Jamelah Reads the Classics: Ulysses

It took me a little over a year of stops and starts and deliberately reading other books that were not written by James Joyce, but I have finished Ulysses. And now, what to say? This is one of those books, you know? You either have read it or will read it or you have no interest in reading it or you’ll read ten (or 90 or 500) pages and think whythefuck and move on with your life. Whatever works for you, really. There are a lot of books in the world, after all, and despite its status as a revered classic, it turns out that Ulysses is just another one of them. For my part, I don’t love the book. I also don’t hate it, and there were even times while I was reading that I enjoyed the hell out of it, but even so, I can’t quite picture myself recommending it to anyone else, either. (Though if I knew someone who was reading it I’d say “Oh, stick with it, the ending makes it worthwhile, I swear. Also, skim.”)

I think for my part, reading Ulysses is as much about the journey (or odyssey, har har) through the book as it is about the actual story itself, and for me, the journey ended up being the more important thing. I was motivated by stubbornness and competitiveness (though I’m still not sure with whom I thought I was competing), and determined that I would just read the damn thing, and what the hell, I did it. I made a short video that I guess I would describe as a series of my thoughts about the book as I was reading it. It is not exactly reverent, and contains some language that you may consider NSFW, but anyway, here it is:

So there you go. It’s a frustrating book, incredibly easy to get lost in its pages, and not exactly in a fun way, at least not for me, and I like difficult literature. I get that the writing is as important as the story it tells (it’s almost its own character), but even though I understood this, it didn’t irritate me any less when I got tangled up in it. Is it in any way gratuitous? Could it have been maybe 300 pages shorter? I can see how people can spend their lives studying it, and while I tried my best not to let myself get distracted by references to this, that, or the other in favor of just hanging onto the thread of the story, I also know there’s a lot to it that I deliberately let fly over my head just so I could finish the damn thing. Perhaps this is what makes Ulysses a challenge and a point of fascination for many, but I also think it is, in a way, the book’s downfall. I guess what I mean can be summarized like so: I don’t mind working at things to understand them, but oh, for fuck’s sake, give it a rest already. But of course, the most important point is this:

I’m done!

26 Responses

  1. this is another feat of
    this is another feat of feats.
    Despite all possible reasons to cease and desist or cyst and decease, you soldiered on.

    proud of this accomplishment. Now, everything will be different; the same, but totally different.

  2. It is for me a journey I took
    It is for me a journey I took in a dream to a foreign city… full of laughter, of half forgotten episodes I never tire of revisiting. When has dialog been so faithfully captures? Or the interior and external so maddenly confused? This is both a 19th C. novel in the guise of Modernity and a Modernist novel pretending to out-do 19th C. realist pretentions.

    It’s an endless wondering through the streets of a real/imaginary Dublin that I have yet, after 40 years, never tired of returning to.

    I look forward to June 16… every year. It’s the apex of the year. All down hill from there…

  3. I still think it’s funny,
    I still think it’s funny, Jamelah, that you can’t get into “Ulysses” but you love William Faulkner.

    I have little patience for difficult prose (still haven’t read a lot of Proust, nor Faulkner, nor modern-day brutalists like Pynchon and Vollman). But because “Ulysses” was yoked so closely to the physical world — time: one day, space: Dublin — and established such an appealing narrative method, I found it a joyful experience. Though, yes, not an easy read, and yeah, I skimmed parts too.

    Faulkner, though … that’s a writer I could make my version of this video about. Just goes to show.

  4. Joseph Campbell called
    Joseph Campbell called Ulysses a trudge through hell.

    Finnegans Wake, however, is a vision from the earthy/winged. There’s the illuminating Skeleton’s Key, and Anthony Burgess’s–I’m rambling–a Shorter Finnegans Wake.

  5. Congrats, Jamelah, you done
    Congrats, Jamelah, you done good. I read Ulysses in college and have reread it several times in the ensuing (many) years since. Each time it’s a different book for me (but then so is On the Road).

    I recommend to you 2666 and The Savage Detectives by Bolano.

    Finnegan’s Wake is the big bear I can’t even really start. Anyone here gotten through it?

    John Cage said, “Finnegan’s Wake was a book I’d always loved and never read.” I understood exactly what he meant and felt the same way. Difference is, he finally read it (and composed mestostics (sp?) on it), and I probably won’t unless I can get a brain transplant.

