To the aspiring novelist, James Joyce looms large, a literary giant—the writer all of his contemporaries looked up to, in the way that professional basketball players of my generation all venerate Michael Jordan.
Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce’s final book, is famously unreadable. “I have taken 18 years to write it, and it should take you 18 years to read it,” he is supposed to have said—which is not much of a book-jacket blurb. His earlier output, meanwhile—the short stories that comprise Dubliners and the semi-autobiographical Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—are quite good, but seem to be working up to something groundbreaking. That something is Ulysses, Joyce’s magnum opus, published a century ago this past Wednesday, on the author’s 40th birthday. In its ranking of the best 100 novels of all time, Modern Library has it atop the list.
Ulysses is an extravaganza of a book: lengthy, indulgent, all-encompassing, a literary Alpha and Omega. It concerns the goings-on in the city of Dublin on a single day (June 16, 1904, now called Bloomsday). The central characters are Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged ad canvasser; Molly Bloom, his sultry wife; and the younger Stephen Daedalus, a schoolteacher and poet. The plot, such as it is, involves Bloom 1) processing the fact that Molly will be seeing her lover that afternoon, 2) meeting Stephen, and then 3) determining that he would rather his wife sleep with a poet than the lummox she’s taken up with. During the course of the novel, Bloom takes a morning dump while reading a magazine; is caught masturbating at a beach by the young woman he’s ogling; exchanges steamy letters with a mystery correspondent via the local newspaper, which operates as the Tinder of the day; visits Dublin’s red light district, where he encounters Stephen; and contemplates often his coprophilic fantasies.
Most readers will not get that far. I certainly would not have without ample help from the professor teaching it. The dirty parts of the book—originally banned in the U.S., it was only published after the 1933 ruling in The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses determined that it was not obscene—are well concealed. Here, for example, is one of the “obscene” passages, in which Bloom, our perverted protagonist, takes matters into his own hands at the aforementioned beach:
Devils they are when that’s coming on them. Dark devilish appearance. Molly often told me feel things a ton weight. Scratch the sole of my foot. O that way! O, that’s exquisite! Feel it myself too. Good to rest once in a way. Wonder if it’s bad to go with them then. Safe in one way. Turns milk, makes fiddlestrings snap. Something about withering plants I read in a garden. Besides they say if the flower withers she wears she’s a flirt. All are. Daresay she felt I. When you feel like that you often meet what you feel. Liked me or what? Dress they look at. Always know a fellow courting: collars and cuffs. Well cocks and lions do the same and stags. Same time might prefer a tie undone or something. Trousers? Suppose I when I was? No. Gently does it. Dislike rough and tumble. Kiss in the dark and never tell. Saw something in me. Wonder what. Sooner have me as I am than some poet chap with bearsgrease plastery hair, lovelock over his dexter optic. To aid gentleman in literary. Ought to attend to my appearance my age. Didn’t let her see me in profile. Still, you never know. Pretty girls and ugly men marrying. Beauty and the beast. Besides I can’t be so if Molly. Took off her hat to show her hair. Wide brim. Bought to hide her face, meeting someone might know her, bend down or carry a bunch of flowers to smell. Hair strong in rut. Ten bob I got for Molly’s combings when we were on the rocks in Holles street. Why not? Suppose he gave her money. Why not? All a prejudice. She’s worth ten, fifteen, more, a pound. What? I think so. All that for nothing. Bold hand: Mrs Marion. Did I forget to write address on that letter like the postcard I sent to Flynn? And the day I went to Drimmie’s without a necktie. Wrangle with Molly it was put me off. No, I remember. Richie Goulding: he’s another. Weighs on his mind. Funny my watch stopped at half past four. Dust. Shark liver oil they use to clean. Could do it myself. Save. Was that just when he, she?
O, he did. Into her. She did. Done.
Mr Bloom with careful hand recomposed his wet shirt. O Lord, that little limping devil. Begins to feel cold and clammy. Aftereffect not pleasant. Still you have to get rid of it someway. They don’t care. Complimented perhaps. Go home to nicey bread and milky and say night prayers with the kiddies.
Not exactly bodice-ripping stuff. And yet so telling, the way his mind wanders, the way even masturbation can’t focus his scattered attention.
