Nick Sweeney's Reviews > Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce
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's review
May 24, 2012

it was amazing

I've read Ulysses cover-to-cover four times, for the record, but I read my favourite parts of it regularly; if I can't be bothered with whatever I'm reading at the moment, to see if I remember them right, for the music of them, maybe (being corny, perhaps). I'm sure there's little of any originality I can say about it - you can rely on the legions of JJ 'scholards' to do that.

I've always tended to think of it as a book that people either love or hate, but I think the truth is that most people - most people into books, I mean - are indifferent to it, and I have to laugh when I see it included on those lists of 'top 100 novels'; I think that's pure Pseuds' Corner.

It's a very flawed book, I think. Among the brilliant parts are long passages that come close to the unintelligible, such as the first half of the Oxen of the Sun chapter (the one set in the Maternity Hospital in Holles St): JJ is trying to show the development of the English language in this passage, apparently, from medieval to modern. Why? You may well ask, and a scholar will be able to tell you, but not me, as I've long given up reading Ulysses crits and how-tos. An otherwise fine chapter (the Cyclops episode, or the one in which Leopold Bloom is assaulted both verbally and physically by The Citizen, a chauvinistic Dubliner) is spoilt at times by Joyce's interjections of paragraph-long pisstakes of the Irish bardic tradition - one would have been enough to get the gag. Still, once you know the book, you can skip over them, knowing what their function is, and get on with the genuinely funny parts. I think that's an obvious flaw in this same chapter: the Citizen and his acolytes are utterly ridiculous in the seriousness with which they take themselves, and this display of men so up-their-own-fundaments IS where the comedy lies. It is the same with the chapter in which Bloom and Stephen Dedalus walk back through Dublin after their Nighttown jaunt; it is set as a series of question-and-answers, which is funny for the first few pages and then becomes a trial. The Nighttown episode, set out like a play, also wears its welcome out rather quickly. I think this kind of thing makes it a very difficult book to read all the way through.

What do I like about it, then? Well, the great parts of it, and there are many, are the reward. There is a magic to the great parts of it, which to my mind are the opening chapters introducing wonderful characters like Buck Mulligan, the boorish 'ponderous Saxon' Haines, and the milk lady, and Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly (not forgetting their cat) before they set off on their wanderings, actual and in their minds, around the city, the country, the world. The aforementioned episode of the Citizen is also a joy to read, and Leopold Bloom's other encounters with Dublin's drinking classes - his foray into lunchtime (gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgunday, eventually) is so real you can almost smell the stale food, hear the burps and see, horrified, Nosey Flynn's drop of snot about to fall into his beer. I love the rhythm of the speech in it, which does make a kind of music, and I love the images of a town I only know in its rather dreadful modern form.

I don't read the how-tos anymore, but I do recommend them; Anthony Burgess, a confirmed Joycean, wrote several, and, no matter how good a book is, you don't want to spend your life on it. I also like the short stories in Dubliners, many of which peter out into nothing in true modernist style, but that's about it as far as my liking of Joyce goes. Portrait of the Artist and Stephen Hero just bored me, and Finnegans Wake just takes the joke too far.

I also like reading about Joyce - I'm never quite sure why, as biographies of other writers usually leave me cold. Richard Ellman's biography is a classic, but far more enjoyable, partly because they have removed themselves from the thrall of JJ himself, are Brenda Maddox's book about Nora, JJ's long-suffering partner and, eventually, wife, and Carol Schloss's To Dance in the Wake, about the doomed Lucia Joyce. Finally, my liking for Joyce has taken me to some places I may not have visited - Paris, okay, for sure, and Dublin (where I was partly brought up, so off to a flying start) but also Zurich, Trieste and Pula, in Croatia, in all of which JJ lived at some point (6 months in Pula, I think, and 10 years in Trieste). A visit to Zurich (where JJ is buried) opens up a whole new world of Joyceanity; Professor Fritz Senn runs classes in reading both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake - a phrase at a time (and it'll take his classes years to get through each book) - and welcomes passers-by and droppers-in. He is too pleasantly zealous to disapprove of, and good enough to have a quotation on his wall from JJ's only surviving relative, the rather grumpy Stephen Joyce, his grandson, which states something like, 'You can have as many Joyceans as you like, but there is only one Joyce, and that's me'...

I'm now reading it again cover-to-cover because I downloaded it on Kindle, just to have it to flick through, got caught in parts of it that I don't know so well, and was struck by curiosity all over again. My aim is to read it by Bloomsday - 16th June - but I'm not TOO bothered by the deadline. I'm reminded all over again of what a good book it is... and also, again, of how downright annoying it can be sometimes.

Also reading it on Kindle when out, and in the actual book when at home, and am struck by the glitches that have crept into the Kindle version - 'scholards' will tell you that there is no such thing as a completely 'correct' version of Ulysses anyway, and there never has been. Whoever Kindled it hasn't helped, quite honestly, but only the die-est hardest Joyce diehard would be bothered.


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Reading Progress

May 24, 2012 – Started Reading
May 24, 2012 – Shelved
June 16, 2013 – Finished Reading

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