Fionnuala's Reviews > Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce
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Apr 02, 14

Read from August 05 to 17, 2012

Reviewed in August 2012

This review is my attempt to reclaim Ulysses from the academics. My edition was a simple paperback without notes or glossary but containing a preface which I intend to read after I've written my review. I'll probably look at other reviews too, as frankly, I'm suffering withdrawal symptoms from the world of this novel.

The word 'novel' seems inappropriate to describe Ulysses but at the same time, the word might have been invented specifically to describe it. Everything about it is novel, from the structure to the use of language, from the characterisation to the treatment of history.
But by ‘novel’, I don’t mean experimental in an obscure or inaccessible way, as its reputation seems to imply: I found Flan O’Brian’s At Swim Two Birds quite difficult to follow in a way that Ulysses is definitely not and I’m finding Beckett’s Molloy, which I’m currently reading, much more difficult to get involved with; Ulysses was pure pleasure in comparison.

So why has this book developed such a fearsome reputation? Perhaps because we mistakenly think that to understand it, we need to have a thorough knowledge of the classics, including Shakespeare and Homer. The fact that I know very little about the Odyssey except that it recounts a long journey home made by Odysseus/Ulysses didn’t take from my enjoyment in the least. I’m not an expert on Hamlet either, but the little I know, and which most people probably know, was sufficient to allow me to follow the sections which refer to it. There are a few Old English phrases near the beginning that I googled but I soon decided to just let myself sink into the world of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus without further interruption.
Being able to read this without disruption is probably part of the reason I enjoyed the experience so much. When I bought my copy some fifteen years ago, I read about a third of it with great pleasure but as I had young children at the time and limited free moments, I had to give up when the reading experience became more challenging. And yes, it does become challenging in some parts, but never for very long, as if Joyce knew exactly how far he could try our patience.
As to deciphering those challenging sections, I think that one reader’s guess is as good as another’s. A big part of the pleasure for me was the puzzle element because I had plenty of time to reflect on what I was reading, time to figure out a meaning that satisfied me and also made sense of the bigger picture. And that’s what my reading without notes proved to me: there is a perfectly logical trajectory behind it all, even behind the more phantasmagorical elements. During the course of one day, Joyce reveals more and more facets of his main character, Leopold Bloom, and of the world he lived in. The characterisation of Bloom is so well done that by the end, he represents everyman, and every woman too, as well as messiahs and prophets, kings and emperors, in short all of humanity, complete with all of its goodness, and yes, some of its failings.
Of course, my interpretation may not be accurate and there may be acres of symbolism that I missed, but since I had such a satisfying read, how can that matter?
My satisfaction may have depended to some extent on the fact that I have an Irish background, but to what degree it helped me, I cannot tell. It is true that some of the material was familiar from history lessons and from general culture but at the same time, the Dublin of 1904 was a complete revelation to me. And the themes covered move quickly from the local to the universal so that a lack of knowledge of Irish life and culture shouldn’t be an impossible barrier, just a challenging one.
If you prefer exciting, stimulating, rewarding reading experiences, Ulysses is definitely for you.
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Reading Progress

