s.penkevich's Reviews > Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce
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Apr 11, 12

bookshelves: times-100-best, dear_dirty_dublin, favorites
Recommended to s.penkevich by: Ben Linus
Recommended for: Just read it!
Read from March 13 to April 05, 2012

Often considered one of the ‘greatest novel of the 20th century’, James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, is both a feat and feast of sheer literary brilliance. Reimagining Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey as the travels and trials of an everyday man through the crowded streets and pubs of Dublin, Joyce weaves strikingly versatile prose styles and varying perspectives to encompass the whole of life within the hours of a single standard day, June 16th, 1904. This day, dubbed Bloomsday, is celebrated with increasing popularity in modern times, which is a testament to the lasting greatness of the novel (and to the desire to drink and be merry of all people). Instead of taking a daily life and elevating it to mythical proportions, Joyce has taken mythology and reversed it, shrinking it into an average day, which in turn gives each character and action a heroic sense about them. In this way, even besting a drunken nationalist spewing anti-sematic sentiments at a bar can be seen as a legendary conquest. Ulysses is an epic in its own right, setting the bar for literature up to the stratosphere as we immerse ourselves in Joyce’s dear dirty Dublin.

While one must have their wits about them to navigate this laborious labyrinth of literature, the task is highly rewarding. It is very understandable that so many people do not finish this novel, or just plain dislike it; this book can be downright frustrating. Combining the heavy use of cryptic and dated allusions, obfuscating narration, an enviable vocabulary and pages of dense prose to decipher, Joyce intentionally set out to create a literary odyssey of words to conquer saying ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.’ Readers should be warned this is a tough novel. Often times this novel inspired such frustration that it was tempting to slam the cover for good, and it wasn’t until the second half that I was finally able to recognize that this novel had written its way into my heart. Upon reflecting back after completion, only then did I realize that this truly is one of the greatest books ever written and I have come to love it. Perhaps this is akin to the feeling those who run marathons or climb mountains feel; the adventure is a long, arduous struggle where one must keep focus and positive to battle through, yet the pride and elation of completion more than makes up for the struggles. I do not wish to make this book seem like it is only for masochists though, as there are more than enough rewards to reap along the way. This is some of the finest displays of writing I have ever encountered, and offers a broad range of style. Many people fail to mention that this book is downright funny as well. There are countless little jokes, such as characters running from a bar so they can fart loudly unheard, endless sexual jokes and quips, and many funny characterizations. It should be noted as well that there is no shame in seeking aide for this book. Originally I didn’t want to, but there are so many esoteric allusions and puzzles that an annotation guide and a few essays really helped my understanding. This is a novel to teach to yourself, not just read – there are people who spent years at universities digging through this book and it is still widely debated. Even the great Ulysses (or Odysseus depending on who your asking) had to seek aide in his epic journey.

The variety of style in this book is highly impressive. Each of the 18 chapters, aside from being thematically built around a corresponding episode of The Odyssey, has its own unique set of techniques and lexicon, often parodying the styles of newspapers or current women’s magazines, traditional Irish mythological styles, a chapter dissolving the world into scientific properties, the famous stream-of-consciousness, 200 pages of jocular hallucinations in play format, and a dizzying array of prose from flowery language to the language of flowers. Joyce had such a love of style that there is even an entire chapter devoted to alternating writing styles as he parodies many famous authors throughout history (calling all fans of David Mitchell or If on a winter's night a traveler) in a swirling scene of drunken debates. The language is often quite playful, lyrical and full of puns. He even uses sentence structure to convey motion, such as Gerty’s limp: ‘Tight boots? No. She’s lame! O!’. If just for the use of language alone, this is one of the most spectacular books ever written and practically killed my dictionary. Also, it is interesting that C.G. Jung diagnosed Joyce as having schizophrenia based on reading this book due to the rapidly changing styles and the use of playful rhyming and jangling speech. Joyce's daughter did in fact have schizophrenia.