  6. Congratulations on finishing
    Congratulations on finishing the book.
    Ulysses is available as a graphic novel.
    I couldn’t read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
    Writing deliberately difficult prose is sadistic and to read it is the other side of the coin, masochistic. I read The Hamlet, pre-internet era, without access to a dictionary and wrote down all the words I didn’t know. I used a dictionary at my uncle’s and he couldn’t believe all those words that he never knew before.
    It shows a lack of editing skill to write anything that the reader would skim over or not be able to read without a dictionary at your elbow.
    Regarding my last sentence, Orwell says the same thing here.

  7. Damn you Jamelah, now my
    Damn you Jamelah, now my competiveness rears it’s motivating head. I only read to about mid-way through the Molly Blumes’ talky part. You know! And that was a good 30 plus years ago. Probably have to restart at page 1.

    But at least I know who I’m competing with, now.

  8. judih — I’m putting “I
    judih — I’m putting “I actually read Ulysses” on my resume.

    Jacob — For my part, the journey through the book seemed a bit like a test of endurance, and I didn’t want to give up, but I don’t know that I would do it again.

    Levi — Ha, yeah. I actually thought of Faulkner several times while immersed in Ulysses, and I guess it’s proof that reading takes all kinds.

    dlt — I don’t know if I would say it’s a trudge through Hell… it’s joyful enough in places to save it from that, but maybe it’s like a really really long day at work.

    Dan — Thanks. I don’t know if I would ever be brave enough for Finnegans Wake. I don’t feel any need whatsoever to give it a try, either.

    Warren — Well, one thing the book made me think about a lot is how much work should go into reading? I mean, as I wrote in the post, I don’t mind working at things to understand them, but Ulysses tested my patience in this area. I guess what it comes down to is the fact that whenever I mentioned I was reading it, I was always (ALWAYS) recommended some companion reading or a study guide to go along with it. And I don’t have problems with companion reading or study guides to heighten understanding of things, but these things were being recommended to me just so that I would be able to make it through the book and understand anything about what the hell I read. In the end, I did it on my own, and got what I got out of it, and whatever, but I guess my point is that shouldn’t a book just stand on its own? For my part, I don’t think it’s a good sign about the effectiveness of the writing itself to need to read something else just to gain basic understanding of something.

    fallerte — Hi Terry! Competitiveness is a fine motivation. If you decide to go for it, good luck to you.

  9. Well, I’m impressed, Earle.
    Well, I’m impressed, Earle. Impressed.
    Never thought you’d pull it off.

    Warren, that graphic novel link is the bomb!

  10. You do have to wonder what
    You do have to wonder what you might have thought of it had you stumbled across it in the dollar bin of a used bookstore never having heard of it before. As long as those Whopper people are out scouring the jungles of Laos looking for people who’ve never seen a hamburger, they should take some copies of Ulysses and see what they think.

    Then you could run that as a test group against a group of people that have been given the bible by zealous missionaries. See which group turns out better.

  11. You should have a button or
    You should have a button or t-shirt, like “Read Ulysses and Lived!”

    Part reading experience, part endurance test, but this will go down in your permanent record in a good way.

    I have read all of Proust and Pynchon. I agree with Levi on Faulker except the Snopes books are readable: The Hamlet, etc. Even the Soft Machine isn’t too bad, because it’s not so long. By the way, the first two volumes of Proust are available as graphic novels in French.

    Right now I am near completing Infinite Jest. This is a real monster of a book, but the language enhances the work rather than making it impenetrable.

    So that leaves Ulysses for me. I tried reading it during college and I finally abandoned it. But I picked up a new copy at Strand Books in NYC when I was there a few years ago, and it’s not as long as Against the Day, and I’m thinking – maybe I’ll give it a shot.

    At judgement day we may be seperated into who read Ulysses, who started it but couldn’t finish, and then those that just pretend that they read it.

  12. Sorry, Jamelah. This review
    Sorry, Jamelah. This review did little to make me want to get up from my keyboard, dress and drive down to B&N and purchase a copy of Ulysses.

    However I really did enjoy the hell out of your video. Now that I would enjoy seeing again. And those whispers of yours… geez.

    Thanks alot.

    btw: Like so many folks, I’ve never heard much in the positive vein about Ulysses. Only how difficult it is to read. So what puzzles me more than the book itself is why would any publisher give the okay to publish a book as difficult as this one evidently is and expect to make any money from it? How many copies of this book have sold since it’s publication? Not that sales say anything about finishing a book, but still most people I know don’t buy books simply to fill up their shelf space.

  13. You’re kidding, right?

    You’re kidding, right?

    Joyce is great. Ulysses is great. Just because you’ve turned all the pages, doesn’t mean you’ve read it. Go back and read it again — and this time pay attention.

