on 1 June 1999
Nearly everybody knows about Joyce's extravagant depiction of one day in early 20th century Dublin, and almost nobody has actually read it (unless forced to do so at school).
The length of the book, the legendary "difficulty" of the English, even the lack of punctuation, all serve to make most potential readers queasy. This perception is enhanced by the enormous volume of secondary writing on the book and Joyce himself. Everything about the text seems to be a license for academics to be pretentious and superiour. Read Ulysses for pleasure? Are you mad? Have you been down the pub with Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus?
As far as I am aware, I am neither mad nor drunk, but I do recommend holding one's literary breath and plunging into this masterpiece.
This book is truly an extraordinary novel. Joyce is a master at depicting and analysing mankind. His ability to describe human emotions on both a concious and sub-concious level is amazing. I am not saying it is easy. To be honest, there are large parts of the book that even after re-reading are way over my head, but too many believe that the book is beyond them. One should not focus on the bad, but the good, and the overall effect of the novel is nothing short of awesome.
So go on, ignore the stigma and the prejudice.
Read Ulysses, for fun.
on 27 July 2004
So much has been written about this book in the past eighty years that its reputation alone is enough to dissuade some readers. I think that the reviews printed here reflect the balance of opinion about it, both why it is so revered and why some describe it as being unreadable. For what it is worth, 'Ulysses' is, for me, one of the most sublime monuments in world literature, a book unlike any other, and one that deserves a place among the very small number of classics that should be enjoyed for centuries to come. However, I do understand those that have struggled and failed with it.
Firstly, to like this book is not 'pretentious'. It is perhaps my pretension that made me read it and want to understand it to begin with, but certainly not my pretension that made me enjoy it. These are not to be confused. Secondly, it is 'difficult'. If someone tells you otherwise, I would like to know what they are comparing it to. Joyce's language is convoluted and obscure, and often important events are referred to so obliquely that they bypassed me if my attention was wandering. I have read the book twice and realised that I missed much the first time round. However, the rewards for sticking with it are huge. Thirdly, don't let the scholarly dissection of the book put you off. There are a lot of themes underpinning the book, not least the explicit parallels with the 'Odyssey' and the slightly more implicit theme of the relationships between fathers and sons (paralleled by a reference to Hamlet that runs through the book). However, it would be wrong to view 'Ulysses' as some sort of puzzle to be solved. It is, very simply, a book about a man (Bloom/Daedalus/Joyce) and about Ireland in 1904. For all its scholarly overtones it is about a day in the life of an everyman. He isn't a hero, he doesn't save the world or fight the bad guy and, paradoxically, this should make it more, not less, accessible to most readers. If you are able to overcome the complex structure (which becomes one of the book's joys, honest) and lack of plot then the odyssey through a single day and a single language, and a single city becomes the most incredible journey in literature. I have read it twice, and both times I was unable to out the book out of my head for several days after I had out it down. It felt more like having an important life moment than simply reading a book. I read a lot, but only a couple of books make me feel this way, and this is one. If this (admittedly pretentious sounding) review doesn't put you off, then please make the effort to read this book. It really is worth it.
on 19 December 2013
Started Ulysses twice at age of seventeen and then at eighteen and hoyed it both times after two hundred pages. I decided then I was obviously not clever enough to do it justice. My elder brother, a working class intellectual, sneered at my lack of mental stamina. And so be it. It does require stamina, fortitude, determination and enough supplements to stun a bull rhino to get through all 934 pages. So at the age of fifty eight I embarked on a further journey to read each and every page-well up to page 503 after that it was switch to speed auto read. Ok so completed around 1920, it is for obvious reasons a classic. Mr Joyce was a smart and creative force. Dublin in a day and everyman's journey (Leopold Bloom) is a worthy vehicle to drive this opus. It is that after a while it becomes tedious and I sank beneath the clever use of language to scream enough! Its parts do not justify the bulk of the whole. I lack a classical education, am self-taught but widely read. "War and Peace" it is not. My brother loved it because in general it excludes riff-raff like me. He, with a brain like a combined harvester on steroids could churn through and admire multiple levels of thought, process and he got a lot of the literary in-jokes. Me, I just wiped me brow, sweated on, rolled up more of me sleeve and wondered when the agony would end. When the last page turned, did I feel a better man for it? Not a bit. But good on you Mr Joyce, you kicked the bollocks out of the traditional novel and for that we ought to hold you in gratitude. But will I read it for fun at ninety? Don't hold your breath. Now where's me favourite Noddy book?
on 8 October 2000
Finnegans Wake is the most daring novel ever written. Despite this, it seems to be its fate not to be appreciated for what it is. Its original publisher Faber has let it go out of print. Its very name is mostly given wrongly ... Adolescents who have struggled with Ulysses feel that it is their right to abuse it.
So what is it, after all?