One of Ulysses most discussed features is Joyce's technique of placing the reader within the minds of the characters. It is not a typical first person narration, however, as the characters are seemingly unaffected and unaware they have a reader riding along in their thoughts. Information comes across in broken and random spurts, and Joyce does not bother with clarifying these thoughts to the reader. Much like William Faulkner, Joyce leaves the reader unaided to piece together his massive puzzle. Often the subject of a thought can switch between several people without any indication, as with Boylan and Bloom in Molly’s soliloquy, and many chapters take pages to realize who the person speaking is. While initially following Stephen and then Bloom second by second through their routine, the novel soon fractures into smaller chunks of concurrent narration, to further fit all of life within the day and to offer a broader, more varied perspective on the events that transpire. The idea of the ‘parallax’, which is essentially a scientific term that different perspectives will have a uniquely different view of the same object, is often on Bloom’s mind, and is a major theme running through this novel. Through the multiple points of view, the reader is flooded with alternative, and often conflicting, images of the characters. The readers must then decide themselves what is the whole picture.

The various speakers are another testament to the versatility of the pen employed by Joyce. Each speaker has a drastically different tone and vocabulary, as well as structure (most notably Molly). There are times when the reader may wonder if Joyce’s opinions on the Jewish people and women may be rather negative, but then he will surprise you with a completely opposing statement. Women, and sexuality in general, are a major topic in this novel, and it is no surprise many have dismissed Joyce as a misogynist as many of the women in this novel are viewed strictly in regards to their sexuality. There are many female roles who are only used to further this idea, often by having many characters be prostitues. Through Bloom we see an unapologetic image of women as a sexual objects, and a male opinion on how women view sexuality. However, with Molly, Joyce offers a highly contrasted opinion on how women view their own sexuality, how women view men’s sexuality, and even how women view how men view women’s sexuality. Molly even fantasizes about having a penis and what it would be like to mount a woman. So while some ideas may be offensive to a reader, they must view it with an open mind and in the context of the novel and characters. Also, Joyce was aware of the overzealous censorship of novels in England and America and often wrote passages that blew past the lines intentionally to irk these censors. No wonder the novel was banned in American until 1934 when the Supreme Court over-turned the ruling in a landmark obscenity trial.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet plays just as much of a role in this novel as the Odyssey. This further emphasizes the parallax, and Joyce’s goal to keep the life of his characters grounded in reality by not aligning any of the characters in a clear cut way. Hamlet is often discussed amongst the intelligentsia of Dublin, and a critical scene involves Stephen’s interpretation of the play revealing many themes of the novel at hand. From the ideas of Stephen’s role as Telemachus searching for a surrogate father in Bloom’s Ulysses as well as the ongoing thoughts over adultery all reveal themselves early on through Stephen’s lecture on Hamlet. However, this scene also demonstrates that Stephen is a Hamlet figure as well as Bloom being a figure of the deceased King, and that Molly may also fit the role of the betraying Queen as well as Penelope. There are many other roles in this novel that have more than one character that could fill them, such as how both Buck Mulligan and Blazes Boylan are both ‘usurpers’. It is interesting to note here that many of the characters, Mulligan in particular, are based from people Joyce interacted with in real life. ‘The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.’, is said at a timely manner when Stephen explores how the characters of Hamlet all correspond to Shakespeare’s own family, much like how these characters correspond to those around Bloom and to those that were surrounding Joyce. Stephen is also highly representative of Joyce himself. He was the hero of Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and in this novel we see him continue his quest of artistry. He even sides with an unborn child in a debate over whether a mother or child’s life is more important during birth, signifying his ideas that art, something we create, is of the utmost importance. A touch of metafiction as well as a compounding use of themes is one of the many ways this book stole my heart.

Joyce avoids distinct lines anywhere he can with this novel. Characters such as Bloom are walking contradictions and a paradox to those around him. He is Jewish, but also baptized. He is a father figure, but also displays many motherly traits and desires causing the more masculine characters to harbor a bit of disdain for him for being rather ‘womanly’. He is very caring and generous, but then at times very cheap and critical of others for their generosity. Such is the enigma of Leopold Bloom, one of the most likeable everyman characters in all of literature (it was very difficult not to picture him as George Clooney from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, another wonderful retelling of The Odyssey). He is not without his faults though, as he is a shameless womanizer and has the ‘undressing eyes’ aimed at all the fair ladies of Dublin (and what is with Joyce and men masturbating in public, ie The Encounter from Dubliners? I’m on to you Joyce…). Bloom spends much of this novel on the go, trying to move forward from the sadness of his past and the weight of thoughts of his wife’s possible transgressions. ‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself,’ Bloom mentions. His ‘coming together’ with Stephen is also grounded in reality, as there is no clear-cut bond between them. ‘Frailty thy name is marriage’ Bloom thinks, playing off of the famous line from Hamlet. The marriage of Bloom and Stephen, Bloom and Molly, and many other ‘marriages’ of characters are fraught with incompatible moments, as people just do not always get along or agree. While the union of Bloom and Stephen is alluded to through the entire novel, they often are at odds with one another or offend the other while trying to be friendly. However, this meeting is highly significant in both their lives, and as many of these ‘marriages’ are flawed, they are shown as having shaped each individual. As C.G. Jung once wrote, ‘The meeting of two personalities is like the contact between two chemical substances. If there is any reaction, both are transformed.

