Book review: Ulysses by James Joyce

I read Ulysses because it was in the Big Read Top 100 (BRT100), and is also on my list of 100 books you should read. I first tried reading Ulysses about a year ago: I got seriously bogged down in chapter 3, slogged on for a bit longer, than switched to another book. When I later bought some Ulysses self-help books, I was pleased to find chapter 3 described as the most intellectually complex episode.

I then got to the point where Ulysses was the only book I hadn’t read from the BRT100. I persuaded two friends that we should read it at the same time. I think that’s probably the main factor in my managing to finish the book. Every few chapters we would get together over coffee or lunch, and share our bewilderment, shock, surprise, amusement, and all the other reactions. And nearly daily we would comment in passing (we worked together at the time) on our progress. And encourage each other — that was probably the most important thing.

The plot of Ulysses can be described fairly succinctly. It follows a day in the life of various characters in Dublin, in 1904. The main character is Leopold Bloom, and there are two main threads: one concerns Bloom and his wife, who on this day will start being unfaithful, and Bloom is aware of this. The other thread concerns Stephen Dedalus, a young literature teacher. Bloom and Dedalus independently wander around Dublin, and eventually meet up, with Bloom taking a father-figure role for Dedalus. Bloom and Dedalus end up at Bloom’s house, and the book ends with Bloom and his wife in bed.

But the story seems secondary. Telling the story isn’t the point of Ulysses — it’s all about the journey: the experience of reading the book. My friend Bruce, who was part of the triumvirate, said he thought of it as more like a sudoku than reading a book. I don’t think it’s like a sudoku, but I agree that it’s more of a challenge. There are so many references to other literature, people, concepts; use of archaic terms; forward and back references; different writing styles; changes of perspective (and it’s not always clear when the change happens, just to keep you on your toes).

Reading this book was like a 5-month long obstacle course. Some sections were like a clear path on level ground, but not many. Some were like running through a forest in daylight: a bit trickier, but as long as you kept your wits about you, you get through fine. Other sections are more like rock climbing: you really need to pay attention, you may have to back-track and try again, and you’ll do better with a guide book. And then in some sections you’re blindfolded and bang around, trip over things, and have no real clue what’s going on. There are people lurking in there with sticks who beat you, and there are holes you can fall into. And when you come out you’ve got no clue what you just came through, and certainly can’t explain it to anyone else. But hey, you got through, and maybe the next section won’t be so painful.

The convoluted publication history means that there is no definitive text. The three of us were reading different editions, and the blue book was referring to a different one again. All books in the Penguin classics have copious notes, but strangely the Penguin modern classics edition of Ulysses doesn’t provide any notes to go with the text. If ever a book needed them it was Ulysses. Given the controversy surrounding various edits of Ulysses, I suspect that publishers figure it’s safer to present the text “as is”. Plus it helps the market for Ulysses guide books.

The blue book (the guide to Ulysses that we read the most) has a subtitle “so you don’t have to read it twice”, the clear implication being that Ulysses is one of those books where you only really understand some things when you have read the whole book, so it’s only on the second reading that you’ll appreciate everything. Hah! If I do read Ulysses again, I don’t have any illusions that I’ll catch everything I missed the first time, and I read several explanatory books as well.

When I finally finished Ulysses (it took the longest time to read of the BRT100), my email to my two co-readers included the line “wow, what a book!”. And it is.

Would I recommend this to anyone? I’d have to know them pretty well. My tips would be:

  • Read with a group of people, so you can support each other.
  • Get at least one of the guide books. We referred to the “blue book” the most; see summary at the end of this post.
  • Learn a bit about the schema: the Gilbert and Linati schema are attempts to explain the structure and imagery in the book. These were written by two people based on Joyce explaining Ulysses to them. You won’t understand all of them, but they’ll help.
  • Don’t worry about not “getting it” at times. Keep going, let the words roll past your eyes. Some of it will make sense later. But don’t worry if it doesn’t: keep reading; there are a finite number of pages, even if it doesn’t feel like it at times.
  • It’s not a book to dip into. If possible you should read a whole chapter per sitting. That’s probably not feasible for some of the longer chapters, but you get the idea.
  • Quite often Joyce is just playing round with (the sound of) language. If you don’t understand something, try reading it out loud, in an Irish accent. Many of the cheat books suggest this, and for good reason.

One of the questions we regularly asked each other was “will you read anything else by Joyce, particularly Finnegans Wake?”. Good God no! Maybe. I quite fancy reading Finnegans Wake straight after. I need a break.

While reading Ulysses, I also read a number of reviews and blog postings from people describing their experience. It was encouraging at times to read about how other people suffered. We enjoyed this review in particular one on amazon. Before starting Ulysses, we laughed at the list of things which (s)he suggests reading before reading Ulysses. I probably will read Ulysses again, but not until I’ve read more of the items on this list.

Since finishing Ulysses I’ve been galloping through much easier fare, enjoying the pleasure of simply reading, and not having to re-read, interpret, refer to various sources and guidebooks, and feel stupid for not understanding large chunks.

Ulysses guide books

The Blue Book: the main guide book we used was Joyce’s Ulysses for Everyone: Or How to Skip Reading it the First Time, by John Mood. Before reading each chapter of Ulysses, I would read the relevant section in this. And then I’d read it during the chapter, and afterwards too. It didn’t explain everything, but it definitely helped.

I also bought Introducing Joyce by David Norris and Carl Flint. This covers all of Joyce’s books, and has about 35 pages on Ulysses. It’s a less serious book than the blue book, but I picked up some things from this which I didn’t get from Mood. Before reading Ulysses again, I will seriously consider a heavyweight guide book.

This entry was posted in Big Read, Books, Fiction, Literature, Reading, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book review: Ulysses by James Joyce

  1. viktoriaf says:

    I have this book on my reading list.

    I am stunned by what i find in your review. I was told that it’s quite a book to chew, but not such detailed experienced comment.

    I am not sure i want to give up.. curiosity would kill me.
    Thank you for the review.

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