Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Happy Bloomsday! - Ulysses by James Joyce

Today is Bloomsday. The events of Ulysses take place during a twenty – four hour period on June 16th 1904. James Joyce fans the world over commemorate the day with readings, costumed events, consuming various foods that are eaten by the characters during the course of the narrative, as well as with any other festivities that they want to partake in. As I completed this book several weeks ago, I decided to wait until today to post my commentary. Happy Bloomsday everyone!

I have completed James Joyce’s Ulysses! Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I have experienced this novel. Navigating through its pages seems something of a journey. It was one of the most unique reading experiences that I have ever had.

This is a difficult book to describe, much less write a coherent post about. Though famous, this work is monumentally odd, and it was extremely challenging. In fact, this is the most difficult piece of fiction that I have ever read. Though known for its stream of consciousness style, there are actually dozens of unique prose styles used throughout the novel. The narrative jumps in and out of all sorts of unconventional techniques, including Stream of Consciousness, trips into the bizarre imagery of the unconscious, odd imitations of newspaper headlines, Irish Folklore style and parodies of other writers, such as Charles Dickens, just to name a little of the strangeness. In addition, the text is full of allusions, many extremely obscure, to literature, art, Irish history, current events at the time in which the novel was written, as well as other topics. Joyce’s novel is also very funny. It is full of jokes and puns, and even during serious moments it radiates a zany and chaotic humor.

The book is broken up into chapters that correspond to the parts of Homer’s Odyssey. The parallels between the two works are odd and obscure and I would not have been able to recognize them without the aid of notes and outside assistance. There is also a rough connection with the characters of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The theme of father and sons, which plays prominently in the famous play, is also an important component in this novel.

The narrative takes place during a 24 hour period in Dublin. There are three main, as well as dozens of minor, characters. The main characters are: Stephen Dedalus, who was also the subject of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Leopold Bloom, an advertising agent; and Bloom’s wife, Molly.

In terms of plot, the characters mostly wander around Dublin and interact with one another. They discuss and ponder virtually every subject imaginable from the everyday mundane to profound ruminations on aesthetics and philosophy.

I got an enormous amount out of this work. I also missed a lot. It seems that the folks who really understand this book have read it multiple times. In fact, I have communicated with people who have gone through it six or seven times. My comprehension of parts of this book was spotty. This is despite the fact that I used notes, both Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses by Don Gifford, as well as various online notes and summaries. I also read several essays on the work. Finally, there is a dynamic online community that is fanatically enthusiastic about this book. My interactions with members of this community have been very valuable.

My actual comprehension varied a great deal. There are parts of this book that are easily understandable. Other parts that come close to indecipherable word salad seemed completely enigmatic, even with the assistance of notes.

An example of the novel’s dense zany difficulty is illustrated in the below, a very difficult compound sentence that lacks punctuation. Based upon several outside sources, the below is intended to replicate a strange mix of Old English with some Latin grammatical touches. It is worth noting that this prose is near the beginning of a section and there is no real context in the previous text to assist.

“Universally that person's acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitable by mortals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which the most in doctrine erudite and certainly by reason of that in them high mind's ornament deserving of veneration constantly maintain when by general consent they affirm that other circumstances being equal by no exterior splendour is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted than by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for that proliferent continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction.”

This is just one example of the unusualness and difficulty of this book. There are numerous additional sections that are odd in completely different ways.

Through the denseness, it slowly dawned upon me as to how much of an interesting character Leopold Bloom is. One remarkable thing about him that has been observed by many readers is his compassion directed at almost everyone he encounters. Bloom exhibits warm feelings and support for grieving survivors of the deceased, women in labor, prostitutes, animals he encounters, and just about everyone else.

He is also a calm and moderate but progressive thinker who champions good sense.

In one of the book’s best passages, Bloom expounds the virtues of equality, non-violence, tolerance and moderate change.

