Ulysses: What the hell?

I tried spending a few hours reading this book. I did. It hurt.

Can someone explain to me why this is considered one of the greatest novels of all time? I mean, this book is complex and interesting and shiny. But so is a fire, and burning this book would be a lot easier than reading it!

I mean, really, what the hell?

Ulysses is one of those books that’s a classic because everybody wishes they had read it, but nobody actually has.

Thanks, friedo, that’s very helpful. :rolleyes:

Seriously, Ulysses is an astonishing novel, with layer after layer of meaning and diction. It is, however, extremely difficult to read, as you’ve noticed, Gadfly. Joyce is pretty much the only author for whom I’d recommend this, but I suggest you read a book or two about it before you actually read it. Hugh Kenner’s book Ulysses is good and informative, and Kenner’s prose is itself extremely enjoyable; that’s a good place to start.

There’s also James Joyce’s Ulysses by Stuart Gilbert, which was the first major critical work on the book and hits a lot of the basics. Joyce himself helped Gilbert write it, and it explains a lot of the book’s symbols and themes in coherent ways. This is one that’s worth keeping at hand while you read Ulysses.

And by the way, I’ve read it twice.

I have. It’s very, very difficult, even for Professional English People. One of my professors said that it’s a book that cannot be read, only reread, and I think that’s pretty accurate, because it really is close to incomprehensible the first time you read it.

But the difficulty is part of the point- it’s so densely packed with stuff that you experience it differently every time you read it, and you have to concentrate and immerse yourself in it so deeply that you are almost a participant in the book, instead of a passive reader, just because reading it is so much work.

Your first time through, I’d make use of one of the simple helps available- I used the Cliffs Notes my first time. Then read it again, while using one of the guidebooks to Ulysses that are usually available on the Criticism shelf of your friendly neighborhood Barnes and Noble. Then a third time straight through. I wouldn’t expect to understand it in anything less than two or three readings, and after four or five I know there’s still a lot there for me to experience next time.

Of course, if you think that sounds like too much work, you don’t have to read it at all. As Friedo says, most people don’t. I thought it was well worth the effort, for me, but it’s your decision.

I read it every other year. I’ll stop when it ceases to surpise and delight me.

Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, is a book I’ve never managed to make it all the way through. Now when I pick it up, I tend to open it at a random page and just keep going until I’m cross-eyed. Clever and funny, but it makes Ulysses look like Stephen King, as far as difficulty is concerned.

Wow, I once joined a summer class in which we were expected to read, discuss, and write about this book in about two or so weeks.

Sorta makes me glad I chickened out. :slight_smile:

Well, so far from what I’ve read, I think that a bunch of blind people have just grasped at air and come up with the idea that there might be an elephant in Ulysses. But I’ll keep reading, I suppose.

Yeah, I know the feeling…I was in an advanced English class as a college freshman, and this was thrown at us to follow the Iliad, the Aeniad, Don Quixote, and a number of other epics, ALL IN ONE SEMESTER.

There’s no way an 18 year old can digest Ulysses…you just don’t have the life experience to GET it. I didn’t read it through until I was 28 or so.

Frankly, it sounds to me that the mental effort and time would much more profitably be spent learning computer programming. That is, it’s about as difficult as reading Ulysses with comprehension, and you have a skill people would pay you to do afterward. Whereas I think the “explaining Ulysses” market is rather limited.

Then again, considering the IT job market … might as well go ahead and read Ulysses…

I picked it up a copy to have a quick look in my neighbour’s house and the style of writing was certainly unusual. I can only describe it as being very dense, reading it being like wading knee high through syrup. I take it I’ll need to put some time aside to read it properly then :o

Gadfly, have you read any James Joyce before Ulysses? Because if you haven’t, it’s like being introduced to mountain climbing by having to climb Mt. Everest. I would recommend first reading either his short stories or (my favorite) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These will enable you to get an idea of what Joyce’s style is like so you’ll be better prepared to tackle Ulysses.

Finnegans Wake, however, is another matter. I disagree with Larry Mudd’s assessment that it makes Ulysses look like Stephen King. I think it makes look like a “Dick and Jane” primer.

My teacher for AP Latin (reading The Aeneid in Latin), at the complaints that Vergil made up his own grammar rules, randomly threw in Greek all the time, invented his own parts of speech and literary devices, and used idioms and allusions to myths and customs that had no other surviving references after Rome turned Christian, responded that “It’s a good practice for reading Ulysses. You’ll look back at this and smile when you have to read that.”
I can only imagine what it’s like going through that without a guide. I pity you.

And going through it when I certainly don’t have the life experiences, being slightly under 18.

Geez, Gadfly, Ulysses is a tough read for your average seventeen-year-old. (It’s doubtful that your average seventeen-year-old would be attracted to the SDMB, though, so you may be all right there.)

