“My literary tastes… have changed hardly at all in the last 45 years,” wrote Anthony Burgess sometime in the 1980s. “I was both disqualified and castigated when, in a school essay competition, I declared that James Joyce’s Ulysses was my favourite book…Now, making the identical declaration, I will be sneered at for the banality of my choice. Everybody knows now that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century”.
As a great fan of Burgess’ journalism in The Observer during that period, I read him eulogise Ulysses there, and heard him do so at a personal appearance in Glasgow around the same time. Two Scottish novels which have been generally felt to show Joycean influences, Alan Sharp’s A Green Tree in Gedde and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, also nudged me further up towards the source. An imminent first visit to Dublin in 1991 accelerated my first and so far only complete reading of the novel.
A great accompaniment was Frank Delaney’s James Joyce’s Odyssey , a valuable guide both through Joyce’s writing and the novel’s Dublin locations. When Delaney published his book, he was keen to help those readers, he said, who had started the book but reproached themselves for not finishing it. It is interesting to muse about how many (or how few) readers today might reproach themselves for such a failing. A 1997 poll of the best novels of the 20th century, allegedly involving 25,000 members of the public, placed Ulysses only fourth, while a 2009 selection of an “essential fiction library” lowered it to 24.
The modernist structure of Joyce’s novel certainly makes it challenging. The conflation of a character’s thoughts with what he sees or experiences, the avoidance of inverted commas to make conversation harder to discern, the sections which experiment with unusual narrative techniques like the question and answer chapter or the playscript chapter or the 50-page unpunctuated monologue : all these require concentration from the reader to follow the story and the characters. Then there’s the fact that the reader knows that chapters of the novel, although unnamed, correspond to the adventures of the original Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey, such as the journey to the Underworld or the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus or the encounter with the sweet-singing Sirens, so that is another layer of cultural reference to keep aware of. Then there’s also the fact, reminds Delaney, that each chapter relates to a part of the body, such as the eyes, the ears, the digestive system…
It may be that to read or hear sections of Ulysses or to see adaptations is to distract you from tackling the whole thing. However, I certainly enjoyed reading sections of the book alongside listens to BBC Radio 4’s five-hour adaptation for Bloomsday 2012. A recent viewing of the 1967 Joseph Strick film was more rewarding than I remembered from before : there are some good performances (Milo O’Shea, Barbara Jefford, T.P.McKenna and Joe Lynch as Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, Buck Mulligan and Blazes Boylan respectively) and the 1960s black and white cinematography helps to create an distancing effect comparable to the modernist style and the Edwardian setting.
The statue of James Joyce in Dublin city centre.
“He crossed Westmoreland street …Hot mockturtle vapour and steam of newbaked jampuffs roly-poly poured out of Harrisons. The heavy noonreek tickled the top of Mr Bloom’s gullet”. One of the plaques on the Joyce walking trail in Dublin. When this photo was taken in 1991, there was still a restaurant called Harrisons, serving a Joyce-friendly menu.
“A skiff, a crumpled throwaway, Elijah is coming, rode lightly down the Liffey, under Loopline bridge, shooting the rapids where water chafed around the bridgepiers, sailing eastwards past hulls and anchorchains, between the Customhouse old dock and George’s quay”. The 18th century Custom House was already changing its original use at the time Joyce was writing.
Does all this assistance stimulate or deflate a reader’s stamina and dedication for a demanding 700 page novel? Delaney reminds us that Joyce himself gleefully said that he had put in enough puzzles to keep the professors busy for centuries. One solution he himself proposes is to treat the novel as a series of paintings. Or perhaps as a reference book, something to be dipped into occasionally, rather than worked through from cover to cover?
Burgess, Anthony (1987) Homage to Qwert Yuiop : Selected Journalism 1978-1985 London : Abacus
Delaney, Frank, (1983) James Joyce’s Odyssey : A Guide to the Dublin of “Ulysses” London : Granada