08/10/2012 page 351
45.0% "I don't usually bother with status updates - why waste good reading time typing? However, if there is one book that cries out for a status update, it is this one. I should have started updating earlier because the experience of reading this changes from section to section. Right now I'm imagining the book as a map with characters moving about, intersecting with each other at pivotal points in time and space."
08/11/2012 page 488
62.0% "In this section Joyce has targeted some sacred cows: Irish nationalism; the Irish language, celtic mythology; tourist kitsch; the Roman catholic church; the innocence of young girls' romantic dreams. He's also put paid to any notion that the Irish weren't as antisemitic as other European nations - there were just fewer Jews in Ireland in the early 1900's so it wasn't very noticeable. It's all done with such style."
08/13/2012 page 639
82.0% "There were a few nearly incomprehensible pages around the 500 mark (pm?) that had me wishing my edition had footnotes but I'm enjoying the challenge of working things out. There was a lot of 'metempsychosis', Bloom's favourite word, around that day, I reckon, and the cast of characters increases as the hours go by. Themes debated get more universal: futility of war; intolerance; birth; right to life; the afterlife."
08/14/2012 page 703
75.0% "Reached the end of the Nighttown section (phew!), a drama with phantasmogorical stage directions, in which Bloom confronts his deepest, most unspoken desires and his greatest and most nightmarish fears via a series of alternately comic and horrific metamorphoses, cheered on by an ever increasing cast of characters who heap ridicule on peace-loving Bloom as well as on all messiahs and prophets, kings and emperors." 5 comments
08/16/2012 page 776
83.0% "So far, the reader has been listening at length to Bloom's very interesting interior monologues but hasn't heard his voice very much, just the odd sentence in response to other characters' much longer turns. As a result, a certain picture of Bloom has emerged which Joyce overturns completely in this section, by means of a monologue, in which we discover that the Bloom people hear is quite different to theBloomweknow." 1 comment
08/17/2012 page 871
93.0% "In this section, as if Joyce had anticipated his readers' confusion in the face of the complexities of the material, he presents the scenes in question and answer format, the questions being phrased as on a maths or science exam paper, the answers adhering strictly to the principles of logic and brevity, even when they are long, the whole enabling the reader to gain further and deeper insights into the Bloom weknow."
08/17/2012 page 933
100.0% "And so, yes, finally we get to hear Molly Bloom's own thoughts on men, women, sex, politics, birth and death, and yes they are thoughts that throw new light on many aspects of the story we've heard so far, and yes, they give us a slightly different view of Bloom, perhaps finally a true picture, yes, I think so indeed, yes." 4 comments

Comments (showing 1-50 of 79) (79 new)


Sarah (Warning: Potentially Off-Topic) Wonderful review, and I felt much the same way. I didn't want to spoil the reading experience by caught up in reading a guide simultaneously. I think the next time I read it I will use Ulysses Annotated, which is sort of an encyclopedia of annotations. It will at least be nice for translations - I spent a lot of time translating things when I was reading Ulysses!


Lisa You would have made James Joyce's day. He always said that Ulysses was a book for everybody and anybody and that you didn't need to be an academic to read it. It's my favourite book:)


Fionnuala Thanks for the positive comments. I'm sure I will reread it too - I was briefly tempted to start over as soon as I reached the last page but there are so many other books, which I hope will be at least half as satisfying, waiting on my shelves.


Kris This is a beautiful review, Fionnuala. I'm partway through my first read of it, and while I am loving tracing references and brushing up on my Irish history and marveling at Joyce's knowledge -- well -- everything, in the end it's his writing, the beauty of his language, and the arcs he creates throughout to turn a day in Dublin into something specific and still universal that make this such a special experience. I loved your description of your approach to solving the Ulysses puzzle. I hope that some GRers who have been terrified of reading Ulysses see your review and decide that they finally will pick it up.


Fionnuala Enjoy the experience, Kris, and I'm sure the annotated version is hugely rewarding. That's probably how I should read it next time, as Sarah suggested.


message 6: by Anastasia (new)

Anastasia Hobbet Thank you, thank you. This just may give me the confidence to go for it again. The last time I approached it, a very littery youg'un at Harvard gave me careful instructions about what other books I'd need at my elbow in order to understand Joyce, and I concluded it couldn't be fun to read it. And it wouldn't be fun to read it that way. So I won't. In a way, what you describe is the way I'm reading Norwegian as I learn it (I'm living in Oslo for a couple of years). I don't know every word, certainly not every idiom, and sometimes miss what's intended altogether--but often, if I just keep reading, accumulating the words and phrases in my mind, it suddenly clicks, and I say ah-HA!


message 7: by Teresa (last edited Aug 18, 2012 12:10PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Teresa .. as I had young children at the time and limited free moments ...

That was exactly the point in my life when I tried it, and then abandoned it. (I had read "Portrait ...," "Finnegans Wake" and Beckett, including "Molloy," in college before such time had arrived.) Now that that point in my life is 'long' past, you've inspired me to pick it up again.

