Book Review: “Ulysses” by James Joyce

As you can probably tell on the book side of things I’ve disappeared. There’s a couple reasons for that: I’m back home, there’s a pandemic going on, and I’d say my energy levels are quite low with my stress levels high. The other reason is that I decided to read Ulysses.

You mean that Greek epic? Why’d that take you nearly two months to read that? Nope, that’s The Odyssey. But you’re on the right track. I didn’t realize  Ulysses is also an epic but in a different way. It’s considered one of the most difficult books out there.

Why did I decide to read it?

This last January I was in Paris (blog posts queued up to run May 13th-July 9th) and I went to a really cool bookstore that might not have been the original but had the spirit of the original bookstore and I was just utterly charmed by it. So charmed that I was determined after exploring and reading about the bookstore to buy the book everyone refused to publish except for the woman, Sylvia Beach, who owned this bookstore. That book happened to be Ulysses by James Joyce. Maybe when the bookseller suggested I start with something a bit easier I should’ve taken it as a sign. But I really wanted THE book the bookstore had published.

Why wouldn’t anyone publish it?

Parts of Ulysses did get published. The book was serialized, which means the chapters were published individually, in the United States. The book is broken up into 18 chapters and they managed to publish up to chapter 13. At this point the book ended up on trial due to its obscenity and subsequently was banned in the United States. (Since it was being sent via the United States Postal Service that meant the USPS ended up burning a lot of copies of the book.) Parts of it were published in the U.K., until it was once again banned due to obscenity. Eventually after 10 years, a publisher (Random House) arranged to have the French edition sent to the USA. It was stopped again being noted and banned from the United States Postal Service to deliver. The publisher and their lawyer went to court claiming the book wasn’t pornographic and thus not obscene. They ended up winning and the United States was the first English speaking country to allow the book. (After I guess being the first to ban it). It was burned in almost every English speaking country up until that point or was greatly censored.

Is it obscene or is it not obscene?

I would consider it pretty dirty for an old book. A lot of the book is layered like an onion, so to understand the dirty bits that aren’t blatant you have to understand the jokes, the slang, and get the metaphors for what they truly are. I’m actually somewhat surprised they waited until chapter 13 to ban it. But I suppose up until that point they could just censor bits and pieces of it or hope people didn’t dig deeper or would overlook all the cursing. Though I would say chapter 15 is much worse or even the final chapter.

“The scrotumtightening sea”

This phrase came from the first chapter.

How did reading Ulysses go?

I felt like an ill prepared hiker who thought they were walking an easy lazy but long trail in their hometown park only to find themselves suddenly on Mount Everest without a Sherpa.  Within the first 100 pages I struggled to figure out what was going on until on a whim I read it to myself aloud, something I don’t do unless I’m reading my own work in the hopes of catching errors. I realized why I was struggling which was because of the structure of the book. The structure tends to go a short period of dialogue/action then a long winded paragraph of stream of consciousness (character thoughts) which are as nonsensical as anyone’s thoughts outside your own. Some of it makes sense but they dart and flit around and you spend a moment wondering how all of sudden you were walking with one character on the beach and then suddenly somewhere else. Or the topic has so quickly changed to something you wouldn’t have reached as related within leaps and bounds. And then there will be a poem. Then the process starts up again. Funnily enough this rich deep inner monologue is one of the things that charms so many scholars.

“Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes. No. Jesus! If I fell over a cliff that beetles o’er his base, fell through the nebeneinander ineluctably. I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do. My two feet in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick. Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a’.”

The character who I thought I was following and who I assumed was the main character, Stephen Dedalus, suddenly up and disappeared and I began following someone new,  Mr. Bloom, who outside of the “scholarly artistic mind” of Stephen was easier to follow as he went about his morning preparing breakfast for his wife, gathering mail, thinking about his daughter, ect. His work was confusing for me since once again the structure was disrupted to fit a newspaper-like style with sudden headlines like “Links with Bygone Days of Yore” and “Sad”. But it was easier to read as it was more dialogue and less introspection or long winded thoughts. But then about halfway through this part I lost Mr. Bloom and got all lost again and frustrated. It made me wonder if the reason why everyone refused to publish it was because it is so long winded that it’s practically unreadable.

“Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides: its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, arctic and antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the region below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including millions of tons of the most precious metals: its slow erosions of peninsulas and islands, its persistent formation of homothetic islands, peninsulas and downwardtending promontories: its alluvial deposits: its weight and volume and density: its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic currents, gulfstream (…)”

It turns out this book requires help. Anywhere you look online they highly suggest if you want to enjoy the book you need to have other things at hand to help you understand it. It was suggested to start with a student reading guide and essentially spoil each chapter before you begin reading it. So I did. I read the summaries of the past chapters, the relation to The Odyssey, a little bit about the books structure and it made sense. It didn’t make the reading any easier but it did help me understand why I kept getting confused.

“An exquisite dulcet epithalame of most mollificative suadency for juveniles amatory whom the odoriferous flambeaus of the paranymphs have escorted to the quadrupedal proscenium of connubial communion.”

One of the big keys is that the edition I have is 933 pages long. The entire story within those 933 pages all takes place within a single day. Which is a big yikes since I was struggling up to this point anyway. I hate books where nothing happens. And it’s not like this is some Count of Monte Cristo in-depth revenge/mystery/heist where we’re following multiple characters through their actions of a single day to solve a mystery (I would 1000% read that), it’s instead following a couple characters around in their mundane lives being…as mundane as possible. My edition also doesn’t have big chapter breaks meaning that when a new chapter happens it usually took me a couple pages worth of word vomit to realize it was a new chapter which was frustrating. Not to mention many characters have similar names and I kept getting them mixed up. An example is Mr. Bloom’s wife’s name starts with an M, his daughters name also starts with an M, and so does the woman he’s having correspondence with. The amount of times I got confused about which lady he was talking about was too many.

The structure

The reason why the book is called Ulysses is because it’s following the path of The Odyssey. Each chapter (If you’re lucky enough to have an edition with chapter titles and clear chapter breaks)  follows the tale of The Odyssey. In some form or another. Usually it’s a parody of The Odyssey. Then each chapter has a different structure. Some feel unremarkable but others tend to be more charming, like a chapter where James Joyce attempts to use language to imitate music, there’s a chapter done in the form of a play, a parody of a romance novel, and then as I previously mentioned there’s a chapter done in newspaper style.

“He passes, struck by the stare of truculent Wellington but in the convex mirror grin unstruck the bonham eyes and fatchuck cheekchops of Jollypoldy the rixdix doldy”

There are also chapters that are frustrating to read due to their structure such as the chapter that captures and follows the history of the English language from the very start to when the book was published (1920’s) while trying to mirror the 9 months of pregnancy. There’s a chapter that is composed of 19 vignettes which follow different characters through Dublin at the same time so you re-see things through other characters eyes, over and over again like “literary cubism”. Then there is the final chapter which is over 60 pages without any punctuation and consists of that never ending inner monologue interrupted by various other thoughts, the word yes,  and without any punctuation making it essentially a giant run on sentence. A chapter that my summary and glossary quoted as “full of sexist cliches” and “the portrait which ensues is less of a woman than of a traditional male fantasy of a certain kind of womanhood”.

“(…) ah yes I know them well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they dont know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near
lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are
flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life
and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I
saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get
round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he
asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the
sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey (…)”

I did really appreciate, once I understood what was going on, the changes in format and style and structure. James Joyce was able to capture and parody a lot of different styles and he gave himself the room to do so. I just got sick of it after awhile, especially because some of the styles are in mockery of the form they’re parodying and to me, it felt like the jokes went on too long. Everything he could possibly mock he mocked.

“If anyone thinks that I amn’t divine
He’ll get no free drinks when I’m making the wine
But have to drink water and wish it were plain
That I make when the wine becomes water again.”

The plot?

The very basic plot of Ulysses is that it follows two main characters throughout their day. Stephen Dedalus who unbeknownst to me was a returning character from Jame’s Joyce’s previous novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (and subsequently a stand in for James Joyce himself). Stephen is a poet, and he hates water. He hasn’t bathed since October of the previous year. He’s living with two roommates in a tower and working at a University. He’s also trying to deal with guilt left from when his mother passed away that he partially blames himself for. Because of his recent graduate status and poetic mind whenever we follow Stephen or listen to him talk he tries to cram as many academic thoughts and ye olde SAT buzz words in at once which gets very tiresome. In the story of The Odyssey Stephen plays Telemachus, the son in search of his father. Stephen’s own father is alive but after the death of his mother has turned into a deadbeat and Stephen has many younger siblings who he doesn’t really seem to be helping either.