    Get some notes. Find some commentaries. Re-read each episode before you move on to the next. Ulysses is one of the few books where it’s OK to cheat. Sometimes you need to fake it just so you can tell your Laestrygonians from your Oxen of the Sun. The novel has very little plotting, but lots of story (and lots of in jokes and easter eggs).

    If you still don’t like it, that’s fine. But first go and read “The Dead” from Dubliners. In my opinion everything you need to know about Ulysses exists in embryonic form in that story. Spoiler alert! The key moment comes when Gabriel’s solipsism gives way to a sort of transcendent leap of the imagination where memory and association, the present and the past, the living and the dead are all brought together in the moment when his wife stands on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music and remembers her long dead lover.

    The method of Ulysses is to take the free play of meaning and imagination that Gabriel experiences as his epiphany in “The Dead” and apply it to every moment of everyday life. Every sentence, every stray thought is invested with meaning by way of juxtaposition. It is Joyce’s intention that all those random thoughts, weird jokes and obsessively detailed impressions of Dublin life, play on our imagination in such a way that the mechanical meanings and the fanciful associations of Hamlet’s Ghost or Plumtree’s Potted Meat, the unremarkableness of Bloom and his world, are transcended and transformed into an affirmation (“Yes, I will. Yes!”). One man becomes everyman. The specific and contingent become universal.

    The point of the story is that neither Bloom nor Molly can overcome the pain of the past, their emotional distance, the death of their marriage, the grief over the death of their infant son, without this affirmation and the promise of renewal implicit in it.

    If the book seems complex or difficult, it is only because the journey requires it. Joyce wants to show us that the smallness of life, everything that is petty or mean or vulgar or stupidly funny about existence deserves its own poetic language and is worthy of our time, intellectual attention and emotional investment.

  14. Mickey — Some dude. No
    Mickey — Some dude. No big.

    Bill — Never thought I’d pull it off, eh? I knew I should’ve taken bets.

    Rubaio — That’s a good idea. Ulysses Virgins: The Documentary.

    Michael — I’m pretty sure that not reading Ulysses is also a perfectly acceptable use of time. Really.

    mtmynd — Hi Cecil. I think having a copy of Ulysses is pretty handy. If you can’t get through it, it’s pretty heavy (even in paperback) and could probably make a handy weapon.

    Andy — Are you kidding? Do you seriously believe that the only acceptable response to Ulysses is to read the book and be in love with it, and whoever dares not to be in love with it just didn’t get it? That’s adorable.

  15. Actually Andy, having reread
    Actually Andy, having reread your comment, I realize that not liking it is not the reason I allegedly didn’t get it, but that I didn’t do supplemental reading. So, my apologies for being too hasty. But I’m going to stand by what I said before (meaning that no, I wasn’t kidding) and reiterate my belief that if I supposedly can’t just pick up a book and read it and understand it without turning to supplemental texts to help me along, then what’s the point?

    Having written that, I think that in my own experience of Ulysses, I was pretty well served by having read a lot before I started it. I’m sure I missed things, and I’m fine with that, because I wasn’t studying the book, I was reading it. I wasn’t there to decipher every single bit of cleverness, I was there to see if it was something I could actually make my way through and enjoy. Even so, I somehow managed to follow the parallels with The Odyssey pretty well, mainly because I knew to watch for them before I started the book. Had I not known that, had I gone into it completely without a clue, I think I still perhaps would’ve been able to pick up on things like the recurring father/son theme and the reason Leopold and Molly’s marriage isn’t working (yet I see the positivity in the ending). I am stubborn enough to believe that taking these things away from the book on my own is enough.

    In the end, my purpose in reading these classics is simply that: to read them because I hadn’t read them before. I share my observations here because I have the forum to do so, but if I didn’t, I’d read them anyway and think whatever I think about them on my own, I guess. Anyway, my point is that I approach these works from the perspective of a curious reader, and I’m not aiming for anything more than that. I just want to read the books. If I enjoy them, good. If I don’t enjoy them, oh well, I can’t win them all. I bring what I bring to my experience of these books and I hope to take something away when I’m done. I’ve been told more than once about more than one of these books I’ve written about here that I didn’t read them correctly or work hard enough at them or whatever, but I really really believe that everything a book has to tell me exists between its covers and if I want to go deeper, fine, I will, but if I don’t, just reading it should be enough. The writing itself should stand on its own.

    Does Ulysses stand on its own? If I honestly have to read other stuff just to get it, then no it doesn’t and that’s Joyce’s failing. Do I believe that I have to read other stuff just to get it? Not exactly. So take that for what it’s worth. Your mileage may vary.

