Mar 21, 2016

Ulysses by James Joyce: Done!!!!



Finally, finally, finally finished Ulysses. Whew! Seriously, it's the most difficult book I've ever read. Did I enjoy it? Well, let's just say I can appreciate it and understand why it's a classic, but I didn't form an emotional attachment to the book. It's so hard to follow that I found it very difficult to care about any of the characters. Sure, there's a fair bit of humour in it, even of the low-brow variety (think graphic descriptions of bodily functions), but there's practically no plot, and while I enjoyed the literary Easter egg hunt part, I can see how others wouldn't. 

I used the Ulysses Annotated guide by Gifford and Seidman to get me through this behemoth, and I would have been completely lost without it. If you want to understand even a fraction of the allusions in the book, get a guide. (This one's fine, if you want the annotations, but it doesn't really explain the big picture. It also had too much info on the streets of Dublin and minor character names for my taste. It even tells you if the authors don't know to whom a particular name refers. Why? Isn't that clear from context?) I read the annotations first and then the episode in the book. I recommend trying to get through the whole episode in one go, because it gets even more confusing if you only read a page or two and try to continue it later. I also discovered Frank Delaney's podcast Re:Joyce when I had almost finished, but it helped me understand the way Joyce's mind works, and I felt I got more out of the novel than I would have otherwise. I think I'll keep listening to the podcast even though I've finished the book. 

Some things surprised me, like Molly Bloom's monologue. From what I had heard, that was supposed to be the toughest part of the book, but I actually found it much easier to follow than many of the other episodes. A lot of people praise it for being feminist. I'm not convinced. Molly thinks like a man would fantasise a woman thinking about sex, and otherwise thinks about empty-headed, frivolous things like her looks and clothes, and then puts down other women. After how she's portrayed in the rest of the book as unteachable and vain and promiscuous, I kind of hated this.Women do this about other things, you know. Okay, everybody else in the book is obsessed with sex, too, so . . . 

I started reading Ulysses last September, so it took me six months to finish. Was it worth it? 

Hmm... I'd say yes, as a learning experience. As something to read for pleasure, not so much. 

Ulysses is amazingly complex: every episode has its counterpart in Homer's Odyssey, though it's a loose, sometimes only thematic, connection, not an event-for-event, character-for-character one. The episodes also have a colour, symbol, organ, art, and technique associated with them. Some made sense to me, others didn't. Every sentence and paragraph is packed with allusions and literally references, and many words are doing double or triple duty in terms of meaning. That's an amazing amount of information, and Joyce trusts the reader to get it; he doesn't over-explain, just moves on. I like that.

But as amazing as all this is, it's also very confusing for the reader. Deliberate obscurity is something I'd like to avoid in my writing. I also think one should be able to read a novel without resorting to a guide to get through it. And I feel that the structure of the book should serve the story, not be the point of the novel. The shift from one literary style to another made the book even harder to read. I understand it's kind of the point of the book, but it hurt my immersion in the story. 

Another thing to study here is the stream-of-consciousness technique and Joyce's use of sentence fragments, both masterfully done and useful tools for any writer. 

There were also bits of stunning description, and every word felt thought through and carefully selected. That kind of attention to detail is worth striving for.

I did a whole post about the literary devices Joyce uses, so I won't repeat it here, but those were also a revelation. "Aeolus" was the toughest episode for me, and the one where I got the most out of my guide.

So, I did learn a lot. 

In conclusion, Ulysses is fascinating and infuriating in equal measure. It's not for everyone, but if you're a writer, definitely give it a shot. If nothing else, at least read Molly Bloom's monologue from the end of the book to see what all the fuss is about. Don't worry, it's quite short.

Now I'm left with a hankering to re-read the Odyssey. But I need to read the Iliad before that... In Molly Bloom's words: yes I said yes I will yes.

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