unattractive and irritating friends and acquaintances, and ends the day by taking Stephen, who has lost his living accommodation in the meantime, home with him.

That, in a nutshell, is Ulysses

What makes the book interesting is the way in which Joyce loosely followed the text of Odysseus in constructing his plot and all of the references in his book to classical works, including a very long bow to Shakespeare. One can acknowledge and admire the creativity and inventiveness of the writer and still be irritated by his work, I found.

This, of course, was one of the pioneers in the use of "stream of consciousness" in telling a story and the stream becomes a rushing torrent here. We experience it through the interior monologues of Bloom and of Molly Bloom, his wife.

Part of what bothered me about the book this time around - and I don't really remember remarking on this during my first read - was the casual racism, misogyny, and religious intolerance. Perhaps my consciousness has been raised since 2008! One must take into account the period in which a work was produced, and no doubt in the early 1900s, these attitudes prevailed in many circles, including perhaps Dublin. Still, it is jarring today.

Undoubtedly this book was and is a significant work of art, even with its bawdiness and vulgarity, and it has continued to influence other writers. Even Margaret Mitchell perhaps. One paragraph in the book begins "Gone with the wind." It goes on to talk about Tara. Did Mitchell read it and take that as an inspiration for her book?

I had promised myself that I would reread Ulysses one day, and after reading mostly light and very enjoyable books recently, I decided that it was time for a challenge. I'm glad I read it a second time. I don't think there will be a third.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 


Comments

  1. Rereading is always fraught, but for me mostly illuminating. I am currently rereading White Teeth by Zadie Smith and realizing how much I missed due to my own ignorance. Now that I have finally read The Oddyssey it may be time to tackle this one. There are a few other door stoppers in the queue before it but it is a book I feel I should read before I die. Casual racism, misogyny and religious intolerance are still in wide practice as far as I can tell.

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    Replies
    1. Sadly true. The only difference is today they are flaunted. The practitioners of these attitudes seem proud of themselves.

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