Sunday, July 14, 2013

Review: Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Joyce: genius or charlatan? Ulysses: greatest "novel of the 20th Century" (Anthony Burgess) or literary fraud?

You can back up any of these statements, but there is no question that Ulysses is one of the hardest books to read in the English language. At times it defies comprehension, and at times Joyce deliberately makes it more difficult than it needs to be. For instance, the last 60 pages, where Molly Bloom is finally heard giving her side of her husband's story, is rendered in a single, unpunctuated sentence. I can't think of a single justification for that, except to create a barrier between author and reader. This is Joyce getting self-conscious about his own genius.

But Joyce is a genius. It's impossible to write a book like Ulysses without genius. Joyce challenges our idea of narrative, meaning and the purpose of story-telling. The day-long odyssey of Bloom and Daedalus is a celebration of the heroism of the mundane, in an era when the admiration of traditional heroism had led the world into the cataclysm of World War I. Joyce's idea was taken up by a generation of authors, so even if Ulysses isn't a good novel, it's unquestionably a great one.

Oh, but it's hard work. It took Joyce seven years to write Ulysses, and anyone who truly wishes to understand it should take six months and possibly a year to read it. There are passages that defy comprehension, and Joyce challenges the reader to stay with him. Most of us can't. Some of the prose is poetically beautiful and points towards the modernist poetry of especially TS Eliot. In reading it, I felt I learned more about literature than I did about the human condition, and I can't say I enjoyed the experience, but I felt better for understanding it and even a bit sad for realising that I'll never reach those intellectual heights.

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