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May 26, 2004

"Ulysses" on Audio

I notice that 100th anniversary of Bloomsday approaches. Bloomsday, for those who dodged classes on James Joyce, is the name given to June 16, the day of the year on which the action of Joyce's "Ulysses" is set; Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus meandered overlappingly around Dublin on June 16, 1904. I wonder what kind of recognition this anniversary will receive. I could be wrong, but I'm anticipating a fair amount of noise: celebrations of the immortal genius, re-evaluations of the book's significance, all-night readings by charismatic actors with fine and resonant voices, etc.

FWIW, the novel never meant to me what it seems to have meant to many people my age and older. For decades, "Ulysses" was the Everest of Modernism. You weren't a true Literary Person until you'd submitted to a thorough wrestle with the novel, which was taken to be so complete a masterpiece that no individual wrestle with it could ever be sufficient anyway. You were put in the position, as Modernism so often put people, of Failed Aspirant to Greatness. For true believers, "Ulysses" was the Modernist gospel, the One True Text from which all sprang and to which, as to a well, all needed to periodically return.

I read the book back in '75, I think. Though I liked it, I haven't given it much thought since, at least until the last few days. Other books have meant far more to me; and whatever the secrets are that can revealed by repeat readings of "Ulysses," I seem able to spend this lifetime in ignorance of them. My attitude these days: I'm glad I got through it, and I'm glad I spent some hours being baffled by "Finnegans Wake" too.

Well, I guess I am. I can't help wondering if I wouldn't have gotten even more out of spending all that time and effort on some other book. Or books, since, after all, in the same time it took me to read "Ulysses" I might well have finished a half-a-dozen other novels.

What I genuinely value in retrospect was some straightforward reading pleasure. The book is a surprisingly funky, juicy and sometimes funny experience. The Leopold Bloom passages are, anyway. (The book is split between passages about the soulful, middle-aged Leopold Bloom and the self-dramatizing and hyperintellectual whippersnapper Stephen Dedalus.) On the other hand, I thought Joyce got carried away with the Stephen Dedalus stuff, and I spent many of these pages pleading for mercy: "I get the idea, dude: Stephen lives too much in his head. I'm not that dumb. Now, can we please get a move-on?"

And of course there's the general lit-history, cultural-significance side of the matter. I'm a better-equipped culture fan for having read a decent amount of Joyce. I know what people talking about Joyce are talking about, and I'm even entitled to an opinion or two myself. "Ulysses" above all 20th century novels is one of those landmark culture-things no serious culturefan should miss, etc.

But has anyone else noticed how seldom the conversation turns to Joyce these days? I'm struck by how irrelevant the book has become, which I mean as a practical evaluation of the scene around me and not an argument about the book's literary worth. Lord knows "Ulysses" has had its influence; it may be one of those books whose destiny is to be acknowledged as influential rather than fondly read and found rewarding. But would the stream-of-consciousness technique have been hit on and developed by someone else if not for Joyce? Sure, why not? Would the ecchht-Modernist idea of the novel as poetic, cosmos-creating gospel have been arrived at by someone else? I can't see why not.

People seem to have stopped returning to Joyce. I'm not entirely surprised, and I'm certainly not the first culturefan to suspect that his two big novels, however awe-inspiring, have also proven to be artistic dead ends. What more along Joycean lines really needed to be done once Joyce had done it? (Which of course didn't stop other people from trying their best.)

I'm reminded a bit of my experience of Freudian therapy. Was the time (and the money, and the energy) I spent on it a complete writeoff? Despite myself, I have to admit Freudian therapy delivered two benefits. For one, it toughened me up. I'm now hyper-familiar with the ways in which -- at least from a Freudian p-o-v -- I'm a screwy human being. And I did come away from Freudian therapy well-equipped to defend myself against Freudian-style attacks. In NYC, a city bursting with aggressive people eager to go after you with Freudian tongs, that's not a capability to be sneered at. On the other hand, did Freudian therapy give me any actual help with any of what I went into it looking for help with? Not a bit.