“—Of course, Mr B. proceeded to stipulate, you must look at both sides of the question. It's all very fine to boast of mutual superiority but what about mutual equality. I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due installments plan. It's a patent absurdity on the face of it to hate people because they live round the corner and speak another vernacular, in the next house so to speak.  

Though in the end very admirable, Bloom is not without imperfections, and he is ultimately portrayed as very complex person. For example, one of his foibles is a fetish for snatching glimpses of women’s undergarments.

Stephen is portrayed as an intellectual. When the book shifts to his point of view, it becomes difficult to understand and becomes chockfull of references to writers and philosophers. He also exhibits serious guilt surrounding the death of his mother.

Molly is Bloom’s wife. Though her point of view is highlighted in only one chapter, her passages are among the book’s most entertaining and interesting. Her lines are humorous, and she is a character that is full of life. Throughout the novel, it is apparent that she is unfaithful to Bloom. However, when we get to her chapter, we learn that a key motivation for this is the fact that she perceives that Bloom has neglected her.

This was an extremely challenging work for me. Despite my best efforts, a fair bit of the book fell outside of my comprehension. I will need to reread this, perhaps several times, in order to remedy the holes in my understanding.

The effort needed to get through this work level begs the question: was it worth reading? My answer is a resounding yes. Though I am accustomed to a much higher level of reading comprehension than I managed here, the rewards were also plentiful. The multiple and strange writing styles, while often challenging, are very creative and aesthetically pleasing. The many obscure and odd references, at least those that I was able to decipher, were enlightening and fun. The book is brimming with ideas. Though I missed some of them, I also caught a lot of them. Bloom, Stephen and Molly are so very well sketched out that they are a joy to contemplate. In fact, the narrative style brought things out of these characters like no other book that I have ever read. This novel is an enormous artistic achievement. I have not even scratched the surface of what this book contains in this post.

Joyce’s work is obviously not for everyone. In fact, had I tried this when younger, I would have failed to complete it. The book took patience and determination to get through. It helped considerably that I have been reading difficult texts for years. This previous reading experience helped me to “get into shape” for this endeavor. A fairly strong knowledge of both Shakespeare’s works and of the Odyssey was also invaluable. Ultimately, my verdict is that for a fearless and adventurous reader who is prepared, this book is not just worthwhile, it is essential.


JacquiWine said...

Congratulations on completing Ulysses, Brian! Great commentary, and I like the fact that you've written about your response to this book. I know it's a novel I should try at some stage, but I fear it might be too challenging for me.

@parridhlantern said...

This book was a rite of passage when I was a lot younger, braver, ambitious & cocksure of myself, now I look back at it fondly through nostalgia's myopic lense & think yeah I read that. not sure if I'd read it again unless I was retired or something similar.

Suko said...

Happy Bloomsday, Brian Joseph, and congratulations on reading this challenging book and posting on the most appropriate day! It is a difficult book, I think, for many reasons (as you note throughout your post), but worth reading, a descriptive day in the life. Your honest commentary was a pleasure to read this morning. I haven't read Ulysses, but I hope to in the not-too-distant future.

ebookclassics said...

Happy Bloomsday! I still think it's a wonderful accomplishment to have read Ulysses and it seems to me you took away a lot from the book. I hope one day to read the book, but it definitely seems like you need to read the book several times to appreciate and gain a richer understanding of everything Joyce is trying to express.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Unable to read that sentence, all of the words seemed to run into one and another - perhaps I'd have fared better with a print copy. As an ex-teaching assistant I found myself wanting to add the punctuation.

Well done on such a complex read and happy Bloomsday.

Lindsay said...

Well done for finishing this one Brian! I don't know if I could to be honest. And a great analysis of it. I've just come from my shift at the village library I help at and there's an Irish chap in the village and he put on a Bloomsday event and there were lots of people dressed up in the clothing of the times and he did readings and so on and is re-enacting elements of the novel.

JoAnn said...

