It’s there, taunting you.
Sitting at number one for the Modern Library’s list of 100 greatest English-language novels of the 20th Century. Reminding you of all the praise its earned over the decades, even if it didn’t receive much attention initially (other than being banned in the United States).
The 750-page shapeshifting streamofconsciousness genrebending literaryreferencing epictomemasterpiece inscribed no composed not quite maybe transcribed yes that’s it transcribed by the Irishexpatwritingenius heroically heroed as James Joyce.
(I promise the above paragraph will be the only part of this post that apes the actual style of Ulysses.)
The thing with Ulysses and blogging about it isn’t whether readers today should read it cover to cover and make up their own minds about it, but rather if readers should even attempt dusting if off. Few books I’ve read before, even those of similar lengths, have presented such a challenge.
After all, most readers, especially those just starting to get into classic novels, aren’t going to find a book all-that-appealing if its finale is just word after word strung together without any punctuation. Or a book that devotes a disproportionate chunk of its attention to the Shakespeare authorship controversy and Hamlet . . . and doesn’t even bother to resolve that issue. Or a novel that is so in love with the English language that it becomes almost impossible to read the story for the narrative and instead you have to read word by word by word.
Doesn’t that sound pleasant?
But I’m not going to roast Ulysses all the way in this post.
It has more than enough great qualities to make it obvious why it’s been a beloved read throughout the years. In terms of sheer ambition, Joyce breaks the meter. I challenge you to find a novel that condenses a span of one day’s waking hours into something like an adventure (or, ahem, an odyssey, nudge-nudge), even though once you finish this novel, you’ll realize that nothing too out-of-the-ordinary happened.
It’s daring of Joyce to turn the supposedly mundane modern life of Leopold Bloom, his friend Stephen Dedalus, Leopold’s discontented wife Molly, and the various other Dubliners appearing in the novel into something intriguing and entertaining, in many cases by using character’s thoughts and putting them on the page to guide the plot.
Over the course of one June day in 1904, Bloom has to deal with a lot: anti-Semitism (Bloom’s Jewish); his wife’s infidelity; the bumbling antics of Dedalus, who also appeared in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; the growing tension between the British and Irish; and a barrage of memories and worries that pop up throughout his day.
Joyce’s storytelling is alien to pretty much anything else you might run across from this time period. In addition, we have to give him credit for inspiring William Faulkner (without the odyssey of Ulysses, there’s no way we’d get the odyssey of As I Lay Dying) to experiment with his own writing style a decade or so later.
That said, I’m not denying Ulysses is a tough read.
This is the first classic novel I’ve blogged about where there’s a good chance fewer than half of initial readers will want to read beyond maybe the first third, if that much. I somehow believed that I could tackle the novel in a brisk two-week span—it ended up taking me a month and a few days.
Ulysses tested my patience, my attention, and my eyes (there’s a section where Joyce appears to have fallen in love with all caps and IT REALLY ASSAULTS THE RETINA AFTER A WHILE OF READING SENTENCES WRITTEN LIKE THIS FOR PARAGRAPH AFTER PARAGRAPH). It made me wonder if I would or could ever return to “normal” reading, i.e. reading that doesn’t involve agonizing over each word’s meaning or potential allusions.
What I would advise any reader considering dusting off Ulysses is to invest in a sense of humor.
If you don’t take this book as seriously as you think you should, you might actually enjoy it more. Once I realized that the concluding episode featuring Molly Bloom’s every thought was going to be my companion for a while, I learned to be less harsh on Joyce for taking such a radical route with his writing. I was able to laugh at some of Molly’s inner remarks and also empathized with her situation; the same went for her husband when he was splattering his mind’s contents onto the pages before me.
So, to answer the question posed by this blog’s title: a most resounding NO . . . and, at the same time, a tentative yes. If you want to read Joyce for the first time, I’d opt for something like Dubliners. If you’re just starting to like classic novels, then I’d keep reading Ulysses as a good goal to work towards down the road. If you don’t want to feel a whole range of “negative” emotions when you read (like boredom, frustration, general weirded-out-ness, and impatience), then you might want to forget Ulysses even exists.
But if you’re okay with embarking on a baffling, sometimes incomprehensible odyssey featuring some of the sharpest distortions I’ve encountered in English—then Ulysses might work out for you, although I suspect you’re in the 0.1% of readers out there.
Or, put another way, if you’re reaction to the question, “Would you be interested in reading Ulysses?” comes in the form of “yes I said yes I will Yes” (you’ll have to read the book start to finish to see what I’m referencing), then this book is for you.