Book review: Ulysses is an epic fail

1922 edition published by Sylvia Beach, Paris

1922 edition published by Sylvia Beach, Paris

I expected James Joyce’s Ulysses to be dense. I looked forward to it. Was I not equipped for the experience? I had been reading books for a long time; I enjoyed ‘Dubliners’ for its superlative renderings of human beings; I knew the route and streetscape of Ulysses and could picture the settings of the day; I was familiar with the Dublin vernacular and a good mimic of the accent to boot; I had schoolboy Latin hanging on by a thread to my vocabulary (both Joyce and I suffered Jesuit colleges); my Greek mythology was weak but could be bolstered by Wiki-places so yes, all in all I felt well equipped. I was wrong.

In Ulysses Joyce invented a literary voice and for this experimentation and courage he has become justifiably celebrated. This famed ‘Stream of Consciousness’ or ‘interior monologue’  has been emulated ever since, becoming a mainstay of modern literature and giving impressive voice to authors like Jack Kerouac, Salman Rushdie, Joseph Campbell, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, uncountable others and those yet writing.

To the professional reviewers who have phrased some of the most beautiful language and metaphors ever used to describe a piece of literature I say, ‘bullshit’.

Ulysses is not a good book. Joyce failed the most basic test of any author – to write a readable book. He showed no appreciation for his readers. My reading and comprehension of it took a five week slice of my life. I regret this loss because my remaining lifespan will not permit me to read all the books that I want to (mind you, that might also have been true when I was seven but it seems more compelling now).

I now consider myself qualified to suggest that Ulysses seems to have been written to showcase the author’s encyclopedic knowledge and to impress other writers (e.g. Gertrude Stein’s Paris-based ‘Lost Generation’ of which he was a fringe-dweller). Joyce had an ego big enough to expect adulation. In his early writing career he strongly believed that he should be supported by patronage rather than his having to maintain employment. He once tried to become a European cinema oligarch. He was a genius – and all that comes with that.

Joyce included in this book content guaranteed to compel government censors to ban it, assuring the title of maximum worldwide publicity. This created a frenzy. Travel agencies even sold tours to countries where one could buy a copy of Ulysses until the book finally became available in the UK in 1936 (fourteen years after its first attempted publication in the US). In 1922 a woman friend of Joyce in France had published the first copies privately which were available by subscription only (IR£6/6/0). He subsequently swapped her friendship for a major publishing firm leaving her in debt from the experience and in doing so added to the lore of the book by ‘screwing the lesbian’ who tried to help him. One cannot buy that type of advertising. The suspense of owning the book led to the illiterate buying copies in a foreign language to display on their coffee tables. As a commodity, the eventual publication was on the scale of the stampede for Russian wheat during a Kansas drought. It was today’s equivalent of the iPhone 9. I would argue that the popularity of Ulysses was also due to the rare copies being initially owned by the wealthy. This made it a desirable trend to emulate and a benchmark of literary sophistication to read it. By that I mean snobbery. Failure to understand the book became an admission of ignorance so it had few detractors. The controversy continues to this very day over the editing of the numerous versions (most of the author’s copyrights expired last year).

Ulysses is not a popular seller today because it is not enjoyable, is not easy to read, challenges reader comprehension and isn’t banned. The ‘Stream of Consciousness’ device is available in a choice of books for readers to relax with and enjoy.

As is evident in ‘Dubliners’, one does come across great literary beauty in Ulysses. Joyce is gifted in both the use and abuse of our language. And so I laughed where I came across his humour; felt and smelt the sticky spillage on the floorboards of the pub; tapped fingers to the music; breathed the wet earth of the open grave; caught the cursewords that are the city’s very own and saw the Sandymount sunrise. I so much enjoyed the conjoining of unlikely words that I have adopted the practice myself and am currently annoying all my friends with it. Here’s one of his poetically inspirational compounds with a coining virtually alongside – “the treeshade of sunnywinking leaves”. Show that to your spellchecker.  He delightfully remarks (with perfect sonic rhythm) on the “pluterperfect imperturbability” of a government department; describes the Dublin accent as the “twang in the diphthong”.  For Joyce death is “the debt of nature”; a statue is “Greekly perfect”; woman ambiguously becomes “the cloven sex” and he picturesquely shows “gaslight shining on the growth of paraheliotropic trees”.  He also resurrects  archaic words like coign (angle), pyx (pox), moiety (each of two parts), lesbic (of the homosexual female), gelid (gold). He was indeed worthy of the derivational suffix which is today stemmed to his surname.

