Ulysses, by James Joyce

Since I first tackled Ulysses I try (try!) to read the book every Bloomsday, or at least start on a date so that I can finish on June 16. The book was set on June 16, 1904, the day Joyce met his wife Nora Conkle, the primary model for Molly Bloom. Joyce fans now call this Bloomsday.

No matter what your taste in books you should, at some time in your life, take on Ulysses. You may find yourself as addicted as I am, and for all the times I’ve read it I pull something new out of the book with every reading. And I now wish I had been braver about the book when I was much younger. I understand taking on a book where the last 45 pages are stream-of-consciousness in 2 (or 8 depending on the edition) sentences is more than most readers want to attempt. It’s okay. I have some tips at the end.

There are dozens of themes, dozens of characters, and thousands of ideas in the book but perhaps the most essential thing to get across is that the book is hilarious. You’ll get to read a discussion of why Shakespeare had to be jewish, you’ll read raunchy and raucous Irish humor (“I’m sorry I blew up the cathedral, but I swear I thought the archbishop was inside”), and odd little lines that pop out of the running thoughts of the characters (“There is no greater love than a man should give up his wife for his friends.”)

The central character, the Ulysses of the story, is Harold Bloom, surrounded by his friends and his unfaithful wife on a single day in Dublin. Like Ulysses, Bloom is attempting to return home, but for him this means trying to become part of a culture that rejects him for his jewishness. Ireland at this time is no less in a search to return to being Ireland again. After centuries of English rule an Irish pride is beginning to emerge, with discussions of teaching the Irish language in schools. The book begins in an English-built fortress now serving as housing for Stephen Daedelus and medical student Buck Mulligan. English people weave in and out of the book, every one identified. Set before the first world war, the book was being written at the peak of the Irish Revolution. Though Joyce was an expatriate most of his life he was keenly aware of the events back home.

Each section of the book is written in a unique style. Sometimes a straightforward narrative, sometimes a wandering mind, sometimes a mini absurdist play, sometimes a take off on early English literature, sometimes a take off on the Catholic catechism. Joyce intended it all to be a fun puzzle and went to far as to tell friends that the puzzles would keep him alive in university English departments for centuries. He wasn’t far off.

Here are some suggestions that helped me.

  1. Dip your toe into the work by having someone read it to you. Audible has a wonderful version narrated by Irish actor Jim Norton with Molly’s parts read by Marcella Riordan. The run-on sentences all of a sudden have an order that doesn’t always make sense on a written page. The various voices become clear (especially the bits of song), the jokes have punch, even the sound effects come to life. Mostly, however, you’ll learn to love the lusty Molly Bloom as her erotic nighttime word muddle comes to life. She may be the most realistic woman character in literature.
  2. Get a guide. I did this before and after my first reading. Again at Audible they offer Joyce’s Ulysses,  as part of The Great Courses. The lecturer is James A. W. Hefferman and he takes the work segment by segment talking about the background of the story and relating it to the Latin version of Homer’s Odyssey that inspired and guided Joyce. I learned quite a bit and also, listening after, found lots of points where I thought “I had not noticed that.”

No matter how you decide to go about it, don’t rob yourself of one of the great experiences in reading. It’s a one-of-a-kind book widely considered one of the greatest books in English. It needs to be on your reading bucket list.