Forgive me while I bring my blood pressure down a few notches ... OK, I'm back in charge.

"Ulysses" certainly has to be one of the contenders for the novel-most-tried-and-abandoned crown, which is one kind of distinction. Should anyone care, here's my tip for getting through the book: read it straight through, just as though it were ... well, a plain ol' book. There's a temptation to be overawed by "Ulysses," and to think of it as an object of study and worship instead of as a novel. This is largely due, IMHO, to the obfuscating hoo-hah that enthusiasts have erected around the book; part of it is due, it has to be admitted, to Joyce himself.

In any case, my advice is, don't fall for the hoo-hah. Read the novel for what it is, a piece of fiction. Plow on through, anxiety-free, what you don't understand, and through what baffles you; you'll come away from these pages with an impression and a feeling anyway. And, y'know, if the book bores you or baffles you or puts you to sleep, it's perfectly fair to conclude that the book itself might be partly to blame.

Hmm, "staying awake through 'Ulysses'" -- that's the real challenge, isn't it? As well as an underdiscussed aspect of the reading-"Ulysses" experience. It was for me, anyway. But I doubt I was alone; long stretches of near-incomprehensibility tend to have that effect on lots of readers. I'd do my best to be fascinated by the way the book's voice and approach -- which are meant to represent and evoke a deeper, dreamier level of Being than mere waking consciousness -- blended with my own bouts with drowsiness. But then I'd snooze off again anyway.

It's hard to avoid reflecting that it's a little absurd to expect very many people to be thrilled by a book that's hard for everyone to get through; that doesn't have much action or story in a conventional sense; that is widely recognized to be intellectually and structurally overcomplicated; and that tends to put even those who are willing, prepared, and eager to sleep.

I wonder if a solution for those interested in conquering this Everest might be a new Naxos audio version of the novel, on sale here and issued in celebration of the Bloomsday centenary. Naxos tends to create very classy audiobooks. This one is unabridged and clocks in at 27 hours. Which is a very long time -- but if you listen while, say, exercising, at least you'll make it through without snoozing off.

A couple of possible disadvantages of going through "Ulysses" on audio: the readers might color the book in unwelcome ways. (This is always a risk with an audiobook.) And you're bound to miss the book's on-the-page qualities -- and, for all the musicality and sonorousness of its language, "Ulysses" was partly conceived of as an on-the-page experience.

But what the hell, eh? In fact, I've found that one of the many things audiobooks are good for is helping me get through books I wouldn't otherwise be able to finish. The work of Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, for example. I found their books so annoying that my mind would rebel. I'd fall asleep, or I'd throw the books across the room, but I was never able to finish them. Which put me in a disadvantageous position in some litchat situations. I'd want to talk about how lousy I thought Morrison and Rushdie are, but someone would inevitably challenge me to name the books I'd finished, and I'd have to admit that my answer was none.

So I was determined to persist and prevail. Audiobooks to the rescue. I found that when I dropped the books into the tape player instead of propping them on my lap, I cruised. While exercising or commuting, there simply wasn't the possibility of falling asleep. There was less chance to set the books aside in exasperation, too. No matter how much your mind balks at what you're hearing, the Walkman keeps on playing. The machine takes care of the plowing-through effort; it's implacable -- all you have to do is not turn it off.

And now? Well, I can honestly say that I thoroughly dislike the work of Rushdie and Morrison, and, when challenged, I can also honestly say that, yes, I really have finished a few of their books. I'm less and less certain that any of this matters, and I'm prone these days to avoid discussing Rushdie and Morrison anyway. But, hey, I did manage to put those notches in my belt.

I notice that Naxos also offers an abridged audio version of "Ulysses" here. Five hours versus 27 hours -- that's one severe abridgement. I know some people who'd get huffy about the existence of an abridged audio version of this sacred text. I'm afraid I can't join them in this. After all, while someone who's listened to five hours of "Ulysses" may not deserve a PhD in Joyce Studies, he's still spent five hours with "Ulysses." I find it impossible to sneeze at such achievement. Why should I even try? We may not want our scholars interacting with Major Lit in such a way. But for the rest of us: why not?