The funniest novel ever written. The best book about adultery. The best book about sibling rivalry. The only book which reruns a country's history from the point of view of a provincial pub landlord. The best written book ever. Better than Ulysses.
Right, I'm obviously not going to precis the plot or anything. Why should you read it?
The first thing to say is that you can read Vico, Bruno the Nolan and the Four Masters if you want, but why bother? It's not an intellectual book. Joyce was clever enough, but he wasn't an intellectual. So this is not a book for intellectuals. Hardly surprising, Joyce was much more interested in the smell of dirty knickers than in philosophy.
Read it aloud in a cod Oirish accent if you want to feel the prose. Get the casettes to help you out, I have.
Read the prose from "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recurculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." to "Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the"
Yes it does make more sense if you reverse them. This is something you learn.
What about the first words of the most accessible section, about the Liffey. (This is a gross simplification of the theme.)
"O tell me all about Anna Livia! I want to hear all about Anna Livia. Well, you know Anna Livia? Yes, of course, we all know Anna Livia. Tell me all. Tell me now" And thus the washerwomen set off, we can only follow.
If you read the work you will gain information in a thousand areas. Here are some at random
How to talk dirty in geometry classes. The irritating qualities of unpruned trees. Aspects of chicken rearing. What the thunder said. (Quite a lot, actually) What a quark really is. The role of Norsemen in Ireland. And many, many more.
I repeat this is not an intellectual book, you don't need to be a scholar to read it.
I first read it when I had just turned 16. I had romped through Ulysses without a note and without a qualm. I found the Wake a bit tougher and had to give up around page 300. However, I trusted Joyce, every time he wrote a book it was better than the last. So I started again. I used the Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Campbell and Robinson; now a VERY rare work. Today I would use A SHORTER FINNEGANS WAKE, Edited by Anthony Burgess. Spend thirty or forty hours getting your bearings and the book is yours for life.
Read it regularly if you want. If you don't want todo this, park it by your desk and open it at random whenever you fancy, read a page aloud, laugh a lot.
So, why make the effort? Well if you like well made plots, neat outcomes, clean lines on a well-polished body, don't bother. If you like puns, obscure jokes, fake scholarship and a swamp you will never plumb, give it a go.
What about the words stuffed with meanings? Well, mainly they are just the shortest way to tell a good joke!
Give it a go, save it from the maniac academics.
on 22 March 2013
I have been reading Ulysses now for the best part of 40 years and have a number of editions on my bookshelf from the two volume Odyssey Press edition (2nd edition 1933) to this one. I have no doubt that this is the edition to have whether reading it for the 1st or 40th time. The annotations are superb; Sam Slote, at last, picks up on the apparent errors regarding the death of Mrs Sinico and the bee sting but oddly misses the error regarding the colours of Miss Douce's and Miss Kennedy's hair in Wandering Rocks. On p.180 we read "Bronze by gold, Miss Kennedy's head by Miss Douce's head, appeared above the cross blind of the Ormond Hotel". It is however Miss Douce who is bronze (Bronze Lydia (Douce)) and Miss Kennedy (Gold Mina) who is gold. Oddly the note refers the reader to the note on p.188/1 where the hair colours are correct but no comment is made. Does anyone know what Joyce's manuscript says at the point in W.R.? That said the annotations are nothing short of excellent and add a new dimension to the reading of the novel. However many editions you may own this is essential and the one to have and read/reread. It sets a new level in scholarly commentary on the novel.
on 14 March 2006
People who don't like Finnegans Wake often feel obscurely resentful, and can't believe that anyone else genuinely does like it. I firmly believe that you can't persuade anyone to like anything, so I'm not going to argue with anyone who thinks that I'm fooling myself, or trying to show off. Saying you like Finnegans Wake is in any case a bit like saying you like Arnold Schoenberg's music; most people won't know what you're talking about, and most of the rest won't believe you and think you're pretentious anyway, so the moral is, there's very little kudos in saying that you _do_ like the damn book.
It's just the ultimate novel. All novels, even the simplest, have various layers of allusion or symbolism going on; this one just has more. All novels are written with some kind of self-conscious style; this is the most stylish. All novels are structured one way or the other; this is uber-structured. I've often thought that Finnegans Wake is in many ways a precursor of HTML. Some genius should do an online version of it. Practically every word would be a hyperlink, leading to a page or so of annotation (Roland McHugh's book 'Annotations to Finnegans Wake' is the most ambitious print venture of that sort, but with the novel itself you get the most alarming sense that the layers go on forever...)
Every novel is difficult if you've never read novels before. If you've only read trash, then even a middling good novel is tough going; the writer demands more of the reader. James Joyce merely wants you to spend the rest of your life reading this book. Personally I think that's one of his better jokes. To go back to Schoenberg again (yeah, I know it's not exactly enticing to compare Joyce to Schoenberg, but bear with me), the essential thing is that there's just more going on here; Schoenberg has a million tunes going on at once, Joyce has a million linguistic things going on at once. I don't call that "having a shoddy grip on his talent", I call that generosity.