Congratulations on finishing Ulysses... that is truly an accomplishment. I also appreciated your remarks, but doubt I'll be trying it any time soon. It scares me to death ;-)

seraillon said...

Brian - congratulations on getting through this monster! I've only read Ulysses piecemeal, as part of a class on Joyce many years ago, but the annotated version suggests that it needs to be read many times even to begin to fill the "holes" to which you allude. I haven't participated in Bloomsday for a long time, but my university used to hold a terrific all day Joyce event every June 16 (including, as I recall, "A Wake for Finnegan's Wake" one year at which much whiskey and ale was consumed by students and faculty alike).

You owe it to yourself to read Moravia's Contempt now, if only for the half-page attack by one of the characters on Joyce's Ulysses, one of the funniest bits of faux-criticism I've ever read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jaqui - Thanks for the good word. This particular blog was more about my personal response then most.

I did not feel comfortable attempting any detailed analysis of this one due to my comprehension level.

It took be a long time before I overcame my fear of this one.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - It is interesting that you were able to read this when you were young. As I mentioned I would not have made it. This was very time consuming.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks and Happy Bloomsday!

I would love to read what you think if you gave this a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CJ - Happy Bloomsday!

I really do need to read this again, and perhaps again and again!

I just wish that time was not at such a premium.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Thanks and Happy Bloomsday -

That sentence is really incomprehensible. I found the barest meaning based on a Google search.

My wife said the same thing about adding punctuation to that sentence :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - Since you read much of this piecemeal I am thinking that a run through might work very well for you at this point.

I have heard that Finnegan's Wake is much more difficult then this book. Someday I will likely give it a try.

I must also try Contempt. That passage sounds like it should not be missed.

I will be starting on the Ale very soon :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lindsay. It took me a very long time to muster up the strength to read this :)

That event at your library sounds great. Next year I hope to attend something like that.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks JoAnn - This one really scared me too! It took me a long time to work up my courage for this one :)

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

What a great review, Brian! I learned quite a few interesting things just by reading your thoughts - Bloomsday for instance. I had no idea people celebrated that. It sounds like so much fun.
The satisfaction of reading a good book is given by how much we can take out of it and it seems like you were rewarded in full.
I haven't read it but I would like to, one day.

"indecipherable word salad" - I think these are my three favorite words of today. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Delia!

I myself only learned about Bloomsday this year.

This book was something I too was hoping to read for a long time.

Now I am being told that Finnegan's Wake is even a greater challenge...

James said...

Congratulations on your reading achievement, especially since you did it alone. I read Ulysses about fifteen years ago with a group of friends who met weekly for about ten months. We read it slowly and savored the variety of styles and characters.
We all had previously read the Odyssey and Portrait of an Artist, but some had read Aristotle and other philosophy, like myself, while others were raised as Catholics and helped me understand some of the religious references that I might otherwise have missed. It was a great experience, but it is not on my list to reread.

Sharon Wilfong said...

You have finally read Ulysses and I have finally bought the book where it will remain on my shelf until I have courage enough to read it.
Bravo to you for tackling it. I think you did a good job describing it and all any of us can really do is share what we personally get out of a book. One day I will also read the book and see if I agree with you. I daresay I will. And probably have a worse time making sense of it all. Take care!

Jonathan said...

Congratulations Brian. I read Ulysses a couple of years ago and, like you, I'm aware that I must have missed loads...but I think the trick is to just read it and not worry too much about whether you're understanding it.

Although I ended up liking parts of Ulysses I'm still not a Joyce fan as I feel that for the most part he's just showing off his literary prowess. I read Proust last year and much preferred his work. I have been reading Finnegans Wake for quite a while (just dipping in every now and then) abd that's totally impossible to understand....eeek! Maybe you'd like to try that next?

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James - I did have help from a few folks online, plus the internet in general was of assistance.

Having read a bit of philosophy, literature and history over the years was also a big help.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - My usual style of blogging is not to describe what a emphasize what book meant to me as much as I did here.