  16. The Chinese translation of
    The Chinese translation of Ulysses was accomplished in 1995.
    “XIAO Qian, a Chinese war correspondent and a literature student, stood over the grave of James Joyce in 1946 in Zurich and mourned, “Here lies the corpse of someone who wasted his great talents writing something very unreadable.” ”
    Ulysses has been translated into more than twenty languages, including Icelandic, Arabic, Malayalam, and, fittingly, Irish
    The 1967 movie version won an Oscar for best screenplay.

  17. Nonce words are
    Nonce words are transliterated for Chinese translations, e.g., my English name Warren comes out as something like, first syllable, whoa as in telling someone to stop and second syllable, len. I don’t remember the “tones”, the misnomer for the four main inflections in Mandarin.

  18. Jamelah, Not related to this
    Jamelah, Not related to this at all, but: are you on that website, http://www.43things.com? I only ask because I picked up their new book-version of it the other day, and one of the first things listed in the book is, “Meet my Mr. Darcy,” or something like that. And I totally thought of you.

    Love the video reviews, too. They’re hilarious :).

  19. Jamelah, I finally watched
    Jamelah, I finally watched the video. I couldn’t see it before. My employer sets the computers at work to block a lot of stuff in an attempt to make us do our jobs. Pfff! Never works.

    Anyway, my favorite part of the video?

    ” ~ usurper ~”

  20. Ulysses” — considered by
    Ulysses” — considered by many to be the greatest novel ever written in modern times — marked a turning point for literature and was a body blow for censors. It was exonerated on the charge of obscenity and became a major event in the struggle for free expression.

    Joyce’s experimental use of language and his exploration of new literary methods in such works of fiction as “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake” came at great personal cost, however. He endured a series of 25 eye operations for iritis, glaucoma, and cataracts, sometimes being totally blind for short intervals. His daughter Lucy went mad and had to be institutionalized. His first book “Dubliners”, a collection of fifteen stories which he intended to be a “chapter of the moral history of my country”, was originally rejected by no less than 22 publishers. When at last printed, the book was so well received by his own countrymen that they bought out the entire edition in Dublin and burned all 1,000 copies.

    The story of James Joyce is fraught with such suffering and misunderstanding. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Feb. 2, 1882, the eldest of ten children in a family that endured a worsening series of financial crises during his childhood. He nevertheless managed to attend several Jesuit schools and graduated from the Royal University College in Dublin where he studied languages and philosophy. He read widely and took an active part in the college’s Literary and Historical Society. An ardent admirer of Henrik Ibsen, he learned Dano-Norwegian just so he could read Ibsen’s play “When We Dead Awaken” in its original tongue. His subsequent review of the play was published in the London Fortnightly Review just after his 18th birthday. This early success confirmed Joyce’s own resolution to become a writer. As soon as he graduated, he immediately left for Paris.

    Joyce returned to Ireland the following year because his mother was dying. In 1904, he met a young woman named Nora Barnacle and persuaded her to leave Ireland with him, although he refused, on principle, to marry. Long-suffering Nora Barnacle, penniless and at 20 still a minor, ran off with Joyce and stayed with him for the rest of his life. She raised their two children, managed the many households as the family shuffled from city to city across Europe, and served as his literary inspiration even as he verbally abused her in public and pursued several comical love affairs. Joyce called Nora Barnacle alternately his “Fuckbird” and his “proud blue-eyed queen.”

    Transformed by Joyce’s imagination, she becomes Molly Bloom, the most famous female character in 20th Century fiction. Nora was also the model for Gretta in “The Dead” and Anna Livia Plurabelle in “Finnegan’s Wake”. Almost all of James Joyce’s extraordinary insights came from Nora. According to British journalist Barbara Maddox, Nora was “his portable Ireland, the one from whom he could always hear the true Irish voice and sense the true Irish thought.”

    Joyce himself said this about Nora: “Everything that is noble and deep and true and moving about what I write comes, I believe, from you.”

    The authorities, however, did not share Joyce’s conviction that his writing was necessarily noble and deep and true, especially his story about a Jewish cuckold named Leopold Bloom, one the main characters of his book, “Ulysses”. This novel is a modern version of Homer’s Odyssey. The action takes place in Dublin on a single day, June 16, 1904 — Bloomsday, and the day Joyce himself first encountered Nora Barnacle. The three central characters — Stephen Daedelus (Joyce’s alter ego and hero from his earlier “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”), Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising canvasser, and his wife Molly Bloom — serve as counterparts to the original Telemachus, Ulysses and Penelope. The unfolding events of the day parallel the major events in the Odyssey as Ulysses journeys home.

