Reviewing a classic: Ulysses by James Joyce


William Blake saw the universe in a grain of sand – he was a genius visionary. Joyce saw it in Dublin, Ireland, on June 16, 1904, a day distinguished by its utter normality – he was a genius writer.

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 book’s 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. In the past, Ulysses has been labeled dirty, blasphemous, and even unreadable and small wonder – 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. One thing it is not: easy to read.

My impressions:

As the book itself is very long indeed, often called “the Mount Everest (or Chomolungma)  of literature”, my review, surprise, surprise, will be uncommonly short. I’ll also try to restrain from using “stream of consciousness” technique although, I admit, the mere idea was very tempting. You get a nice pic instead:

So…yes, I read Ulysses – I mean I read and finished it. Honest injun! ;p Mind you, I did it not because I was forced but because I challenged myself. The experience left me slightly mad and dizzy. In a nutshell I think that if only Joyce weren’t a genius he would be a terrific writer. My reading impressions are full of contradictions – the book was full of contradictions as well.

I loved it because it has so many deep literary and classical references: quotes in Latin, French, Greek, Italian, German, Hebrew, Gaellic; Bible quotes, mythology quotes, folk songs, Shakespeare and poems all mixed together. If you say you understand it all and know exactly what was quoted for what reason and from what source it means you are very well educated indeed, being – most probably – one of the English lit professors at Trinity, Oxford, Cambridge or elsewhere. I love long words – this book had plenty of them too. Some short ones as well :p.

I hated it because more often than not was boring as hell. I just couldn’t care less about the characters and their navel-gazing, private parts-gazing, food-gazing, bathroom-visits-gazing and such. I just wanted them to get on with whatever they were doing and have Joyce interfere in their lives with his references, his poetry, and his mellifluous narrative considerably less.

I loved it also because the words, strung together in a stream-of-consciousness, onomatopoeic way, read just beautifully, like no other narration I’ve read so far. I do believe that nobody and nothing compares to Joyce. On the other hand: most probably nobody would like to compare because, let’s face it, if you are not a genius such a style would render your book completely unreadable – not even by your most devoted lovers, friends and sycophants.

If anybody claims they’ve read Ulysses quickly and painlessly, say in 2-3 days or even over a week, without serious skimming and/or cheating they are lying liars who lie. I hated it because it was a book which I could read no longer than 10-20 pages, 50 pages max, at a time (so about 100 pages a week). Then, taking a leaf from Mr Bloom’s book who could read Aristotle and The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk at the same time, I had to clean my palate with several pages of any pulp fiction, romance or erotica novel, something easy and cheesy; I used even m-m BDSM which is really not my thing (anyway The Administration series by Manna Francis helped a lot – just so you know).

Final verdict:

To read or not to read? I would say: read it, especially as you can download it from the Project Gutenberg for free, but only if you feel you must or you really want to – otherwise it might prove to be too painful.

It took Joyce seven years to write about one day of life of some plain Dubliners; my reading was, fortunately, quicker but still I struggled with that book over two weeks. It is a position perfect for literary masochists; still it is possible to enjoy it in a way but never like any other ‘normal’ novel. After finishing it you’ll never fear anything – not really. Can you fear a cat after taming a tiger?

Now four short, beautiful quotes to whet your appetite. Only four and really short, all of them. I promise.

Love loves to love love.” (And a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose…ah, bully for Joyce for pouring such sentimentality into his masterpiece of high-brow literature. Did you know there’s essentially a romance novella written in the middle of this book? Would you guess it? Apart from that there is a scene with as many as four prostitutes – go figure.)

“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” (What a pity I hadn’t known that before, my legs wouldn’t have hurt so badly ;p Well-spotted, Mr. J.)

“Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.” (I wholeheartedly agree. Not that Joyce is much different – hello pot, meet kettle ;p.)

“We can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.” (It only proves that every politician or would-be politician should read Ulysses as well. Some great, ready-to-use lines are waiting.)

If Marilyn Monroe could read it, you can read it too!

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10 Responses to Reviewing a classic: Ulysses by James Joyce

  1. JaneGS says:

    Absolutely excellent review–loved the love/hate approach. It worked! I have taken a couple of runs at Ulysses and have failed–most recently (a few years ago) I signed up for an email service that would send me daily installments. I quite when I had 3 weeks worth of installments piled up in my inbox.

    I also found an online reference that explained everything as the book progessed. Interesting, but it made reading the long book twice or three times as long.

    I think I might just do it–no gimmicks, just the book. I like experiencing books and this sound like an experience for sure.

    Again, first rate review–you’ve inspired me to take another go at Ulysses.

    • Thank you! It is an experience indeed and all those explanations only muddle the whole text. You really don’t have to get all the references and quotes in order to enjoy Ulysses. The prose is sometimes so good it defends itself quite efficiently.

  2. blodeuedd says:

    I read Portrait and it nearly killed me

  3. Great review. When I read _Ulysses_ , ages back, when studying biology, and didn’t find _Ulysses_ boring (at least in comparison to those hours in the lab) : I knew I had an additional reason to end studying biology (and to change to philosophy). So I owe Mr Joyce a lot. [:-)]

    (And I even like _Finnegans Wake_ .)

  4. rameau says:

    I still haven’t started it but you’ll know when I do.

  5. xaurianx says:

    Lol I so don’t want to read it, sorry.

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