Great review!


message 8: by Ben (new)

Ben Winch Will get to it one day Fionnuala, and will keep your advice in mind. I can never bear the annotated approach anyway - it just ruins the rhythm. And yes, Molloy is difficult, until (hopefully) it 'clicks'...


Fionnuala Anastasia, your experience of reading Norwegian lit in Norwegian should indeed be perfect preparation for Joyce - he'd be so chuffed to hear that, the polyglot that he was.
Teresa, I think Ulysses hadn't been rehabilitated long enough to figure on university courses when I was a student - it was banned in Ireland for a long time after publication, although some of Joyce's other works did appear. As for Beckett, he only figured on the French syllabus. Things have changed though, one of my daughters studied English lit in Dublin and both Ulysses and Beckett texts were listed.
Ben, I will persevere with Molloy. I picked it up partly because you mentioned it a while ago and partly because Enrique Vila-Matas made so many references to Beckett in Dublinesque, the book that inspired me to pick up Ulysses. But, ironically, I think the experience of reading Ulysses is interfering with the reading of Beckett - perhaps it's the contrary approaches of each, which Vila-Matas points out, one expanding the language, the other paring it back.


message 10: by Ben (last edited Aug 19, 2012 02:58AM) (new)

Ben Winch Does Vila-Matas mention that Beckett was Joyce's secretary in his (Beckett's) early 20s? So he had to fight that Joyce influence pretty hard; he was acutely aware that he could not compete on Joyce's terms, and he saw a challenge in Joyce's work that had to be met. For some reason, I found Beckett much easier to relate to once I'd read the Deirdre Bair biography - as though in shearing everything to the bone Beckett may have inadvertently jettisoned some stuff that was necessary to our understanding. But this is also what I love about him - that he rarefied his stories till they entered a blasted otherworld. He was determined to reach that elsewhere.


Fionnuala I think Vila-Matas was implying that Beckett was the unidentified man in the mackintosh, mentioned several times in Ulysses, although he also implied that it might have been Joyce himself. I find the second possibility more likely and more fitting, Joyce following in the tradition of artists like Velasquez and Jan van Eyck, who inserted cryptic portraits of themselves into their paintings.
Your point about Becket having to meet the challenge of Joyce's work while fighting its influence helps me understand Beckett better. What a creative period it was.


message 12: by Ben (new)

Ben Winch An amazing period. And very serious men! Someone (A. Alvarez?) once said that Beckett was trying to see what would grow in a void. But enough about Beckett - this is a Joyce thread after all! And I know next to nothing about Joyce.


message 13: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidin[+]Fisch Wonderful review. The worst crime any academic or reviewer can perpetrate is to reduce the temptation to open the door and have a peak at the world of Ulysses.
You've done everything within your power to tempt a potential reader.


message 14: by Louise (new)

Louise  Smith Fionnuala, I have a good background in the Classics and Shakespeare, but I've always been convinced I would find Ulysses impenetrable. Your review has tempted me to download a copy on my ebook and plunge in.


Fionnuala I'm so glad my review has motivated you to read Ulysses, Louise and I look forward to hearing how you get along with it.


Stephen M You definitely took the right route with this book. It is meant to be enjoyed more than anything else!


Fionnuala Thanks for the positive comments Stephen!


message 18: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Hmm, that was pretty much my experience too, once you forget about the reputation and just read its tremendous fun. I'm not sure that even recognising the odd allusion to the Odyssey adds so much - I think it works perfectly well as this extravagant picture of Dublin life.

Totally agree that once finished you want to plunge in and start over again, but I suspect that you could do that infinitely...


Fionnuala Totally agree that once finished you want to plunge in and start over again, but I suspect that you could do that infinitely...