Bear with my attempt at a Joycean vignette:  The tax that the tested tender to this treasured treatise is the mental distension of deconstructing the dense descriptions of the only scribalist on this rondure celestial body to have persevered in such ambit of cranioliteral intensity as to rationalise the letter ‘Y’ as being, “the bifurcated penultimate alphabetical letter”. See what I mean? Other readers complain about Joyce’s long sentences (we’re talking multipage lengths here) but I loved each one, challenging myself to hold the train of thought whilst chasing diversions and corkscrewing through an arcane lexicon to the bitter, gasping end. I had some successes – the scant punctuation didn’t help. Sadly such brilliance was outweighed by authorial sins like a change of scene between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next – without notifying the reader! The same applied to changing persona in the middle of internal monologues. Think about that for a minute; I speak the truth – if you don’t believe me, look it up.

Elsewhere I found occlusion, misdirection, erudition, heavy allegories and Irish, Greek and Latin historical and mythical references that challenge those who consider themselves knowledgeable in such matters (and there was no googling in those days). By the 3rd episode (that’s a sort of chapter to you and me, but not quite because…no; just forget it – we won’t there) I was no longer enjoying myself. I needed help and discovered that ‘Ulysses Annotated’ by Don Gifford was considered the optimal guide. Duly equipped I recommenced with a book in either hand so to speak, and while the fog began to lift somewhat, this hot-air-balloon of a book stubbornly refused to reach an altitude affording views of panoramic insight. It was a visit to fellow WordPress blogger Ben Logan at InJoyce! that gave me the third and final key to Ulysses – this good man referred me to the audiobook directed by the BBCs Roger Marsh and read by actors Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan. This magnificent rendition did indeed demystify and complete my interpretation but also led to my frustration at the need to engage both hands, both eyes, both ears, both brain hemispheres and both stereo speakers to discover one of the most undeservedly famous books in the world. I finished it for the same reason Sir Edmund Hillary gave for conquering Everest – because it was there.


24 thoughts on “Book review: Ulysses is an epic fail

  1. Stephy83 says:

    Mark, this was a bloody delightful read! Your sentiments on the novel certainly echo my own. Some episodes I love (admittedly, it is the “harder” episodes that I tend to skim through) and the techniques are oft so beautiful, but I dont think its consistent, some of the techniques fall very flat! x

    • Great minds think alike Stephy 😀 Very flat indeed and in many places almost insulting the reader in its condescension. Life’s too short and there are too many more communicative books out there…

  2. I tried to read it once, and I think I have a copy somewhere…I’d rather read ‘Leaves of Grass’, so I shall. As you imply, life is too short to wade through the Joycean consciousness.

    • Glad to find a like-minder reader – I’d take Whitman over Joyce anyday. There is beauty in Ulysses too, the problem is that you have to sift the whole of his Sandymount beach to find those poetic grains. Time better spent indeed – all the more reason that I appreciate your reading and commenting. Thank you.

  3. Joyce is an ever present in Dublin life, and Bloomsday is celebrated around the city. I took the ‘walking in the city’ as the theme for my short story ‘The Bloomsday Boys’ which was read by Shane Egan on Bloomsday this year outside Sweny’s Chemist (features in Episode 5 – Lotuseaters). Blog post – Ulysses is indeed a difficult read, but as Joyce anticipated ‘it has given us plenty to talk baout’ and there’s nothing wrong with that. Cheers!

  4. I made an admission of failure three times and on the fourth read I went all the way. While I only waded through some parts (but never skimmed, not even a word) I truly enjoyed others and feel I am the better for it. Mind you, us Irish have a tendency to feel we must suffer for our pleasure 🙂

    • (is that the Irish in us or the catholic?) We are among the few in this millennium to have gone all the way Jackie but I’m glad I did because I now have an opinion to base the remarks of others on and I took some lovely language away with me as well. Kudos to us!

