Inevitably, Ulysses rests at the top of most literary critics’ best novels of all time lists. It has held that place for several years now and is likely to remain at that exulted position for quite some time. Surely the bulk of novels being published in these, our poor times, don’t come up to the level of most editions of Ulysses’ dust jacket copy, yet I often wonder two things when I note the book’s luminous placement. One, will it always be the same, that is, will the crust of tradition become embronzed and solidify into canon law such as with Shakespeare, or will Joyce’s pinnacle some day be brought low, considered fusty and old-fashioned, no longer even intellectually hip enough to stay at number one? And two, stripping away the book’s historical existence and positing a world in which Ulysses was to be published tomorrow, would it be regarded good enough to scale the lofty heights it now inhabits?
The first is merely a matter of patience and attention. The question will be answered in time whether or not that answer justifies itself. The second is a game for an idle mind, a bit of fantasizing admittedly less titillating than what people look like naked and less invigorating than re-imagining your life had you not done Action A or had done Action B. My own private suspicions are that what Joyce has accomplished with this novel would likely manage to get published in today’s world, but would kick up far less controversy, would get far less critical attention, and would remain one of those sleeper books that remains in print solely through word-of-mouth recommendation. The novel is simply too erudite, too cryptic, too complex and multi-layered to even be comprehended fully by today’s critics.
It’s not that today’s batch of critics aren’t discerning or literarily minded or well-versed in the errata and desiderata that make up Ulysses though many are. It’s that today’s world presents itself in an ever-quickening pace of distraction and imaginary deadlines such that finding a book you can disappear into is haven enough, let alone finding a book that pays dividends on patient hard work and some slogging to discover its joys and its gifts. And make no mistake. Joyce’s novel is work. It is work in the best sense of the word, work that is enriching, transforming, and exhausting.
One can read Joyce with or without a secondary volume of reference and annotation and I recommend that your first reading be done so. Yes, I said first reading. Ulysses is a book well-rewarded by repeated visits throughout your life, but the first reading should be done just for the sake of the language which is at times densely humorous (it can be done with such dry wit), at times scatological (occasionally claustrophobically so), at times soaringly poetic with an encompassing beauty. Witness this olfactorial passage: “From the cellar grating floated up the flabby gush of porter. Through the open doorway the bar squirted out whiffs of ginger, teadust, biscuitmush.” Oftentimes the book is tagged with the term stream-of-consciousness as though it were no more than entirely interior monologue consisting of observational shorthand and psychological nattering. To be honest, there is a good deal of that, most notoriously the lengthy chapter at the end, wherein our hero Leopold Bloom’s wife Molly reflects on her life and sex. But there is much action throughout the day and night including a funeral, Bloom’s masturbatory peeping Tom activities, a bar brawl, a rioting party at a bawdy house, and a street scrap, sewn throughout with characters’ thoughts on these and many other subjects.
All of that can be enjoyed without understanding every obscure Aquinas reference, every mention of Parnell and the legends of Ireland, every Odyssey and Homer allusion, every Latin phrase, and every (for the time) indication of current events. To read it a second time with reference works handy opens up some of the vast vistas under the book’s immediate text. To read it a third time, again for pleasure (but with the knowledge gained through the second reading), is to capture the book anew.
Many who complain of Ulysses complain in two related ways. The first complaint is that it is simply too daunting, too hard to read. These people are trying to skip reading one and move immediately to a scholarly line-by-line exegesis. They are afraid that they will miss some little thing, some jot or tittle, and forever be impoverished and mocked, sneered at and snubbed at swanky book learning affairs and cocktail parties. Those parties don’t really exist by the way, save in books or film and occasionally one’s sophomore year in college, and they really aren’t all that fun anyway, so worry not.
The second complaint is a more nuanced version of complaint one or sometimes a dishonest front for the first. Rather than admitting that they found the book a frightful task, these would-be critics complain that books written to be complicated and tasking reads are neither enjoyable nor real works of art. In the former sub-clause, they argue that the only good books are those that zing along with grabby emotional hooks and passionate love scenes and great banana peel slipping jests. (I’d argue that Ulysses has these in abundance.) These people wouldn’t know good writing if it bit them on the arse. Let them have their paltry works and be done with them. I’m sure Tom Arnold’s autobiography will grace their bookshelves. It becomes a matter of taste in that case and some people have it and some people most decidedly do not.
In the latter sub-clause above, they try to take their intellectual laziness on the high road of aesthetic schoolmarmishness, tsk-tsking Joyce for the quote: “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 ensuring immortality,” as though that damned his production out of hand. The argument posed here is that if you work really hard at writing a book, pile it layer upon layer, weave an intricate and at times ingenious tapestry of historical echoes, provide the reader with intellectual fodder by the gross ton, and you keep future professors in mind as readers, then somehow you are a fraud. This is an emotional appeal dressed up in the disguise of rational argument, a sort of Kerouac-romanticism, the immaturity of writer-readers who believe in the lightning power of the first utterance over the rather dull spade work of craft.
To be sure there have been (like Kerouac) inspired first drafters, but the vast majority of writers must hone their novels until they shine. Even a wrongly dismissed as light-read writer like Wodehouse edited and trimmed and crossed up his manuscript until what reads like the dreamiest of angel cake had been through the furnace of correction. Those who complain that there is too much work in reading Joyce (or too much work in Joyce’s writing) are, bluntly, lazy people. There are days that I don’t want to work too hard on reading a book. Hell, there are entire months when I want nothing more than piffle and adventure and thrills no more requiring my cerebral cortex than watching Hollywood Squares or a Bush press conference. There are also nights where I eat an entire box of cookies. Just because it requires an effort on my part to cook Quiche Florentine and garlic roasted asparagus doesn’t mean I never should.
If you’ve been putting off reading Joyce because you feel you’re not ready, stop. Give it a go. If you feel, after reading the first two chapters, that you’re not in the mood for that much work, stop again and read something else. There’s no need to declare a hatred for the Irish bard because you’re not in the mood. Likewise, there’s no good reason to never read Joyce if you’re an intelligent, sensitive, enlightened reader. Invest a little of yourself in the novel, the way you would in a relationship or a new job, put forth some of the brain stretching necessary.