Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Have you read this?

Dear reader, have you read James Joyce's Ulysses? For a book that has appeared in almost all of the lists of best books, Ulysses has been seen as a "must read" by bibliophiles. Unfortunately, reading the book is a daunting task. The writing is heavily postmodern, and each page is littered with allusions.

I read Ulysses back in 1998, which was around the time Modern Library released its 100 best novels of the century and declared Joyce's doorstop of a novel the best book of the 20th century. I recall seeing it in a bookstore and deciding that, since I had way too much time on my hands back then, I'll give it a try. It also didn't help that it was the only copy left. (If you're a booklover, you understand how it feels to see the last copy of a book you're waiting for on the shelf. You just don't think anymore. You simply have to get it.)

The novel's plot focuses on one day in the lives of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus - 16 June 1904. There's nothing really significant about this date; in fact, Joyce probably chose June 16 because of its insignificance. In the novel, you get to read how the two main characters argue with one another and go on with their daily activities (eating, walking along the streets of Dublin, teaching, and even masturbating).

As you can see, you don't read Ulysses because of the plot. You open its pages for the language. You rejoice in the genius and inventiveness of Joyce for being possibly the greatest novelist of his generation (or any generation for that matter). And contrary to what you might expect, the book is, in its own way, highly readable. The trick is to just read it page by page. Don't pay any attention to the allusions and all those literary devices if you're not familiar with them. (This is the same technique I used when I read Trainspotting.)

Apparently, people are willing to pay good money on a first edition of Joyce's epic. This guy here paid more than $400,000 on a signed first edition of Ulysses.


line of flight said...

now I'm not a stickler for labeling OR a defending of postmodernism, but Ulysses is without question literary modernism par excellence and the kind of pointlessness of modernity that postmodernism has attempted to critique. that being said, without understanding all of the allusions and literary devices (which only Joyce himself understood) it does have the fragmentary quality that is so pervasive in postmodernist criticism.

Peter Michael C. Sandico said...

Well said, Lance! I definitely agree. All the pointlessness defines the novel.

kdraydaniel said...

Ummm, yeah, I'll go with what that Line of Flight person said! Although, I wish I would have found you when I was reading Ulysses back in August. I was so busy trying to figure out the acid induced plot that I think I need therapy now. But, to look at each page as poetry or just for the beauty of language would have put a different spin on it.

Thomas said...

Hey Peter: It is nice to know that someone other than myself has looked at the Modern Library top 100. I used that list as a virtual TBR pile since it first came out. But after finishing about 65 titles I fear I have gotten most of the enjoyable stuff out of the way. What remains is a lot of Joyce and Faulkner, which I refuse to do and some other things that just don't seem too interesting to me. But I still have I, Claudius, which I gather from your blog, you would recommend.