Thursday was 16th June, Blooms Day, where thousands of people around the world celebrate the novel Ulysses by James Joyce. And 2022 is special, it’s the 100th anniversary of its publication in Europe! (Readers in America had to wait for another decade before they got to read the whole novel because it was banned there for inappropriate language and sex.)
In this post I’ll briefly introduce the story. We’ll look at one episode as an example and I’ll show you a couple of paragraphs to explain one of the reasons why Ulysses is so difficult to read. Then I’ll share five tips that helped me finish reading Ulysses.
The novel happens on one day in Dublin on 16 June 1904. We first follow a young man called Stephen Dedulus, then for the majority of the book, Leopold Bloom, lastly, his wife, Molly Bloom. It’s a very ordinary day in Dublin and we see the most ordinary people getting on with their life.
Bloom got up and made breakfast for his wife, he fed the cat, then decided to go out and buy some kidneys for his own breakfast, he walked past a school, stood in the queue at the butcher and read a piece of newspaper, tried to follow a woman but lost her in the crowd, walked back home and received some posts, one from their daughter and one from a man whom Molly was having an affair, Bloom chatted with Molly, nearly burned the kidney, ate his breakfast, went to the toilet, and thought about the funeral he was going to later. That’s a sketchy summary of episode four.
This might sound extremely boring to you! The confusing but also fascinating thing about Ulysses is the story is narrated in both the third-person and first-person. As a reader, you zoom out to watch Leopold Bloom going about doing his business, and at the same time, you zoom in all the way into his head and hear his unfiltered opinions on people and most private thoughts in half formed sentences. And all of these without any quotation marks or any markers to distinguish the actions and the thoughts. A small example:
He prodded a fork into the kidney and slapped it over: then fitted the teapot on the tray. Its hump bumped as he took it up. Everything on it? Bread and butter, four, sugar, spoon, her cream. Yes. He carried it upstairs, his thumb hooked in the teapot handle.
It’s pretty obvious here which are the actions and which is the monologue in his head because the thoughts are very tightly linked to the actions. But when his mind wandered far and wide later on in the day, it can get very hard to follow.
I’ll give you another example. Here Bloom came across an acquaintance called M’Coy in the street and they chatted about their mutual friend Paddy Dignam whose funeral Bloom was going to later on that day. They were talking but Bloom was paying much closer attention to a woman across the street and trying to see her underwear as she got into a cab.
— And he said: Sad thing about our poor friend Paddy! What Paddy? I said. Poor little Paddy Dignam, he said.
Off to the country: Broadstone probably. High brown boots with laces dangling. Wellturned foot. What is he foostering over that change for? Sees me looking. Eye out for other fellow always. Good fallback. Two strings to her bow.
— Why? I said. What’s wrong with him? I said.
Proud: rich: silk stockings.
— Yes, Mr Bloom said.
He moved a little to the side of M’Coy’s talking head. Getting up in a minute.
— What’s wrong with him? He said. He’s dead, he said. And, faith, he filled up. Is it Paddy Dignam? I said. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it. I was with him no later than Friday last or Thursday was it in the Arch. Yes, he said. He’s gone. He died on Monday, poor fellow.
Watch! Watch! Silk flash rich stockings white. Watch!
A heavy tramcar honking its gong slewed between.
It’s incredibly realistic. Many of the people and news events were real historical figures and events, and the places where Bloom went were real places – you could go to Dublin today and many of them are still there. It was an incredible achievement especially since Joyce wrote the novel when he was not physically in Dublin so he relied on a Directory and on writing letters to check facts with his aunt Josephine. Joyce said, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book”.
I hope that whets your appetite a little bit. It’s a literary masterpiece, one of the most important books of literary modernism; but also it’s notoriously difficult to read. I’ve been reading this chunky book this month. this is the second time I’m reading it. I want to share five tips that might help you finish it too.