After trying to work out why people resent this book so much, I've come to believe that some people hate to think that there's anyone out there who's effortlessly smarter than they are. I, for one, am happy to accept that Joyce can just write anyone else off the planet.
Personally, I believe that the book becomes a lot more realistic if you read it with an Irish accent in your head. But try it and see. Nobody will seriously believe that you're reading it, so what have you got to lose?
This is the most important question for those who have yet to dip their toes in this 'difficult classic' - they may have read 'Dubliners' or 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' but find 'Ulysses' daunting.
Well, yes - it is worth the trouble, and the trouble may be less than you think and the effort more fun than you imagined. This book is very funny and very beautiful.
The book concerns a day in the life of Stephen Dedalus young would be writer and Leopold Bloom middle aged advertising space salesman, with the final chapter being given to the nocturnal thoughts of Bloom's unfaithful wife,Molly. During the day Bloom attends a funeral, faces down a racist bigot, masturbates and saves a drunken Stephen from two British soldiers before taking him home. The books famed mythic parallels, it's symbolism, puzzles, allusions etc are all very well when one has made some headway into the book - and it is a book one goes back to, but the nervous reader is more concerned with its difficulty.
The simple answer is not to get too bogged down when one does not understand something. Skip with impunity. Do not give up stumped at chapter three - we've all been there and it is worth pressing on. The difficulty lies partly with Joyce's 'internal monologue' technique particularly when the thoughts being set down in this abbreviated form are those of the erudite (and pretentious) Stephen - and partly (especially in the second half of the book) with the plethora of styles Joyce uses to mirror the action of the book - parody, pastiche and musical and rhythmic devices. Yet in these styles lie so many of the book's joys - one is again and again stopped in one's tracks by a perfectly shaped sentence ,a piece of intriguing wordplay or a sly shaft of wit.
If you persevere with this book you will find your own reasons for going back to it. This book in a very strange and subtle way, is a lifechanger.
on 2 February 2003
I'm just completing a re-reading of Ulysses twenty years after reading it as a student, and I'm amazed at how much I'm enjoying it. Yes, it's difficult and packed with allusions to literature, religion and philosophy that I've no idea about. But the sheer poetry of the writing, the humour and the inclusive passion for experience and existence, thought and emotion, have carried me over the difficult passages. 80 years after it was written there's still nothing to compare with Ulysses in its daring, scope and formal experimentation. If you want to understand the modern novel at all, start here.
on 3 October 2013
Finnegans Wake. Well it took me 6 months to read Ulysses (including the excellent guide book necessary for comprehension). That's about 250 hours.
I thought I'd try FW next. I have 3 books to help understanding, that's 4 books to read. So far I have read the introduction & a few pages of FW. I recon it takes 2 hours to read each page of FW to have any hope of understanding it. The problem is that having deciphered each sentence & paragraph it takes so long that the previous paragraph has been almost forgotten & is difficult to reprise. I can appreciate that it is a great novel. BUT do I want to spend 2 to 3 years to read it? Somehow I feel that I can use the time so much better. I am not going to give up, but perhaps I will wait until I am infirm & obliged to stay in & read, & I have the necessary 1500 hours.
If I were cynical I could perhaps mock/joke about FW by saying that each word has so many meanings/interpretations/double meanings/etc/etc that by only a slight extension perhaps the whole OED (Oxford English Dictionary) could be replaced by one word since each word has all meanings. FW renders language both very rich & meaningless.
Reading & understanding this book is a truly daunting intellectual challenge & not for the fainthearted & not just `for fun'.
on 9 September 2009
People approaching Ulysses for the first time should be aware that this particular edition, the so-called "Corrected Text" is a strange beast, created as the work was approaching the end of its term of copyright to ensure that a new copyright could be created and thus control be maintained over the cash flow from the book well into the 21st century. To this end, the text needed to be significantly different to the previous "version". So up stepped Hans Walter Gabler, ready and willing to make sometimes dozens of alterations to the text on each page, "correcting" colloquial speech and making numerous other changes based upon what he has decided the author's intentions actually were.
People who wear their half-moon glasses on a little chain around their neck have been arguing about just what the "definitive" text of Ulysses might be for years, and there's no doubt that Gabler has made all of his "improvements" out of love for the material- or at least from an ambition to be pre-eminent in the notoriously and ridiculously ingrown world of Joyce studies- but it's hard to escape the conclusion that what he has done here is essentially, well, dry-humped the book.
The conceit of all this would make a fine comedy, full of the kinds of jokes that academics don't get. Joyce himself perhaps wouldn't have appreciated the humour in the idea of a bunch of idiots rewriting his book with a big payday in mind, all the while fooling themselves that they're doing it for the sake of the book. But Flann O'Brien might have.