Robert Anton Wilson tricked me into being a James Joyce freak in the mid-1980s, when I was about your age. I found a copy of his Masks of the Illuminati on my girlfriend’s bookshelf and read it in one sitting one wintery day while she was away at work. RAW uses James Joyce (along with Aleister Crowley and Albert Einstein,) as one of his characters, and he offers a poor imitation of Joyce’s punning stream-of-consciousness. In the years after that, I read everything by and on both Crowley and Joyce that I could get my hands on. I outgrew Crowley fairly early on, but I’m still growing into Joyce. Thanks, Bob!

Yeah, Larry, it probably would be for an average 17 year old. Harder for me, since I’m not even 17. I’ll try to find some of James Joyce’s… Easier… Work.

I wonder what conversations between James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were like…

Gadfly: Dubliners. I like “Araby” and “The Dead.” I believe I liked “Araby” when I was under 18, but it took awhile for me to get “The Dead.”

I’m 18, reading Ulysses for the second time. I actually started a group at school for reading and discussing it and whatnot. I’m also certifiably insane, but at least I’m staying away from Finnegans Wake.

Portrait is definitely required reading for starting Ulysses, and the Gilbert criticism is valuable as well. I used annotations last time (Gifford) but now I’m attempting to run through without too many interruptions.

It’s easier if you reread each episode a few times, looking at the schema (find it here: http://www.2street.com/joyce/ ) for symbols, although usually things are repeated enough as to be obvious (mentions of breathing in Aeolus, or the heart in Hades, for example).

Richard Ellmann’s massive biography of Joyce is fantastic, as well. I just got it last week and am finding it very hard to put down.

On the subject of Joyce resources, Jorn Barger has a very nice, (and completely obsessive) Joyce portal.

Jorn is a regular poster to alt.books.james-joyce, and can be relied upon to have something to say about just about any bit of Joyce minutiae. (He’s also an honest to goodness neologist, which commands the respect of any good Joycean, even if they do accuse him of crossing the line into crackpotism from time-to-time, the jealous bastards. “Weblog,” if you’re curious.)

Joyce scholarship is the special niche of those who realize that they’re better artists than they realize. After you acquire a taste for Joyce, everything seems to contain an extra layer of meaning, you’re never satisfied with taking things at face value, and you’ll certainly never be satisfied by things which can only be taken at face value.

There’s an observation of Mr. Bloom’s, for example, that has provided me with fodder for many debates of varying degrees of beeriness with folks of varying degrees of erudition:

Myself, I perceive a subtle pun there. (ie; “Irish Stew in the name of the law.”) I have persuaded a few readers that this was an intentional pun of the immoral bard, while others have maintained that it was a simple accident and that I was projecting too much. This is the sort of argument that I love to have, especiallly with a skinful of Guinness. :smiley:

Joyce at his best paints a picture that approaches holographic realism. What you see depends on your individual point of view. Some things are so subtle that they remain hidden, unless they are close to your heart. I’d estimate that I’ve read Ulysses eight or nine times, and yet I’ve never experienced it the same way twice, since I’m not the same man, and between readings I learn new things and forget other things. My copy of Ulysses is the only book that I own that I’ve heavily annotated. Some of the notes that I come across seem naive and stupid to me, and at other times I’m surprised that my earlier selves have been more perceptive than me.

Good suggestions of the others posters.

I wrestled through Ulysses a couple of years ago. Up to halfway through I could do it by careful reading. I found I had to try to really imagine what Joyce was trying to say with his rather metaphorical and associative language. If I tried to skip passages that were hard to understand, I quickly lost touch with the book. But learning to exercise and use your imagination in this way was worthwhile and rewarding.

After the first half, the book become too hard for me. I had to take recourse to two books of commentary to help me explain what I was reading. One was Anthony Burgess’ commentary, which I highly recommend (I think it was Here Comes Everybody. He explains the artistry of Ulysses, what it was that Joyce was aiming at by writing so difficult.

I would recommend using at least two commentaries, since they will frequently disagree about interpretations of specific passages (such as the yellow lake on the beach, that Stephen Daedalus creates). It made me confident to disagree with either commentary if I found a different interpretation was called for.

I do believe that a certain life experience will really help with reading, because Joyce assumes a lot of background knowledge, without which it is difficult to understand what he is describing in specific passages.

Finally, if you are interested in literature and art, I would certainly recommend going through with reading Ulysses. One of the things I learned from it was to what extent ordinary literature is told in a very traditional manner. What Ulysses does after the first half, is to play with the manner you tell a story in wildly different and often highly amusing ways. It is comparable to the development into cubist or abstract painting during the beginning of the twentieth century.

After reading Ulysses I found myself really noticing how much freedom there is, and how many choices are made, in telling a literary story. If you’re not interested in such an experience, you may well leave it alone. But if you desire to see what literature really is and can be, by all means try to read through it at least once.