“As we, or mother Dana, weave and unweave our bodies, Stephen said, from day to day, their molecules shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image. And as the mole on my right breast is where it was when I was born, though all my body has been woven of new stuff time after time, so through the ghost of the unquiet father the image of the unliving son looks forth. In the intense instant of imagination, when the mind, Shelley says, is a fading coal, that which I was is that which I am and that which in possibility I may come to be. So in the future, the sister of the past, I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be.”

The other main character is Mr. Leopold Bloom who also goes by Henry Flower. Mr. Bloom is a middle aged part Jewish man nearly 40 who is married with one teenage daughter whose been sent away to study photography and a son who died. He works at the newspaper and his wife, Molly Bloom is a Spanish singer. She is having an affair. He is having an affair (arguably) via letter correspondence. Despite not really introducing Mr. Bloom until chapter 3 I would say he’s more the main character of the story than Stephen. The novel follows Mr. Bloom around the streets of Dublin going about various business. Starting at 8am making breakfast and taking the mail to his wife in bed, “helping” various people around town, attending a funeral, going to work for a very short period of the day, and then spending a lot of time trying to not run into his wife’s lover. In the parody of The Odyssey he is Odysseus. Along the way he runs into Nationalists and also “toady” characters in a broader discussion of Ireland, what it means to be Irish, a Dubliner, and a conversation about British control.

“Why was he doubly irritated?
Because he had forgotten and because he remembered that he had reminded himself twice not to forget.”

Mr. Bloom is also fairly “Other”. As at least partially Jewish he’s considered an outsider despite being born and raised in Ireland and considering it his home. This leads to run-ins with many other characters that think him lowly and tend to express anti-Semitic views as well as negative views for his lack of action with his wife’s affair. He rarely sticks up for himself and usually just lets what people say pass ignored. Which is frustrating but the book repeatedly treats as god-like.

“- What is your nation if I may ask,” says the citizen.

“- Ireland,” says Bloom. “I was born here. Ireland.”

The citizen said nothing only cleared the spit out of his gullet and, gob, he spat a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner.

Eventually after passing each other briefly and unknowingly through several adventures throughout the day Mr. Bloom and Stephen Dedalus meet at the maternity hospital, of all places, as Stephen is hanging out with the medical students and Mr. Bloom wants to inquire on the health of an acquaintance whose on her third day of labor. This leads to them drinking and eventually in the next chapter going to Nighttown, the red light district of Dublin. This is where a lot of the whispers about Mr. Bloom and his own femininity bubbles to the surface. Mr. Bloom has a very bizarre almost hallucinatory experience with some light(?) BDSM, trials for sexual misbehavior, and gender-fluidity. Stephen on the other hand also seems quite out out of it and ends up breaking a light out of fear (he saw his dead mother) and fleeing where he immediately ends up getting into a fight with an English soldier. Despite the majority of this chapter being about Bloom and his hallucinations the summary in my students guide focused on Stephen and how Mr. Bloom “Guides Stephen through Nighttown and saves him”. Which I felt like was a bit of a belated action to be the main focal point.

Stephen and Bloom take a break, try to get to know one another and then go to Bloom’s home, Stephen leaves and Bloom goes to bed and then the book ends after Molly takes up the tale in long run on sentences. (She is a parody of Penelope from The Odyssey)

This is just the surface of the story. Arguably Stephen is spending the book looking for a replacement father figure for his absent and deadbeat one. He tries with a roommate who is mean to him, his boss whose tells anti antisemitism jokes and various other people and your hope is for him to find and befriend the “heroic/godly” Mr. Bloom.

“Heavenly weather really. If life was always like that. Cricket weather. Sit around under sunshades. Over after over. Out. They can’t play it here. Duck for six wickets. Still Captain Culler broke a window in the Kildare street club with a slog to square leg. Donnybrook fair more in their line. And the skulls we were acracking when M’Carthy took the floor. Heatwave. Won’t last. Always passing, the stream of life, which in the stream of life we trace is dearer than them all.”

But Mr. Bloom who the glossary and summary continually toted as a wonderful and kind helpful human being is not the typical hero. His inner thoughts aren’t always the kindest and everything around him is sexually charged or about his own sexual “failures”. There’s a concerning undercurrent about his relationship with his daughter that even the book’s glossary was like “This might be about him having sexual thoughts about his daughter” whose fifteen. His wife is also hyper sexually charged and he spends part of his day trying to pick out soft-core pornography for her at the bookstore in a way to tell her what he wants. He’s aware of the affair his wife is having and a lot of the summary and the glossary assumes that part of his goal for the day is to try and watch.

