Monday, November 27, 2006

book of books - Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce is one of those books that has a reputation that precedes it and rightfully so because it is difficult, sometimes inaccessible and for its time it would have been shocking as well with its thoughts on sex expressed particularly by Molly Bloom.

Usually you go through a book without resorting to aids or advice but it really cuts down the enjoyment of Ulysses if you try and do it alone and I found some of the sites on the web, particularly the Reading Ulysses series on RTE1 added to the enjoyment of the book.

The other issue with Ulysses is that some people will tell you that before reading it you need to have read other books, particularly Homer’s Odyssey and while that might be true Joyce mixes things up so much that it is not a literal interpretation so while those other texts might be useful it is possible to get a quick summary of the tale of Homer’s Ulysses and understand the references.

Plot summary
The book follows one day and night in the lives of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. You start with Stephen a 22-year-old intellectual who teaches but is in debt overshadowed by the death of his mother and his well-known father Simon. Then as the location moves to the newspaper office you pick up the story with Bloom, who sells adverts in the papers. The day starts with a funeral, moves back to the centre of Dublin, has a strange passage in a couple of bars and a brothel, a cabman’s shelter and then Bloom takes Stephen back home and the final chapter is the voice of Molly Bloom who has been repeatedly mentioned in the story but not yet introduced.

Is it well written?
It is written in a number of different styles with it set out like a play in some sections, using no punctuation in others and includes things like music to illustrate points. From a readers perspective it keeps changing and that is what makes it so difficult because it is hard to keep a grip on reality. The references to Dublin are overlaid with Homeric and Shakespearian references that make it very difficult to try and picture sometimes where the characters are. But there are chapters, which are very satisfying – particularly the penultimate one – and you can tell that Joyce is able to produce a work that is telling several different stories and working on various different levels. For that reason it is the sort of book you end up going back to.

Should it be read?
So many people are put off but I am really glad I got through it because not only is there a real sense of achievement but this story remains relevant now. None of the issues – anti Semitism, nationalism, adultery, sex, debt and drunkenness – have gone away and for that reason this connects to a modern readership. At 700 odd pages it is going to be a commitment to read this in terms of time but it is best attempted at one go because otherwise it is not only difficult remembering the story but is too tempting to give up.

Leads to
Because of the microscopic nature of the attention on just two characters and the single day it naturally gets linked in with Proust and Remembrance of Things Past. Also because of the references in the text Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet would be worth reading before, during or shortly after.

Version read – Penguin modern classic paperback 1972

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