A lot of twentieth century literature is threaded through with echoes of Ulysses. Several of the books I read recently reminded me of it forcefully. So you are right, it is possible to go on reading it for ever!


message 20: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Well said, Ulysses is for everyone, and it's great fun. I blogged my latest experiences with it, chapter by chapter, at http://anzlitlovers.com/tag/ulysses-d... it was just my way of recording my who-cares-if-it's-right-or-wrong thoughts and I love going back there and marvelling at it all over again. I'm going to tackle Finnegan's Wake one day...


Fionnuala Lisa wrote: "Well said, Ulysses is for everyone, and it's great fun. I blogged my latest experiences with it, chapter by chapter, at http://anzlitlovers.com/tag/ulysses-d... it wa..."

Had a look at your blog, Liza. It's a great record of your reading experience and this is a book that particularly lends itself to keeping such a record. Good luck with Finnegan's Wake...


message 22: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Fionnuala wrote: "Lisa wrote: "Well said, Ulysses is for everyone, and it's great fun. I blogged my latest experiences with it, chapter by chapter, at http://anzlitlovers.com/tag/ulysses-d......" *chuckle* I'm going to need it!


Kalliope I loved this demystifying review... this is exactly what I need to read before embarking in Ulysses (not soon though, too much on my plate now).


Fionnuala Thanks , Kalliope. Another review resurrected. Today is a very Finnegan-type day!
I know you won't get to Ulysses soon but when you do, you'll have a great experience. And probably the more general culture you have, and you have so much, the more you will get from it. Opera figures in it a bit too, so there'll be music themes for you to uncover which probably escaped me...


message 25: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca Kalliope, a wunnerfull, wannafall reise up and be merthifull reclaim of the aca-indemics polemics reviews.


message 26: by Fionnuala (last edited May 13, 2013 01:29PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Fionnuala Scribble wrote: " a wunnerfull, wannafall reise up and be merthifull reclaim of the aca-indemics polemics reviews."

I missed this typically Scribbelian comment when you posted, Scrib, but, thanks to a series of serendipities, (twice used phrase today, serendipitously enough), I've just reread this review because of falling on a review of Finnegans Wake, quite by chance, which reminded me of Proust, and then, somehow I thought of Bloom, via Swann, and so I came here and was particularly pleased to find your comment 'cos it means I can bump this old review into my updates!


message 27: by Scribble (last edited May 13, 2013 04:05PM) (new) - added it

Scribble Orca Yesh....oi woz shorely treighing Miss Muses Haps wann dass getsschreeBen Hur war!

Haff n Puff oi whelped new comments n dates upsfeed!!!

All Wayke in Prowst and Sliip in Joys. Ta dum.


Fionnuala Scribble wrote: "...Haff n Puff oi whelped new comments n dates upsfeed!!!."
All Wayke in Prowst and Sliip in Joys.....


I went to sleep with Proust but wake to Joyce! Something so right about that.

Anyway, I puffed over to your FG updates and read them all, so need a strong coffee now.
If I continue reading your updates, which you post almost by the percent, can I then mark FG as read? And if I successfully distinguish between Finneganean and Scribbelean, will I get a prize?


message 29: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca Un caffe per la signorina, ecco lo!

The idea, being in Sin and Ceres, it is, Po Eng nest pa? tweedledum and tweedledee, fee fie fo fum, read all tha wotsitits ova I-GU-RI-SU-dannyboy-MA-N regio ars!

Altogether now, my ark is Your Head! En toto, no dodo, tis a thing TBred, no (th) read dread lieabed! Tis RebabbelIam, canna prise salt please me lose.


Fionnuala Scribble wrote: "..the idea, being in Sin and Ceres, it is, Po Eng nest pa? tweedledum and tweedledee, fee fie fo fum, read all tha wotsitits ova I-GU-RI-SU-dannyboy-MA-N regio ars!
..


I will sincerely have a go at all the 'whotsits' over there now that I've had my coffee.


message 31: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca shallum date figplum yum yum feed you up!

Fast breaking passes with the shorns of wheat, glycaemic decks over, load fett burre butt her! Please shore far, away runitoff like rain off a back duck duck quack quake.