Ulysses is not an easy novel by any means, but it is well worth the effort. The prose may be daunting at first, but patients, and a bit of guidance can really go a long way and this novel will eventually bloom for any reader so they can drink the sweet language of Joyce’s pen. There are so many wonderful techniques buzzing about and puzzles to unlock. Plus, this novel is outright hilarious. For one of the more comprehensive reviews you can find, you should also read Ian's stunning review.
Joyce has certainly left his mark on the face of literature with this novel, which is more than deserving of the title bestowed on it by the Modern Library of the greatest novel of the 20th century. Yes it is the greatest and yes you should read it and yes each word will blossom in your mind and Yes will I give this book a 5/5 and yes I said yes I will Yes.
5/5

Also, reading this book in public will make you appear smart.


And even the great Jorge Luis Borges was moved by this novel:

James Joyce (as translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni)

In a man’s single day are all the days
of time from that unimaginable
first day, when a terrible God marked out
the days and agonies, to that other,
when the ubiquitous flow of earthly
time goes back to its source, Eternity,
and flickers out in the present, the past,
and the future—what now belongs to me.
Between dawn and dark lies the history
of the world. From the vault of night I see
at my feet the wanderings of the Jew,
Carthage put to the sword, Heaven and Hell.
Grant me, O Lord, the courage and the joy
to ascend to the summit of this day.
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Reading Progress

03/14/2012 page 48
6.0% 6 comments
03/15/2012 page 71
9.0% 1 comment
03/16/2012 page 109
13.0% 2 comments
03/17/2012 page 184
23.0% "I am finally really enjoying this. There have been a few bumps, and a time or two that I had the urge to shut and shelve this, but I think I'm getting the hang of it. It really is quite brilliant, but you have to work for it. The newspaper room scene was amazing though, so far my favorite passage." 3 comments
03/19/2012 page 256
31.0% "That last chapter was awesome, it had this whole camera-shifting multiple perspective deal that really flowed. Stephen is the shit as well." 1 comment
03/25/2012 page 404
50.0% "Halfway there!"
03/29/2012 page 515
63.0% "Apparently C.G. Jung read this book and diagnosed Joyce as a schizophrenic ha"
04/01/2012 page 654
80.0% 10 comments
04/03/2012 page 707
87.0% "Almost there!" 1 comment
04/04/2012 page 744
91.0% "So close. It was hard to not call in 'sick' and finish." 1 comment
show 8 hidden updates…

Comments (showing 1-50 of 118) (118 new)


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Don't be scared! I've seen so many people start reading this today! It's a happy day for me!


Jenn(ifer) That's cos we are in a Ulysses reading support group :)


s.penkevich Join us!


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

As much as I loved this book, I've just jumped into another tome so rereading this one isn't a huge priority. Wait till the final scene of part two - absolutely breathtaking. Don't read my review if you don't want it spoiled.


s.penkevich Sean wrote: "As much as I loved this book, I've just jumped into another tome so rereading this one isn't a huge priority. Wait till the final scene of part two - absolutely breathtaking. Don't read my review i..."

I'll be looking forward to it, and to reading your review. Ah, how is 2666 so far? That is a tome as well.


s.penkevich Scott wrote: "You are brave! I don't possess that amount of patience."

It is my experiment to see if patience really is a virtue


s.penkevich Scott wrote: "Haha. I'm sure it is. I'll let you know if I ever develop any. The most frustrating book I've read so far is either Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish or [book:Pale Fire|..."

A Novel in Twelve Fish, haha that is an awesome title, I should check that out.
Pale Fire, awesome choice, I've been wanting to read that forever and never get around to it. That's like, metafiction to the nth degree right?
So far, I think Moby Dick was the toughest I've read, but I ended up being obsessed with it for awhile. I wanted, and still do, to get Ahab tattooed on me.


message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm undecided on 2666 thus far but I'm not so intimidated by it as it's really quite readable compared to others, i.e Gravity's Rainbow, This.