  5. I have read a number of “classics” over the years that make me wonder how they managed to become so named. I can usually find aspects that are positive: authentic voice, settings that perfectly capture time and/or location, symbolism/allegory. My problem is that many of them are incredibly boring or difficult to read. I’ve never read Ulysses, and likely never will. Thanks for being a voice of sanity, saving me from another “classic”.

    • Understood. In another two generations Fifty Shades could be on that list (I suspect that publishers have something to do with its makeup). I’m currently reading the quite readable The Republic and can assure you that Plato makes much more sense than Joyce. In truth I prefer Lee Child but believe that there are some books that I need to read for thought-fodder. Your words encourage me to keep calling it as I see it and for this I thank you.

  6. haha. Love the review Mike. I took a master’s class on Joyce and what a horrible class. The book is insane. It’s mired in symbolism, which, at the time fostered current as well as literary and cultural references that were widely known then, but are not as well known now. Part of the class was deciphering all the clues, symbols, fact, a text we had to have was the annotated version, and a third companion which both volumes were as large, if not larger than the book itself.

    There are images I really like from the Walk. And I like the way he used the myths and the odyssey, in theory. But as a whole, it isn’t a book one can simply sit down and read without a plethora of companion pieces. If not done, there’s a great risk that things just won’t make sense. The fact you finished in five weeks is pretty remarkable, as the three month course was basically like this, 1 week dubliners, 2 weeks portrait of an artist as a young man, and the rest Ulysses, and this was an upper level master’s course.

    That all said, there rarely come a book I don’t like as a whole and this is no difference, again, there are some positives here. But, most you come out feeling a definitive way about the book, this one you just come out as if you were just beat up bad. It is quite exhausting and certainly nothing I care to go back and do all over again.

    Finally, while discussing books that are “highly thought of” yet unreadable, I have to throw all of Faulkner into the pot as well. Second worse class I took way back when.

    Nice read. Thanks.

    • Great points, thanks for sharing. You might describe the book as insane but the readers mustn’t be far from it either! I would have welcomed a class environment for my attempt but apparently six years at my secondary school wasn’t long enough to cover it all so they left it off the curriculum. Like yourself I did enjoy it in parts, as described, so it wasn’t a total write-off I suppose. At least I can now value my own opinion of it instead of relying on others (my friends are learning not to bring up the subject). Your academic instruction (I have great respect for those who undertake a Masters in English) would have laid a foundation for you but even so, you come to a similar conclusion to mine and I find that somewhat heartening too. Gifford’s annotations were a case of ‘too much information’ and while there was much on the symbolism I only took what I needed to maintain clarity. I’m content that I picked up on the obvious analogies and the rest be damned! Glad I read it, I had it filed under ‘One Of These Years’ for too many years – Mt. Everest syndrome 😉

  7. You actually went back for seconds Rowan! Even after being disappointed first time? You are either a determined literary savant or need your head examined. As a follower of your writing, I suspect the former.

    As to your entertaining advice on my further reading I would like to point out that you’re a better writer than a comedian so don’t quit your day job dear friend 😛

    • It was a gap of twenty years – memory for pain does fade…but, I don’t think I’ll be doing it again (then again, in twenty more years, I may be ready for a third helping) : )

  8. I first read it when I was 18, and I would have said then that it was an epic fail, worth experimenting with maybe, but not publishing. However, I read it again a few months ago and found it much more enjoyable, and was particularly struck by aspects that I felt must have influenced Dylan Thomas. Maybe if you just read it again say four or five more times, it might warm on you….then again….it’s great to see you back blogging, and if you did try rereading it, you might not ever make it back to us! : )

    • You read it under academic sufferance Roxi, which is admirable – I, on the other hand, led myself willingly to the slaughter and deserved what I got. I was a bit disappointed though (and I like being able to brag about Irish writers).

      I am indeed returned and able as ever. ‘Able’ reminds me that my review neglected to acknowledge the noted palindrome; “—Madam, I’m Adam. And Able was I ere I saw Elba.” So I’m fine thanks Roxi as I’ve never been to Elba 😛

    • Glad I’m not alone Joe and you were the brave man to tackle it in this age of ‘enlightenment’. I’ll certainly never judge a book by reputation again though in this case I should have judged it by the (uninspiring) cover.

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