Fionnuala Scribble wrote: "shallum date figplum yum yum feed you up!"

Ellpodbomool
Molldopeloob
Bollopededoom
Old Ollelbo, M.P.!!! (my exclamation marks)
Ulysses, page 792


message 33: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca The Wake is definitely better :)


message 34: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· Fionnuala wrote: "Scribble wrote: "shallum date figplum yum yum feed you up!"

Ellpodbomool
Molldopeloob
Bollopededoom
Old Ollelbo, M.P.!!! (my exclamation marks)
Ulysses, page 792"


You sound like Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ozp8uw...


Fionnuala Karen wrote: "You sound like Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men:"

Weed have been great flowerpot men!
Flopopopoplop flopopoplop
ohohohoo
Slobadob dob

Conlangers all!


message 36: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· Weeeeeeeeed!


Fionnuala And she promptly did!


message 38: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca Ha!


Stephen P Exactly! Just the way I read it and with the same enjoyment and wonder. I thought this was the template for all future novels and their possibilities. Background information just confines me. Thank you for liberating Ulysses.


Fionnuala Stephen wrote: "Exactly! Just the way I read it and with the same enjoyment and wonder.."
Great that you had a similar experience, Stephen.
When I looked in it yesterday to find something bouncy to throw at Scribble, I was amazed at how I was immediately caught up in it again, and with a different kind of attention from before because of knowing so much more about it than when I was making my way through it, so that I now intend to reread it and expect it to be an even more wonderful pleasure.


message 41: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca Bowncee, bowshe, banshee
seating in a tree,
fleared my eared and wagtailed my dog
while the madder hat cuppoard the tea.


Fionnuala Tit for tat
ball for bat
head for hat
tail for cat
leaf for tree
not U but me


message 43: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca Tittle tattle, willie's rattle, goingboing to the fair
Spittled wattle, to the prattle, lemmings settle wares?

Prattle waffled, willie's mottled, flourish me your mettle?
Wille's baffled, prattle's bottled, empty is my kettle.


Fionnuala Tae tittly, little fitty, shin sharpy, knee knappy, hinchy pinchy, wymie bulgy, breast berry, chin cherry, moo merry, nose nappy, ee winky, broo brinky, ower the croon, and awa' wi' it.

anon


message 45: by Diksha (new) - added it

Diksha I have a question. I have not been a student of English language or literature per se. My knowledge about literature is limited, I have not read all the classics barring a few. What I have hear od this novel is that it is full of allusions and if one does not have basic knowledge of English literature, reading this novel would lead one nowhere.
Is that true?
Can you pleas help me and suggest some basic books/novels/works in English literature that I need to read and understand before starting with Ulysses?


Fionnuala Diksha wrote: "I have a question. I have not been a student of English language or literature per se. My knowledge about literature is limited, I have not read all the classics barring a few. What I have hear od ..."

The thing is, Diksha, I didn't get most of the classical references that Joyce amused himself by including in this wonderful book but it didn't matter because I enjoyed it thoroughly anyway.
The only books I would recommend, and simply to set the scene if you don't know anything about Dublin in the early 1900s, are Joyce's short stories, The Dead, and his novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.


message 47: by Diksha (new) - added it

Diksha Thank you for your help :)


message 48: by Melanie (new)

Melanie Kris wrote: "This is a beautiful review, Fionnuala. I'm partway through my first read of it, and while I am loving tracing references and brushing up on my Irish history and marveling at Joyce's knowledge -- we..."

And that would be me. :) I've decided yesterday that I was going to tackle it at my pace, five pages a day. Along with the Bloomsday Guide and the audio Princeton lectures by James Heffernan. I'm totally excited. :)


message 49: by Melanie (new)

Melanie Thanks for this review! You've just made me even more excited to dive in and not be scared. :)


Joshua de Vries What a lovely review. I'm almost done with it and I feel the same way. I don't speak Latin and I probably missed most of the dense subtext, but this has been one of the most fun books to just get lost in. It's a love letter to language, and I've enjoyed the ride.


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