Obscene, obscure, and over-long: from that sort of account of James Joyce’s Ulysses, I can understand why it’s not read more widely, but I’m still surprised by how many people mention it as the work they pretend to have read. Reading it is so much more fun than pretending.
I first heard of Ulysses as one of the classic texts of high modernism. At that point I was familiar with modernism almost entirely through T. S. Eliot, so I assumed that Ulysses would be an extended account of the decay of Western civilisation with the usual Eliot scenery of fog, smoke, canals, rats, and general urban debris, and an equivalent level of quotation from obscure texts in languages I didn’t understand. Nevertheless, brave teenager that I was, I looked forward to reading it.
No-one had told me it was funny: raucously, mockingly, obscenely funny; wittily funny, childishly funny, exasperatingly funny. Mr Joyce’s emporium stocks every variety of funny.
And no-one had told me it was beautiful: not because of the world it depicts, which is only rarely beautiful, but in the shaping of the prose.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air.
What captivating opening sentences. Never mind that it’s hard to visualise how you might cross a razor and a mirror (even an old-fashioned cutthroat razor); never mind that the first thing anyone says is in Latin. The cadence is enough to reassure that Joyce is utterly in control of his materials, and that he’s worth persevering with. And the parody of the Mass that Mulligan is performing sounds the note of mocking scepticism that runs throughout.
It’s true that it’s a different reading experience from even the biggest Victorian novels. The length isn’t really the issue. You have to learn to live with a degree of confusion; some things only fall into place on a second or a third reading. The Ithaca episode (the penultimate) is where we learn the most factual information about the characters, but by then it’s too late to be of use; in any case, much of the information is deliberately in excess of usefulness. You have to learn when to follow something up and when to let it lie, but a well annotated edition will enable you to do that easily. Jeri Johnson’s edition for Oxford World’s Classics has over 200 pages of notes. I wish this had been available when I first read Ulysses; the best that was available was Harry Blamires’s The Bloomsday Book, which on reflection probably had too much paraphrase but too little annotated. You have to hold things in your head and connect them across long distances, but not in a detective-story mentality: plenty of connections can escape you and you’ll still gain a lot from the experience.
The first version I read, the Penguin edition of Hans Walter Gabler’s ‘corrected’ text, came with a reassuring Introduction by Richard Ellmann which said (though I paraphrase), Joyce’s theme was simple; he used the most elaborate methods to present it. The theme, on Ellmann’s account, is love. Leopold Bloom’s love for Molly; his love for his lost son and for the daughter who’s just moved away from home; the love of family and the love of nation and place. I don’t much care for claims about ‘universality’, and it’s a novel about a predominantly male world, but it’s still a novel with a wide reach.