Ulysses is one of those books that has been sitting on my shelf for years but I’d never quite gotten round to reading it. It’s not so much the huge page count (930 pages in my edition) that was off-putting, but the fact it is well known to be a difficult read that needs perseverance. Yet I knew I wanted to read it, having seen it cited in the works of so many other writers and thinkers, in particular CG Jung and Robert Anton Wilson.
There are literally hundreds of reviews of Ulysses, and even full study papers on the style and in-depth analysis of particular references made in the book. Yet it was difficult to actually get a grasp on what the book was about before starting it. Few reviewers make comment on the overall content and refer instead solely to the style and literary significance. Even the cover (of my edition at least) simply boasts its importance as a classic. So what is it about? The story follows main character Leopold Bloom through a single day – 16th June 1904 – in Dublin. It is about his relationships with colleagues, family and friends, the places he goes, his thoughts, and his attitude to fundamental life issues such as birth, marriage and death. It is about the complexity of ordinary human experience, and just how much is involved in a seemingly ordinary and perhaps boring day for a civilised human. It is organised in chapters that correspond to The Odyssey, an epic ancient greek poem attributed to Homer.
I was pleasantly surprised during my first session with it, in that I took to the style straight away. It is written as a ‘stream of consciousness’ and jumps between dialogue, third person descriptions and trains of thought straight from the minds of the characters. As such the sentences aren’t always complete and the language and references are particular to the characters themselves and their backgrounds. I can see why it could be a struggle, yet to me it was like reading from my diary written only for my own consumption. It is a way of getting the reader closer to the characters than ever before. Vivid sounds, smells, colours and textures are evoked in free association.
But it quickly became clear that I was at a disadvantage for not knowing well the story of The Odyssey, Hamlet or latin literature in general. There are numerous references to these and a great many classic writers in both style and content. I felt I was missing dimensions of the story, and began using Shmoop’s online summary and commentary alongside the main text.
This worked for me for a while, but I fell out with the book at chapter 14, known as Oxen of the Sun, which is about halfway through. This is where I felt the writing style really took a turn towards impenetrable, and I became reliant on the aforementioned summary not just to check I wasn’t missing anything important but actually just to understand the gist. There isn’t anything at all difficult in the ideas dealt with in the chapter, but the constant switching of styles and mimicry of latin writers was lost on me. I got to the end of this chapter and collapsed in exhaustion. Another 400 pages seemed insurmountable. I needed to rest and refuel for some time before I felt I could go on. That is where I am up to, and that is why Ulysses as yet goes unrated on my blog.
For me, the reading experience should be enjoyable. This can absolutely include the pleasure of deciphering multi layered storylines and coming to understand a new style of writing. In fact one of the things that excites me most in fiction is a lack of conformity to traditional timelines and ordering. By this reckoning, Ulysses really should rank with some of my favourite books. I can’t deny that his multi-dimensional experimentation is admirable; but unfortunately Joyce just makes the reader work too hard for too long, giving very little return in the way of storyline.
I salute those who genuinely have the patience, determination and knowledge to love this book. But for me, reading Ulysses was like being lost at sea. Trying to stay afloat in a vast expanse of words, desperately clinging on to what little solidity and clarity I could find. Much like Odesseus himself in fact, whose fleet of ships were blown off course and caused him to spend 10 years searching for home as a result! I do intend to pick this back up at some point, but I really need to read something lighter for a while first.