The Great Gatsby is number two on that Modern Library list, but Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel is both short and easy to read. They may not fully grasp its intricacies, but the average high schooler could polish it off in an afternoon. This is, um, not the case with Ulysses. Ulysses is not a book you read; it’s a book you conquer. Open it to a random page and that same high schooler might find this:
Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus.
Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit.
Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa! Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa! Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa!
Which, I mean, come on.
And yet there is great pleasure to be found in unlocking a secret, in figuring out what exactly Joyce means when, bored of lucidity, or even of stream of consciousness, he pushes the outer limits of what literature can be. Usually, that means something silly, something mundane, something unremarkable, that he nevertheless imbues with meaning.
To wit, here is one of the undisputed masters of the English language writing a scene about a man and his cat:
The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.
—O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.
The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writingtable. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.
Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.
—Milk for the pussens, he said.
—Mrkgnao! the cat cried.
They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.
—Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.
—Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly.
She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively and long, showing him her milkwhite teeth. He watched the dark eyeslits narrowing with greed till her eyes were green stones. Then he went to the dresser, took the jug Hanlon’s milkman had just filled for him, poured warmbubbled milk on a saucer and set it slowly on the floor.
—Gurrhr! she cried, running to lap.
He watched the bristles shining wirily in the weak light as she tipped three times and licked lightly. Wonder is it true if you clip them they can’t mouse after. Why? They shine in the dark, perhaps, the tips. Or kind of feelers in the dark, perhaps.
He listened to her licking lap. Ham and eggs, no. No good eggs with this drouth. Want pure fresh water. Thursday: not a good day either for a mutton kidney at Buckley’s. Fried with butter, a shake of pepper. Better a pork kidney at Dlugacz’s. While the kettle is boiling. She lapped slower, then licking the saucer clean. Why are their tongues so rough? To lap better, all porous holes. Nothing she can eat? He glanced round him. No.
In the book, both Bloom and Daedalus are locked out of their respective homes. They are exiles in their own city. Joyce himself wrote Ulysses while living in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris—in self-imposed exile. To faithfully re-create June 16, 1904, he turned to a copy of the Evening Telegraph, a Dublin newspaper published that day, as well as Thom’s Dublin Directory, a sort of Time Out Dublin from a century ago.
And so much of the book is puns, half-witted musings, and low pop culture references. If Joyce wrote this about February 5, 2022, the conservative Irishmen drinking at the bar might be discussing Joe Rogan, or Kim and Kanye, or railing against masks and vaccines. He wanted it all in there, good, bad, and ugly, sacred and profane, meaningful and ridiculous.
I’ve read the book all the way through twice (the first time in college, as part of a course), and I can’t pretend to understand every word of Ulysses. Much of it is, and will always remain, over my head. But I love Joyce’s inimitable voice, particularly in Bloom’s stream of consciousness sections. I admire his stubborn determination to include everything, the high and the low, the ruminations about God and Shakespeare as well as the morning deuce and the cat’s meow. And I love how it ends with Molly Bloom, in bed with her husband, reflecting on the day he proposed to her, her thoughts so frantic that they cannot be arrested with commas, apostrophes, em-dashes, or periods:
. . . the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
In his famous lecture on the book, Nabokov says, “The whole of Ulysses, as we shall gradually realize, is a deliberate pattern of recurrent themes and synchronization of trivial events.” These themes, he says, are “the hopeless past . . . the ridiculous and tragic present . . . [and] the pathetic future.”
I’m not sure I agree. This is not some depressing Russian novel. It is not intended to show the ills of society, or the unfairness of life. On the contrary, what I get out of Ulysses, even just reading bits and pieces of it now, is an unwavering and playful curiosity; a determined optimism, despite the pervasive tragedy and humiliation and heartache; and above all, a hopefulness.
Joyce took the mire and muck and made a masterpiece. That is its triumph.
Photo credit: Geoffrey Barker. First edition of Ulysses. No. 302 of a limited edition of 1000 numbered copies, held by the State Library of New South Wales.
To conquer Joyce yes ... To realize "no mud; no lotus" beautifully
Ah, Ulysses, a trigger for me. Ulysses is the reason I'm a college dropout. I was a junior year English major taking a twentieth-century novel class. We were assigned Ulysses, Swann's Way, The Magic Mountain, and The Moviegoer -- for good measure -- all in one semester. I'm a slow, careful reader. There was no way in hell. I took an incomplete and never returned. Academic malpractice at its worst.