    Ulysses is not an easy book to read or to understand. In writing it, Joyce sought to not only describe what the characters do on that certain day early in June as they went about the city bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them were thinking. His innovative introduction of interior monologue known as the stream-of-consciousness technique revolutionized modern fiction. It revealed the innermost thoughts of a book’s characters. In Joyce’s case, they were thinking mostly about sex. Consider the ending, exceptional in itself for being one long, run-on sentence that goes on for more than 40 pages:

    “And O that awful deepdown torrent I and the sea the crimson sea sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Girbralter as a girl where I as a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the corse in my hair like the Andulusion girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and he asked me would I yes and I drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

    One can only imagine what Joyce himself must have been thinking at the time he was writing “Ulysses”. His “Dubliners” had just been roasted in an auto da-fe in Ireland, and he now arrived in Paris from Trieste in the summer of 1920 with the voluminous manuscript of “Ulysses” in hand. If “Dubliners” had been an exercise in futility, “Ulysses” with its frank talk of sex, offal, and scatological matters was an entirely different matter. Just as it holds true today, it was always rare for printers and publishers to agree on anything; but in Joyce they nearly all shared one single point of view — he was too dangerous to publish.

    Nevertheless, two elderly ladies courageously excerpted the eleventh chapter in “The Little Review” and were duly and immediately brought to jail, fingerprinted and all of their copies confiscated. Further publication was banned. Yet Sylvia Beach, who had been running a small English bookshop and a lending library in Paris, called Shakespeare and Company, dared to publish “Ulysses” in book form in 1922. This continental publication of Ulysses led to further complications in the United Kingdom and the United States. Copies were seized and burned by customs authorities in New York and Folkstone. Eventually, the book became the center of a major censorship trial in the United States. The judge, after a thorough reading, called the book “brilliant, dull, intelligible, and obscure by turns” and he thought parts of it were simply disgusting. Still, in writing his opinion, the judge said the overall result of the book is that of a somewhat tragic and powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women and a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city that should be available for the American public to see for itself. The court found the book to be of artistic merit and “Ulysses” was no longer banned. The result freed writers from having to seek refuge in euphemisms.

    It set a precedent by making it more difficult for censors to legally attack any book of artistic integrity, no matter how frank and forthright it might be.

  21. What’s in a name.
    Iv’e been

    What’s in a name.
    Iv’e been reading the title since Christmas.
    When does Lent begin?
    I’m good at giving up things for Lent.
    Perhaps someone will borrow it.
    Joyce Grenfell is really humourous.
    A lifes ambition achieved
    Ulysses is useless by any other name
    It defies anagrams
    I’m teaching myself to read in anagrams.
    I’t worked on T.S. Eliot.
    Can you borrow reading
    The way we loan books.

  22. congrats jamelah! i wanted to
    congrats jamelah! i wanted to mention for anyone on the fence about reading ulysses that much of it is written straight and is easy to understand. the first bloom sections where he wakes in the morning and makes breakfast in bed for his wife and leaves for work, that’s just first person pov of a guy starting his day. a bit later, the lestrygonians sections if i remember right, is a pub conversation between a group of friends with smart and funny dialogue, the highlight of which is stephen laying out some fascinating theories of shakespeare, hamlet in particular.

    but yeah there are difficulties. molly’s ending does go on, and the fantasy in the second third is quite long, senseless, and surreal, but the key to it is that it’s bloom and stephen drunk in a pub, and joyce’s imagination is dazzling.

    michael norris, you’re the first person i’ve ‘met’ who’s read all of proust. hat’s off sir. i haven’t even read all of swann’s way, only the swann in love section. i think i’m saving him for my dotage. no horn tooting here, but only because i don’t know any other book people who might care – i’ve read ulysses, gr, recognitions, infinite jest, the tropics and the rosy crucifixion, moby dick, much of faulkner, and, uh, harlot’s ghost. big nerd, at your service.

  23. Ulysses is brilliant. it
    Ulysses is brilliant. it shows both writing is reading is a labor of love. if you don’t have patience, be patient.

    it certainly is not just another book. it is powerful, eye opening (mind the use and motif of parallax), enchanting, very real. Joyce is always having fun with his own powerful intellect and personality, so you’ll have to indulge him as you would Fellini.

    To say it is just another book is to look and sound ridiculous.

  24. It’s much better in the
    It’s much better in the original Klingon. To bad you read the abridged English version.

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