Having perused the internet for a succinct definition of a book, I discovered that it is defined as “a written or printed work, consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.” Absent in the explanation is word order, paragraphs, or any absurd literary etiquette that has been constructed through the years. It is with the knowledge that the denotation of the word ‘book’ is abstract and flexible, that I turn to the topic of discussion itself: the monarchical twentieth century masterpiece, Ulysses.
Virginia Woolf wrote of Ulysses, “Never did any book so bore me.” However, both Mrs Dalloway and The Waves draw parallels with the novel, and one wonders if Ms Woolf’s distaste stemmed from her wish to have conceived the idea, rather than Joyce. The plot follows two men, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom respectively, through a day of their lives in Dublin. There is a singular event in Ulysses: the meeting of the two leading figures; an anticlimax that follows the book through to its final pages. The rest of the novel is filled with monologues. The reader assumes they are being addressed by either Bloom or Dedalus, when in fact it is the omnipresent voice of James Joyce himself guiding you through the narrative.
Ulysses was never intended to become a novel. Starting life as a short story addition for The Dubliners, Joyce may have found Ulysses too lacklustre for the compilation, and thus worked on it until Ulysses became not only a novel, but a magnum opus containing the majority of his worldly knowledge. The book itself can be considered as a parting gift, a lingering farewell to those who have yet to travel and to discover, so that they might trace Joyce’s vertiginous learning curve themselves.
I believe that in order to truly understand Ulysses, you must be Joyce himself, as we cannot possibly hope as readers to piece together the words he has flung so desperately from his psyche and comprehend exactly what he means by every sentence. However, the reader does have a window into Joyce’s thoughts, and many have analysed and commented on their views.
Allow me a moment to dispel some of the smog-like rumours that surround Ulysses and prevent so many from reading it:
– Virginia Woolf referred to Ulysses as ‘a stream of consciousness’, which has been much quoted by many of those who are reluctant to venture into the depths of the novel. Ms Woolf’s description makes the novel sound like meaningless words scattered on a page, lacking flow or character dimension. There are developed characters, written with careful detail, and descriptions are ubiquitous. Although speech marks are never used, Ulysses contains dashes at the beginning of each line to signify the placement of dialogue, and it is occasionally written in script form, with the character’s name present as a bold heading before they speak. Ulysses may be complex, and not entirely easy to understand due to the many references, and multi-lingual sentences, but it is not a stream of consciousness. It is a fully formed novel and deserves to be credited as such.
– Ulysses is not difficult to read; it is not a gargantuan challenge that only the very academically astute can accomplish. At 644 pages long, not counting the afterword, it is a mammoth novel, but it is a mammoth novel that can, and ought to be read. It contains a rich amount of detail that must be looked over carefully, as sentences are often referred back to later on in the text. It is, however, extremely enjoyable, and some of the best writing I have had the fortune to read. Examples of this include:
See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.
– James Joyce is known as the great ‘rule-breaker’ of literature. Yet, as I concluded in the introduction of this piece, there are no rules set out in the definition of a book, only expectations set out by others. In Ulysses, Joyce experiments with genres. Each paragraph of text is superseded by four or so lines of verse; some dialogue is written in script format, almost as if Ulysses were a play, not a novel. Book catalogues, data tables and even a music score can be found in the later pages. The only rule Joyce broke was the rule of conformity.
Shakespeare runs like a thread throughout this novel, mainly his great tragedy, Hamlet. Hamlet has great relevance to Ulysses, and indeed, the characters that fill its weary pages. Stephen Dedalus, it is thought, is both a younger version of Joyce and Hamlet. He shares Hamlet’s troubled parentage – Stephen’s estranged Mother passes during the course of the book, and he struggles to come to terms with the loss of a woman whom he barely knew. If only we were all somebody else, he commiserates beside her grave. Stephen has different shadows haunting him than those of Hamlet, as he is not tormented by his Mother’s sexuality or his Father’s betrayal. He is, however, substantially weighted by the past during the course of the novel, and his uneasiness is displayed by Joyce through many enjambments, devoid of grammar. A more complex theory is that Stephen has to face his fears and become similar to his Father, in order to befriend Leopold Bloom, who is over twenty years his senior. In order for him to follow the path of this novel, the path that fate has laid out for him, he must evolve. Both Stephen and Hamlet reject their family traditions; they both long for individualism. It is theorised that this is because Joyce was born into an English-occupied Ireland, and never really felt that the country was his own. Shakespeare is a paternal figure in Ulysses; he appears to guide the characters: Leopold Bloom through his wife’s infidelity, and Stephen Dedalus through his pure uncertainty about life.
Let me close this review in the way that Joyce closes Ulysses: with the word ‘yes’. Should this book be read by everyone with an interest in classic literature? Yes. Does it succeed as a novel that has broken away from conformity? Yes. Should you, the reader of this article, pick up this book, and attempt to read it without previous hesitations acting as a barrier? Yes. It is true that Joyce wrote to please himself, but he has pleased many others along the way, and will continue to do so as long as the connotations that come with it are ignored.
Sources: My own interpretation of the novel
Martin Amis’ Ulysses review in War Against Cliche
http://literateur.com/shakespeare%E2%80%99s-hamlet-and-joyce%E2%80%99s-stephen-breaking-free-from-parental-authority/ – fascinating and worth a read.