And Scott, I gave four stars to Moby Dick because I felt guilty rating it any lower, but boy, I did not enjoy it.


s.penkevich Sean wrote: "I'm undecided on 2666 thus far but I'm not so intimidated by it as it's really quite readable compared to others, i.e Gravity's Rainbow, This.

And Scott, I gave four stars to Moby Dick because I f..."


I could see how one would not like M.D. To be honest Scott, most of that book is a way out-dated biology study on whales and that gets really dry. But the end is rad.


s.penkevich I can't think of any good jokes about making any Dicks a priority right now.. Dammit ha


s.penkevich Hahaha suuuuuure. I seriously sat there last night for 5 minutes trying to think of one but couldn't quite make it work.
There is this badass book I've been looking at every time I'm at a bookstore lately: Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page which may inspire a read. Some of it reminds me of Radiohead artwork.

Or maybe give this a glance: Why Read Moby-Dick?. Ha. It was a rough going book, but it was still good. There's a scene where they all remove their spears and do shots of whisky (or perhaps rum) out of their lances, how awesome is that?


s.penkevich Scott wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "There is this badass book I've been looking at every time I'm at a bookstore lately: Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page which may inspire a read. Some of it remin..."

What?! That is awesome, I should pick that up for when we get to Gravity's Rainbow.


Jenn(ifer) Chapter 11 is BRILLIANT! I'm loving it


s.penkevich (Jenn)ifer wrote: "Chapter 11 is BRILLIANT! I'm loving it"

Isn't it? Now that I'm well enough into the book I'm really enjoying it. I like how he is relentless, everytime you catch on to his style, he throws another curve at you.


message 16: by Ian (last edited Mar 30, 2012 10:24AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidin-Seek I watched a really great doco on Philip Roth a few days ago and he mentioned Joyce writing home to his mother and asking her to check the colour of the blinds on the windows of a friend's apartment, so he could describe them accurately.


Jenn(ifer) Wow. It's no wonder it took the man 6 (7?) years to write the book!


s.penkevich Ian wrote: "I watched a really great doco on Phillip Roth a few days ago and he mentioned Joyce writing home to his mother and asking her to check the colour of the blinds on the windows of a friend's apartmen..."

Ha, thats awesome. What an attention to detail.

Phillip Roth documentary? I need to see this.


message 19: by Ian (last edited Apr 05, 2012 11:26AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidin-Seek http://rothsociety.org/?p=638

Roth said that Joyce was essentially preserving his memory of Dublin in writing.


s.penkevich Sounds interesting. Roth is one of those authors I've read a bunch about yet haven't read much by. I enjoyed American Pastoral though, so I should probably read some more. Much more. He's always highly talked about as a possible Nobel recipient too.


message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

and s.penkevich will love the last chapter and he will throw the book down yes and give another five star review yes and my mountain flower and I will ask if he loved it as much as I did and yes he'll say yes I did Yes.


s.penkevich Sean wrote: "and s.penkevich will love the last chapter and he will throw the book down yes and give another five star review yes and my mountain flower and I will ask if he loved it as much as I did and yes he..."

I'm almost there! I think I will. I've had some love/hate with this book, actually more 'love/frustration' with it, but all in all I see why, and completely agree, this book is considered the single best book of the 20th century.

The play part really sold it. The part before that blew my mind as well, how he seamlessly jumped styles was impressive. It was also a bitch of a read and gave my dictionary a heart-attack,


s.penkevich Scott wrote: "You may be in a position, Penk, where reading Gravity's Rainbow this summer may feel like a beach read after tackling Joyce."

Sounds good to me ha. At least Pynchon has an easier prose style to digest. This is turning into quite the year of reading.


message 24: by s.penkevich (last edited Apr 02, 2012 07:26AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

s.penkevich He is a bit tough, the language is rather complex and he strings metaphors together ij a web. When I first introduced myself to him, I bought a used copy at an Ann Arbor bookstore. That copy turned out to have belonged to some student who took extensive notes on many of the poems in the margins and had a few pages of lecture notes tucked in from a 400 level course at UofM. That was extrememly helpful.