But based upon my level of comprehension for this one I thought that it was best. I will write a different style bog for my next reading (That is a joke :))

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jonathan - Thanks for stopping by.

I do think that Joyce's accomplishment was likely more impressive back in 1904.

I have not read Proust, I really need to soon.

I have been considering giving Finnegan's Wake a shot.Maybe in a year or so. I have heard that it was more difficult then this book was.

@parridhlantern said...

I was a lot more obsessional then, add a dash of arrogance & the indisputable invincibility of youth, thus making for a potent cocktail of trying anything regardless of whether it went/stayed in or not :-) Don't have the time or the will to tackle such weighty tomes now - other priorities take precedence now, despite the occasional backward glance to freer times, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - I loved that comment.

One does need to be a bit invincible to get through this one.

Maria Behar said...


Well, CONGRATS to you for completing this novel!! I must confess that I've always considered it too intimidating for me to even attempt to read it. That first quote from the book sounded like gibberish to me. Forgive my honesty, but I don't think I could stomach much of that. Well, as you've said yourself, this novel is not for everyone.

The second quote was much more comprehensible, of course!

I might gather some courage, at some point in the future, to actually start this book, but I might never finish it. However, you have successfully piqued my curiosity, especially since the novel deals with such important themes, and contains many literary allusions.

Thanks so much for your insightful analysis of this immensely challenging work! : )

Maria Behar said...

P.S. I totally agree with these comments by Jonathan:

"... I'm still not a Joyce fan as I feel that for the most part he's just showing off his literary prowess. I read Proust last year and much preferred his work."

I got the very same impression of Joyce being "a literary showoff" as I read your review, Brian. Although I have not as yet read Proust, I did buy "Swann's Way" about a year ago, and dipped into it one day. He seems a LOT more accessible than Joyce!

After reading Delia's comment, I just HAD to go back and re-read your post, just to find that funny phrase again: "indecipherable word salad". Priceless!! Lol.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - This novel does raise such interesting questions. Was Joyce showing off in parts. Was he just trying to do something different? Maybe it was a little bit of both. Ultimately I welcome the idea of him finding a way to communicate ideas in a different and unique way. After all, we have plenty of conventionally written novels.

I almost did bot make it through myself. I almost gave up early on. I found the earliest chapters to be the most difficult so it got better. I also cannot imagine anyone reading this book without notes. I would never have made it through without outside assistance.

JaneGS said...

Glad this was such a positive experience for you. Someday I hope to say the same!

BTW, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, which I reviewed on my blog a few weeks ago, has a section in which the author talks about the bookshop owner who was a Joyce fan and helped launch the book. Definitely an interesting backstory to the publication of this seminal work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Based upon your commentary on it The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop spunds like such a great book. I really want to read it.

That story does indeed sound intriguing.

HKatz said...

"In fact, had I tried this when younger, I would have failed to complete it."

Yep, that's me :) I'd like to take it on sometime in the next several years, now that I have more experience with difficult texts. The first time around, it felt like drowning with occasional amazing moments of breaking the surface.

I enjoyed reading your analysis of the primary characters, particularly Leopold and his compassionate eye.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I must confess that at times I felt the water was getting over my head.

I would recommend using some good notes, they were invaluable.

Priya said...

Thank you for this post. I read the first page of Ulysses last year and was thoroughly intimidated, which I suppose, is nothing new. Your resounding yes has inspired me at least to not give up on it entirely. Maybe a few years down the line, I'll return to the book, this time equipped with notes like the ones you've linked to. I am actually reading Odyssey now, so perhaps after that.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Priya - Some chapters of Ulysses are much more difficult then others. The early chapters are indeed some of the most challenging. The the first few pages are not easy to get through. Some literature professors assign their classes chapters out of order, letting the students read some of the easier ones first for this reason.

I found that multiple sources of notes to be indispensable for me. I would have never made it through without them.