“Ulysses” by James Joyce: yes, it’s a masterpiece. Yes, you can read it. No, you don’t need to be afraid of it. Some lovely quotes show why not.
“Of course, Mr B proceeded to stipulate, you must look at both sides of the question.”
“Ulysses” by James Joyce: You can learn to fly
Back in 1979, I visited the United States for the first time (an odyssey in itself, that I have begun to write up as A voyage around America). In Washington, D.C., I visited, and admired, the National Air and Space Museum. One exhibit, in the “flight” section, made a great impression. A mustachio’d old geezer, in a leather flying cap, described how challenging it had been to learn to fly, but how he had mastered the art. Next to him a younger, ordinary-looking bloke said “it’s no harder than driving a car”.
The point was to underline that, while some experts will often tell you that something (eg flying) is difficult, it doesn’t have to be. You can apply this principle to many things – from learning languages to James Joyce.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
I first read “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce at university. Luckily, no-one had yet told me Joyce was difficult, and I read it quickly and with pleasure. Several things impressed me:
- awe at the beautiful prose;
- the cruelty of the Jesuit school Joyce attended, such as the injustice when he is beaten (“paddled”) on his hands for having broken his glasses (The scalding water burst forth from his eyes and, burning with shame and agony and fear, he drew back his shaking arm in terror and burst out into a whine of pain);
- a preacher’s seven page description of Hell (pages 117-124 in my Penguin edition) – Hell is a strait and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke… expressly designed by God to punish those who refused to be bound by His laws… and the impression this makes on the narrator, who is convinced he is a sinner;
- a sneaking suspicion that, as in Stalin’s Soviet Union, sometimes cruelty and oppression bring about astonishing results. Did Joyce’s brilliance have its roots in his rigorous education?
“Ulysses” by James Joyce: Telendos
In 1986, I visited the Greek islands of the Aegean, hopping from Patmos to Leros to Kalimnos and making my first (but not last) visit to Turkey. I ran out of books, and someone swapped me a copy of Ulysses. How appropriate, I thought, to read Ulysses, by James Joyce, in the Aegean. I happened that evening to end up on a deserted beach on the tiny island of Telendos (consult your atlas), where I began to read Joyce’s work. I had a bit of food and water, so decided to get stuck into the book and stayed on the beach overnight, reading late into the evening.
The next day, I thought: “what better way could I spend today than reading Ulysses?” So I did. I read all day, stopping only to swim or move out of the sun and finished the book on the morning after my second night on the beach. I loved and was bemused by it. Many passages astonished me; others, I skipped over. I thought: James Joyce is a genius.
Did I understand the whole book? Of course not. Published in 1922, Ulysses is packed with historical and literary references with which no modern reader is likely to be familiar.
Ulysses by James Joyce: no need to understand every word
The degree to which you can draw pleasure from a book of which you do not understand every word varies by individual. It’s like learning languages. Personally, I am terrible at learning grammar. In fact, I’m almost phobic. But I’m happy to watch a film in a foreign language I’m learning, or to read a book where I don’t understand everything, and pick things up. To the despair of my native speaker friends, I am happy to speak a language badly to build up fluency – my driver when I was ambassador in Kyiv used to laugh out loud at my efforts in Ukrainian.
Others, more linguistically gifted, or more self-conscious, or both, don’t like speaking in a foreign language unless they are confident they are not making mistakes.
So, too, with Ulysses by James Joyce. I would encourage readers who like doing so to dive in. You can skip over bits you don’t quite get, or look up in one of the countless commentaries anything that nags or intrigues you. If you’re the “I have to understand this” type, try joining a book club that analyses Ulysses. Some reading groups, such as the fabulous London Literary Salon run by the wise and lively Toby Brothers, take months or years to pick through it sentence by sentence, a process many people tell me is rewarding, too. But that’s not the only way to do it.
“Open Book” on “Ulysses” by James Joyce
I was reminded why Ulysses matters by listening to a podcast on the BBC series “Open Book” from January 2022, “exploring the enduring legacy of James Joyce’s Ulysses”. It’s a good listen: three experts choose their favourite passage from the book, and discuss it.
One speaker said that Leopold Bloom, central figure of Ulysses, had something to offer for the 21st century. He was “a 20th– or 21st-Century everyman living in a turbulent world”.
The best – or worst – of all possible worlds?
This struck me as quite right. It’s a commonplace that now, right now, is the most challenging and difficult time ever to be alive. People have been saying it for centuries, or millennia. I confidently predict that in the year 3022, if humans still exist, people will say that 3022 is uniquely challenging. See my blog on the terrific sci-fi novella “Vintage Season” for an analysis of this phenomenon.
“Ulysses” by James Joyce: Bloom’s moderation
Bloom’s key instruction for today’s world is his calm and moderation. He lives in a world of radical opinions. He struggles through life with a sexless marriage, an unfaithful wife and an unsatisfactory job. Yet Bloom does not lash out at the world. Rather, he takes a philosophical approach of moderation.
In this scene, one of those chosen by the “Open Book” experts, Bloom responds to someone who’s a member of a Fenian group, “the Invincibles”, “Skin-the-Goat” Fitzharris, who gives a radical nationalist view of things. Bloom responds as follows:
–Of course, Mr B proceeded to stipulate, you must look at both sides of the question. It is hard to lay down any hard and fast rules as to right and wrong but room for improvement all round there certainly is though every country, they say, our own distressful included, has the government it deserves. But with a little goodwill all round. It’s all very fine to boast of mutual superiority but what about mutual equality. I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due instalments plan. It’s a patent absurdity on the face of it to hate people because they live round the corner and speak another vernacular, in the next house so to speak.
–Memorable bloody bridge battle and seven minutes’ war, Stephen assented, between Skinner’s alley and Ormond market.
Yes, Mr Bloom thoroughly agreed, entirely endorsing the remark, that was overwhelmingly right. And the whole world was full of that sort of thing.
–You just took the words out of my mouth, he said. A hocuspocus of conflicting evidence that candidly you couldn’t remotely…
All those wretched quarrels, in his humble opinion, stirring up bad blood, from some bump of combativeness or gland of some kind, erroneously supposed to be about a punctilio of honour and a flag, were very largely a question of the money question which was at the back of everything greed and jealousy, people never knowing when to stop.
Wonderful, wonderful stuff and more relevant than ever in today’s era of internet rage and frustration.
Other Joyce gems
After listening to the BBC podcast, I scoured the internet to try and find the quotation above. I found it eventually, together with many other fine Joyce quotes. Two I particularly liked:
- The sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue…
- We can’t change the world, but we can change the subject
I also found this useful piece in the “Irish Times”. It sets out some of the characters with whom Joyce populated his masterpiece, including Fitzharris.
“Ulysses” by James Joyce: What to do next
I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece on “Ulysses” by James Joyce. None of my own books aspires to be literary fiction. But perhaps my most ambitious is “Eternal Life”, a wry sci-fi thriller exploring the origins of human happiness. You can find it on Amazon here.