Ha, basically just test any obscure metaphor to see if it fits with either conception, birth or death. That seems to be Thomas' standard themes.


s.penkevich Scott wrote: "Bonus! It's like you purchased the unofficially annotated version.

Thanks for the guidance with the metaphors."


Ha, yeah. At first I was annoyed with myself for not flipping through to see if it was marked up and highlighted, but then I noticed the content and depth of the notes.


Jenn(ifer) stop it! I can't believe you finished already. I'm such a slacker


message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

Twss!


Jenn(ifer) Sean wrote: "Twss!"

hahaaaaaaaaaaa!!


Stephen M Congratulations on your finishing of this mighty behemoth. You've just achieved level 15 goodreader.


message 30: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidin-Seek Now for the hard part.


Jenn(ifer) twss?


message 32: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidin-Seek Ha ha. That'll teach me not to pay attention. My excuse is that I admire someone who has a soft spot for the hard part.


Jenn(ifer) oh Ian, you keep setting me up!


message 34: by Meg ♥ (new)

Meg ♥ So many mixed reviews from my friends on this book. There doesn't seem to be anyone that thinks it's just okay. Full on love or hate all the way!


message 35: by Ian (last edited Apr 05, 2012 11:53AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidin-Seek (Jenn)ifer wrote: "oh Ian, you keep setting me up!"

I like playing with you. Though it pains me to say, you always hit my balls with the sweet spot in your bat.


Jenn(ifer) I imagine that would pain you alright!


Jenn(ifer) haha!


message 38: by Ian (last edited Apr 05, 2012 02:34PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidin-Seek (Jenn)ifer wrote: "I imagine that would pain you alright!"

Guys would like to think there's not a vast deferens from labour pains, but I'm sure they're worse.


Jenn(ifer) oh no you didn't...


message 40: by Ian (last edited Apr 05, 2012 02:38PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidin-Seek What a Swell Parity This Is

What frills and what frocks
But keep your eyes off my rocks
Well did you evah!


s.penkevich Stephen M wrote: "Congratulations on your finishing of this mighty behemoth. You've just achieved level 15 goodreader."

Gracias Sir Stephen. With IJ under your belt you have certainly achieved Goodreads knighthood and Level 21 (they let you drink in the goodreads bars)


s.penkevich Meg ♥ wrote: "So many mixed reviews from my friends on this book. There doesn't seem to be anyone that thinks it's just okay. Full on love or hate all the way!"

I can see why this book is so polarizing. It is quite good, but it is also quite difficult. A lot of the love comes from the glory of completion and from facing the intellectual challanges. Sort of how people view marathons and mountain climbing, it is diiicult but exhilerating to say you've done it. I do see why many people give up on it, there were many points where I was very frustrated.


s.penkevich Ian wrote: "What a Swell Parity This Is

What frills and what frocks
But keep your eyes off my rocks
Well did you evah!"


Ha!
Applause


message 44: by yarnandvintage (new)

yarnandvintage Great review, sir. :)


message 45: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidin-Seek s.penkevich wrote: "Instead of taking a daily life and elevating it to mythical proportions, Joyce has taken mythology and reversed it, shrinking it into an average day, which in turn gives each character and action a heroic sense about them."

I like the way you said this (and the rest).

Thanks heaps for the plug, too.


[Name Redacted] Best last line in a review EVER.

And I first tried reading this when I was 8 or so. My parents took it away from me because they felt i could not appreciate it.


message 47: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Fantastic review!
I should one day just sit down and attempt to read the novel without trying to look up all the allusions. It's because I'm forever looking up notes and additional reading on this damn tome that is the cause that I can never get through the thing. ..but reading your review makes me want to!


Jenn(ifer) Bravo!! Great review


s.penkevich Ian wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "Instead of taking a daily life and elevating it to mythical proportions, Joyce has taken mythology and reversed it, shrinking it into an average day, which in turn gives each ch..."

No, thank you for your review ha. It helped me navigate this novel immensely.

Glad that line worked out. There were a few ideas I had that were difficult to get out as they had such twisted and backwards logic, such as that one, where I wasn't sure if I was making a point or just making an ugly confusing string of words.


s.penkevich Ian wrote: "Best last line in a review EVER.

And I first tried reading this when I was 8 or so. My parents took it away from me because they felt i could not appreciate it."


Thank you, I figured I should give put some jokes and parodies in this review for those who have read the book.


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