1. It’s hard work – that’s a fact
Know if you find it difficult it’s nothing to do with your intelligence. The first readers and critics of Ulysses found it chaotic and impossible to read too.
The author himself even expected that reaction. In the Introduction, it says “From the outset, Joyce recognised that his audience, whether popular or literary, was going to be nonplussed. As early as Ulysses’s initial appearance in the Little Review (where it was serialised between 1918 and 1920), Joyce began filling his letters to loyal friends with explanations and exegeses. if Ulysses were to find an informed, appreciative audience, its author would have to create one.”
The author provided a sort of summary-key-skeleton-schema for the entire book and gave advice to various people. So help is available and plenty and expected. A lot of notes from scholars over the years and Joyce himself are included in this edition, which is my second tip.
2. Choose a good edition
I chose the 1922 text published by Oxford University Press. First of all, it’s affordable – I don’t feel too precious about writing in the margins and underlining sentences etc.
Cost aside here’s why I liked this edition. According to the Explanatory Notes, the guiding principle for the editor to compile all the notes is to ask “What would help the student coming to the book for the first time?” and the editor believes “Nothing can substitute for the intimate first-hand experience of reading the book” instead of reading about it. I liked those points and trusted the editor as my guide.
Oxford World’s Classics series always include an introduction and a chronology of the author before the main text, and substantial Explanatory Notes at the back.
In the case of Ulysses, there are over two hundred pages of Explanatory Notes. In the Notes, each chapter is listed with its chapter title, location and time of the events in that chapter, the mirror story in Odyssey, overall commentary of the chapter and then the list of annotations.
Joyce’s own comments appear often among the notes, for example, he told his Aunt Josephine to read The Adventures of Ulysses by Charles Lamb if she found Odyssey itself difficult (which Joyce also told her to read before Ulysses).
That’s not all. There is also a map of 1904 Dublin, notes and charts about the publishing history, etc etc. The amount of work that has gone into this edition is staggering!
(Disclaimer: I haven’t tried all the other editions but I do think mine does a tremendous job.)
3. The Joyce Project
The Joyce Project is a website worth visiting. It has the full text of Ulysses with many words and phrases as hyperlinks, click on those it gives notes, photos and maps. I find explanations of facts, like place names, and specific Irish words especially helpful. The photos and illustrations are great too. It’s an amazing treasure trove.
But I did find myself wanting to click on every link and losing the wood for the trees pretty quickly. Just beware of that.
Sparknotes is a website that aims to help students to conquer classics by providing summaries, lists of characters, analysis of the themes and ideas, and fun things like quizzes and blogs. For Ulysses, the chapter summaries are extremely useful.
One thing to note, more and more content on Sparknotes is not available for free anymore – it’s frustrating but I guess if they’re providing content of good value, it’s reasonable they ask for some payment in return.
5. The audiobook
If Sparknotes makes sure I understood what’s happening in each chapter, the audiobook makes sure I carry on at a certain speed and finish before running out of steam. The pleasant Irish voice of Jim Norton marches on full of spirit and good cheer, always holding my hand (my ears), word by word, line by line, pulling and pushing me faithfully across the finishing line. Thank you my friend!
This is the key factor I enjoyed Ulysses. I admire the voice actor Jim Norton tremendously, not just because of the sheer amount of time and energy that’s required but also because of the excellent quality of the voice acting.
I’ve mentioned that the third-person narration and first-person monologue can be very confusing. One thing that makes the matter worse is that throughout the book, various song lyrics are scattered among the monologues. They often blend into sentences without any markers either. If I had read the text without the audiobook, there was no way I could distinguish that, but the voice actor just every now and then burst into singing. It was delightful.
Those are my five tips, but it won’t work at all without you. You as a reader, just need to open the book or press the play button. If you listen to the 27 hours audiobook for just half an hour per day, it takes less than two months to finish.
Hope this blog post encourages you to give Ulysses a go. Happy reading!