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Ulysses - James Joyce

A book by James Joyce.

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Genius in Bloom

  • Jul 3, 2010
Of Ulysses, James Joyce claimed to have "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant," which is an apt warning to readers that what follows is a deliriously complex and beautiful literary experience. It is a book that will not reveal itself fully in one, two, or perhaps even ten readings; nevertheless, it is a most worthy and rewarding pursuit.

The action in Ulysses unfolds over the course of a single day, June 16, 1904, focusing principally on the journeys of two figures, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Joyce explodes this twenty-four hours into an epic adventure of Homeric proportions, as the title suggests. Like the Odyssey, Ulysses is similarly divided into episodes (which are commonly referred to by the corresponding Homeric title), and several characters in Ulysses can be mapped onto those of Homer (Bloom - Odysseus, his wife Molly - Penelope, Stephen Dedalus - Telemachus). The allusion provides moments rich in irony: Odysseus's men are transformed into swine after eating Circe's cheese and wine, and Bloom orders just that meal in Davy Byrne's pub after being repulsed by the piggishness of those around him; Odysseus slays Penelope's suitors while Bloom sheepishly hides from his wife Molly's paramour, etc. The allusion suggests Bloom somewhat of an anti-hero, sober, pedantic at times, pedestrian - but fascinating all the same.

The chapters in Ulysses assume a striking variety of forms: straight-forward narrative prose, short vignettes, theatrical-play style, catechism-like dialogue, stream of consciousness. There are a variety of narrators as well: Bloom's inner consciousness, an unidentified Dubliner in a pub, his wife Molly, etc. Thus, Ulysses can seem confusing, uneven and disjointed; however, it is exactly this variety that demonstrates Joyce's brilliance and gives the book its richness. Treated thusly, June 16th, 1904, in Dublin comes alive in three, or four, dimensions when viewed from so many perspectives, and many of the characters are viewed from both without and within, a rare and delicious treat for the reader.

Ulysses is laden with historical references, words and phrases in a variety of languages, and some nonsense writing, all of which present a formidable challenge to the reader. However, if the reader surrenders to the poetry of Joyce's writing, rather than attempting to understand it fully, it becomes much more readable. Take this passage from the "Proteus" chapter:

"Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limits of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it , it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see."

This inchoate stream of consciousness comes from young Stephen Dedalus. While it is possible to academically dissect this, I find that the essence of this passage, not the exact content, more effectively illuminates Stephen's character. It provides an understanding not of what he thinks, but of how he thinks. Besides, who can resist the poetic beauty of such spelled-out music as "ineluctable modality of the visible", "seaspawn and seawrack," and of course, "snotgreen." Applying this technique to other opaque passages is similarly helpful.

There is, for the faint of heart, "The New Bloomsday Book" by Harry Blamires, a commentary that follows the book line-by-line and illuminates allusions, plot structures, etc. However, I recommend giving Ulysses a go without analytical training wheels: this is a book so rich, so multifaceted, that no one guide could properly do it justice. Better to say "yes i will yes" and dive in with courage.

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Ulysses is a novel by the Irish author James Joyce, first serialized in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920, then published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach on 2 February 1922, in Paris. One of the most important works of Modernist literature, it has been called "a demonstration and summation of the entire movement".

Ulysses chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day, 16 June 1904 (the day of Joyce's first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle). The title alludes to Odysseus (Latinised into Ulysses), the hero of Homer's Odyssey, and establishes a series of parallels between characters and events in Homer's poem and Joyce's novel (e.g., the correspondences between Leopold Bloom and Odysseus, Molly Bloom and Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus and Telemachus). Joyce fans worldwide now celebrate 16 June as Bloomsday.

Ulysses contains approximately 265,000 words from a lexicon of 30,030 words (including proper names, plurals and various verb tenses), divided into eighteen episodes. Since publication, the book attracted controversy and scrutiny, ranging from early obscenity trials to protracted textual "Joyce Wars." Ulysses' stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring, and experimental prose—full of puns, parodies, and allusions, as well as its rich characterisations and broad humour, made the book a highly regarded novel in the Modernist pantheon....
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