A belated birthday card
I missed an old friend’s birthday, and I’m feeling guilty about it, so I’m going to try to make it up to him here.
February 2 was James Joyce’s birthday, and it was also something even more consequential: It was the 100th anniversary of the publication of Joyce’s magnum opus, Ulysses, the release of which was timed to coincide with JJ’s 40th birthday.
Admittedly, it’s an exaggeration for me to call Joyce a friend, though it’s a justifiable and, I hope, forgivable one. I was introduced to Dubliners in high school, and those moody, evocative stories opened my eyes to a loftier mode of storytelling, to stories that did their work through character and mood and setting rather than through plot and genre conventions, and which did that work—shifted my mood, altered my perspective, transported me—with sublime subtlety. Though I’d known that I wanted to be a writer since I could first read, those stories were among the first to show me how I wanted to write.
Friends do that for you. They help you figure out who you are.
In a literature class in college, I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s semi-autobiographical first novel, and I still remember the bewilderment I felt upon reading those opening pages, Joyce delivering the thoughts of his protagonist-as-toddler in a stream of childish babble, then my elation at discovering that a character’s voice could so clearly and compellingly reveal that character’s intellectual age and mental state and psychological drives, followed by the wonder and admiration as that voice evolved, matured, along with the character.
Joyce’s two big books, the ones that truly put magnum in magnum opus, are Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Of the two, Ulysses is held in higher regard—many readers, scholars, and critics consider it the greatest work of prose fiction ever written in the English language—perhaps because it’s more easily comprehended than Finnegan’s Wake.
It’s not, however, easily comprehended.
I was meeting with one of my Ulysses-reading book groups at a wine bar one evening when the 20-ish server asked us what we were meeting about (a group of 50-ish men gathered around a table in a wine bar with thick books and notepads tends to stand out). When I told her we were reading and discussing Ulysses, she lit up and said “Oh, cool. I read that in high school.”
“Well, perhaps,” I thought, “but it’s more likely that you read about Ulysses, in The Odyssey.” For the sake of readers and writers everywhere, for my fervent dream of a present and a future in which people read big, difficult, important books, I hope that young woman did actually read Ulysses. But I think not. It’s not a book that would be assigned in a high school English class.
If you’ve not read Ulysses, let me share some of the things that make the book so daunting (and if you have read it, tell me in the comments what you found most challenging about the book):
The book makes abundant use of stream of consciousness narration. This makes it gloriously captivating to read, but it also means that you can go pages without knowing exactly what is going on.
The setting, through which roam the chief protagonist, Leopold Bloom, and the secondary characters, is Dublin circa 1904, so all of the place names and all of the references to recent history and contemporary politics, religion, art, and music—of which there are thousands—are mostly unfamiliar to a 21st-century American reader like me.
Likewise, the dialect is Irish, and Irish of more than 100 years ago.
Also, much of the dialect and diction and syntax is Joycean, and Joyce was fiercely inventive, so the words and the sentences are often unlike anything anyone has read. You get “the agenbite of inwit” and “the ineluctible modality of the visible” and “Listen: a fourworded speech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos” and (my favorite) “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”
Joyce built the book loosely upon the structure of The Odyssey, so familiarity with that epic poem’s characters and events, if not entirely compulsory, will certainly enhance your understanding and enjoyment of the book. In a letter to his aunt, Joyce offered this recommendation: “If you want to read Ulysses you had better first get or borrow from a library a translation in prose of the Odyssey of Homer.”
It’s 640 pages (in my edition, The Corrected Text, edited by Hans Gabler).
Joyce stretches the limits of long, complex, unpunctuated sentences. The final chapter, consisting solely of the interior monologue of Molly Bloom, is only eight sentences long. But those eight sentences span 35 pages.
Joyce packed the book with puns, allusions, and literary games. In a letter to his editor, he confessed, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
In its review of Ulysses upon its publication in 1922, the New York Times opined:
A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may understand and comprehend “Ulysses,” James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without going through a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it — even from careful…study, of it….
I’m intuitive, and I’m sensitive, but I’m probably not a visionary, so I fully embrace a course of training or instruction. In fact, I’ve set out to read Ulysses three times—twice with hand-picked groups of friends and once on my own—and each time I assembled my own course of study. Here’s what my stack of Ulysses study materials looks like:
That stack includes the novel itself, its indispensible companion volume Ulysses Annotated, Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey, the Great Courses DVD set and its companion text, and my notepad.
In other words, for me, it’s never just Ulysses that I’m reading, it’s also three other books and a video course.
Despite all of that material—or maybe because of it—I’ve never completed “the project.” My two reading group attempts disintegrated in attrition or aggravation; one friend in one of those groups said he thought that the book was “the ravings of a madman.” We dissolved the group not long after that.
I’ve recommitted to reading Ulysses in 2022, as my big book of the year. The 100th anniversary is a fine justification on its own, but there’s another reason: As has happened with alarming regularity in the last century, book banning is once again in the headlines. Here in the U.S. in the 21st century, the target is books that share uncomfortable truths about our nation’s shameful history of slavery and systemic racism, or discuss or depict homosexuality, or the Holocaust. A hundred years ago, it was sex that raised the ire of the censors, or, more specifically, “obscenity.”
To most any modern reader, there’s nothing obscene about Ulysses; the novel’s frank depictions of sex and adultery and masturbation are pretty darn tame compared to what we can see any evening on our popular streaming TV series, and, honestly, those scenes are a natural and necessary part of a whole, of a book that is, in the final assessment, an enthusiastic celebration of humanity and of life itself.
Here’s John M. Woolsey, the U.S. District Court judge who wrote the decision clearing Ulysses of obscenity charges in 1933:
“[i]n respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of [Joyce's] characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.”
I’m looking forward to frolicing through a Celtic spring with my old friend.
Maybe this sort of thing appeals to you, too? If so, let me know in the comments.