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Is life too short to read “Ulysses?” Or just short enough?

June 16, 2011

That's "Ulysses" Mariyn is reading. Aren't you ashamed?

Most people celebrating Bloomsday will  be at an Irish pub today, getting sensibly sloshed, rather than at a library slogging their way through Ulysses, the impenetrable modern classic novel that inspires this unofficial holiday.

After all, even critics and some academics have turned against the novel. Dale Peck, self-appointed bad boy of contemporary book reviewers, declares, “I will say it once and for all, straight out: it all went wrong with James Joyce.”

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“You know, people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written, but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it,” Roddy Doyle, generally regarded Ireland’s best contemporary novelist, once told an audience.

Susan Wise Bauer, an English professor at William & Mary, lays out an ambitious classical reading program in her 2004 book The Well-Educated Mind — but she explicitly excludes Ulysses “because it’s brutal to read.”

Even elite writers of Joyce’s day had a hard time with Ulysses. Fellow Modernist Virginia Woolf dismissed it as “underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense,” while Aldous Huxley called it “one of the dullest books ever written.”

In all modesty, I place myself among those who think life is too short to tackle a novel that demands as much effort to read as it did to write. I’m appalled by Joyce’s well-documented strategy of making the narrative as difficult as possibly, thus giving scholars in search of tenure something to write about and ensuring his literary immortality.

And I boldly expose the middleness of my brow  by declaring the height of Joyce’s achievement as an author is to be found not in the willful difficulty of Ulysses (and certainly not in the deranged, if playful, incoherence of Finnegan’s Wake), but in that lovely short story, “The Dead,” which concludes his collection Dubliners.

Yet…yet…even as I write these words I sense a karma cloud hovering nearby, and wonder if I am destined someday to actually finish Ulysses, after which I become one of those insufferable connoisseurs, like Stephen Fry.

In response to an irreverent and clever BBC piece recapping Ulysses for those who don’t plan to read it, Fry sputtered:

“Ulysses is the greatest novel of the twentieth century. It is is wise, warm, witty, affirmative and beautiful. it is less pretentious than a baked bean. Read it. Read it out loud to yourself. It won’t bite.”

I recommend that BBC recap for its own merits, although the single best summary of Ulysses‘s plot is one that could be written on the back of the proverbial matchbook: “Man goes for a walk around Dubin. Nothing happens.”

Nonetheless, Bloomsday — July 16, 1904 is the day Leopold Bloom took his Dublin walk –has become the unofficial worldwide literary holiday. That may be because Ulysses‘s virtues (real humor, occasional gripping passages, and above all, an engagement with language, not narrative, as the engine of meaning) appeal to a surprising number of readerrs.

Or it may be that Joyce has been praised (often by people who’ve never completed either of his more difficult novels) so much for so long that he’s become a brand. And, of course, his Irish heritage gives pubs the world round an excuse to encourage people to drink in his honor.

If you wanted to celebrate Bloomsday properly, you’d go to Dublin, where the party goes on for 18 hours, with innumberable cultural events of varying seriousness and drinking games of utmost seriousness at the city’s equally innumerable pubs.

Of course, it’s too late for that now, since the date is upon us. Luckily, many other cities have their own festivities — Coral Gables, for example, features Joycean readings — including Molly Bloom’s famous climactic (heh-heh) soliloquy — at the Actor’s Playhouse.

And if you can’t find an official Bloomsday festival, simply head over to your nearest Irish pub and hoist a pint in honor of the old sot himself.

As for the book? There’s always next year.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2011 9:04 pm

    Ben Jonson said he loved Shakespeare “this side Idolatry.” I echo his sentiment and would add to my idolatry list the name of James Joyce mainly for writing ULYSSES. Though as you say, Chauncey “The Dead” is right up there with the man’s very best.

    Granted ULYSSES is a difficult book. Can’t be enjoyed in as casual a way as, say, HUCKLBERRY FINN.
    But ULYSSES has a different agenda. It deliberately challenges your patience, your intelligence and the sum of your knowledge and concentration. When I was 21, I bought the book, but gave up when I hit chapter 3, “Proteus,” which made me dizzy with its verbal pyrotechnics. I wasn’t ready for the riches Joyce had given us.

    Many years later, after college and grad school and a chance to actually teach Joyce, I went back to ULYSSES and found its beauty incomparable with any other book I had ever read in my life. I worked through it slowly, annotating the margins as I went.

    I got more and more excited by what Joyce was doing, not only with his penetration into character but his muse-given genius for the English language. I’ve been through ULYSSES several times now and it’s like the plays of Shakespeare–the more you read them the more you’re shown something new about yourself and the human condition.

    The thing of it is, Chauncey, you have to want to find out what’s there and why it’s so great. You have to be ready for it. I wasn’t ready at 21. I was ready when I turned 40. In my mind, the time I’ve given to Joyce has been well spent. Long live Bloomsday!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 16, 2011 10:57 pm

      Ah, goddammit, Duff. I feel the karma cloud closing in. You write persuasively of your enthusiasm, Duff, as always, and I believe every word. Maybe by 60 I’ll be ready.

  2. Liam Mac Sheoinin permalink
    June 17, 2011 5:08 pm

    Duff is a genius and right ! I regard Doyle as a traitor and a fool. He also schizophrenically praises Ulysses. Virginia Woolf in the same condemning breath supposed ( correctly ) Joyce a genius. She was insane , wasn’t she ? Paraphrasing Mailer , those who abhor Ulysses are morons.

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