“Wanted smart lady typist to aid gentleman in literary work. I called you naughty darling because I do not like that other world. Please tell me what is the meaning. Please tell me what perfume does your wife. Tell me who made the world”

He also constantly being treated poorly for his “womanly traits”. He tends to be more feminine than masculine throughout the book. He likes to wear women’s clothing and tends to buy things for his wife that he himself wants to wear (Apparently because James Joyce did this once as a child in parody of a famous lady). He also would rather his wife wear men’s clothing. The romantic book parody chapter is essentially the one that got the book burned in the United States and banned because it contains Mr. Bloom going to the beach and watching a young woman and her friends with a bunch of kids. Gerty, the “heroine” is highly romantic and obsessed with a boy who probably doesn’t have any interest in her whose much younger then her. She notices Bloom and when realizing he’s staring at her so imagines a heated romance with him in which she helps him through his sorrowful mourning and that they are destined to be married. She continues a repetitive motif throughout the novel which is that she lifts her skirts and he in turn masturbates.

“He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation.”

He loves his wife, but he doesn’t talk to her about what he wants. He wants a son, he wants her to be pregnant again. But rather than sleeping with his wife or telling her what he wants he just (it’s assumed by the glossary and summary) that sets up men for his wife to sleep with. (There is an assumption that he tries to make Stephen, who is his pseudo- son, the next to sleep with his wife) What he seems to want is to dress like a woman or be a woman, and be humiliated by his wife. He’s a bit of a masochist wanting a kind of BDSM relationship with his wife. And that the femininity within him attracted the masculinity within her.

Characters aside, the book is also largely about Dublin. You can actually follow the characters around on a map as they go about their day. The book is full of real places, real people, history and culture.

“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

What makes the book difficult

“I put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant” (James Joyce on Ulysses)

Beyond the changing styles, parodies and formats the book is as James Joyce said so full of things to dig up and un-pack that it’s still being talked about nearly a 100 years later.  The book needs a summary and a glossary. For one thing on the very basic level the book contains multiple languages and not just English and Gaelic which one would expect but also lots of French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and more peppered throughout. There’s also slang from multiple countries, pop cultural references, historical references and so much more. My copy had both but there are other guides that go more in depth, explaining the jokes, the parodies, and all the references in detail. There were several moments where I flipped to the back to try and figure out exactly what was meant only to realize it wasn’t included in my glossary.

Part of what makes it so difficult is what makes it so popular and considered a great work of literature. June 16th, the day the book takes place is celebrated and known as Bloomsday (Coined by Sylvia Beach), where people dress up, read the book aloud and even journey to Dublin to follow the books footsteps.

“-Dead! Says Alf. He is no more dead than you are.

-Maybe so, says Joe. They took the liberty of burying him this morning anyhow.”

While there is humor in the book, I did laugh a couple times, and many many parodies there’s also sexism, racist terms, anti-semitism, and moments I found so utterly dull that by and large it’s not a book I’ll ever really read again. I’m bummed that the magic of Paris led me to a book I didn’t enjoy and I need a breather before picking up another classic.

“Mr. Bloom reviewed the nails of his left hand, then those of his right hand. The nails, yes. Is there anything more in him than they she sees? Fascination. Worst man in Dublin. That keeps him alive. They sometimes feel what a person is. Instinct. But a type like that. My nails. I am just looking at them: well pared. And after: thinking alone.”

I think that the gender identify of Mr. Bloom and his femininity and moments of wishing to be a women and his sexuality are an interesting idea for such an old book. Though I’ve heard Orlando by Virgina Wolof tackles a similar idea. If you’re curious about this specific part of the novel then the chapter where Mr. Bloom becomes a woman is “Circe”, a chapter done in parody of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Shakespeare is the happy huntingground of all minds that have lost their balance.”

Overall I’m proud of myself for finishing this book. I didn’t realize when I picked it up that it’s considered one of THE most difficult books to read. I also am proud of myself for finishing it in the midst of a pandemic where I have almost no drive to do practically anything.

“We can’t change the world, but we can change the subject.”

Have you attempted Ulysses? What did you think? Do you want to read it?

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