Incidentally and FWIW, I'm a big fan of aubiobook abridgements of certain kinds of books. Take biographies, for example. I'm interested in the lives of a fair number of people, but I find that most biographies are 'way too long -- I'm not that interested. And, however well-done, most biographies can't be said to be literary works of such extreme excellence that one has no choice but to do the unspoiled thing of lingering over each and every word. (I suspect I'm not alone in having gone through a lot of biographies via the index and a lot of random leafing-around.) Where biographies are concerned, I'm generally reading for the information and the story. I'm OK with that; I'm eager to learn, too, just not 600 pages eager.

Well, a four-cassette abridgement seems to equal around 120-150 pages, and it turns out that I'm 120 pages interested in quite a lot of lives. These days, thanks to the existence of audiobook abridgements of biographies, I "read" a lot more biographies than I would otherwise -- a lot more. And I've certainly learned a lot from doing so. In what sense can anyone say this is a bad thing?

Audio abridgements also offer grownups a realistic chance to take on the classic works that are really, really long. I did "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Boswell's "Life of Johnson," and Pepys' "Diary" on abridged audio, for instance. A professor might tut-tut over the fact that I didn't read every word of these books. But I'm several decades away from school, and I also don't mind turning the tables: I'd argue that it'd do the profs some good to come to terms with what it's like to maintain an interest in culture once you're out in the wilds. Time and energy are scarce; demands are many; and we all keep the flame alive in catch-as-catch-can ways. We make do -- we have to. There's really no alternative. (Oddly enough, that's how most canonical authors lived, worked, and interacted with Culture too.) And what conceivably could be thought to be wrong with spending 15 hours in the company of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"? I found it a genuinely great experience; Boswell and Pepys struck me as hot stuff too. The dissertations I might write about these books will have to wait for some future lifetime. That's not a big tragedy for either me or the world.

But the Larger Musings I find myself returning to today are about "Ulysses." How long will it survive as cult object? What's become of it as a cultural symbol? And what are people in the future likely to make of the book? No way to be sure, of course. But it seems to me, FWIW, that the "Ulysses" cult -- like the Modernist-lit cult generally -- is falling apart.

To dramatize what self-consciously difficult work once meant to large numbers of Americans, and to remind ourselves of how different today's zeitgeist is, here's a passage from a new biography of the brilliant sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick. In this passage, Phil's a young adult who has just moved to Berkeley:

Phil moved his collection of books, records, and magazines and his beloved Magnavox record player into an apartment shared by a group of bohemian Berkeley students. Here only "great literature" had a place: academic interest in popular culture was still some ways off. Phil stopped reading science fiction, put away the pulp magazines that had fascinated him in his adolescence, and began to read Joyce, Kafka, Pound, Wittgenstein, and Camus. An ideal evening for him meant listening to Buxteude or Monteverdi while budding avant-garde poets recited long passes from "Finnegans Wake" by heart, stopping only to point out traces of Dante's influence. Everyone was trying to write, engaging in frenetic name-dropping, exchanging manuscripts, and offering advice ...

(This biography -- which, BTW, I'm happy to admit I'll never read every page of -- seems like a good, readable and interesting one. It's by Emmanuel Carrere, and is buyable here.)

Bits and pieces of this Modernist-mad culture life are around still. The Wife and I make it to the occasional poetry reading, for instance, and I'm struck by how many poets remain interested in streaming their consciousnesses and playing fragment-it-now allusion-games. Certainly anyone determined to find thorny new Modernist music will have no trouble doing so; and the architecture of the Tschumis and Hadids, whatever label it's wearing this week, is the current (and very Mannerist) incarnation of the Modernist dream.

But it's just bits and pieces, isn't it? Can anyone claim that this charged-up culture of enthusiasm for the Modernist thing is both central and vibrant? As John Massengale (here) and David Sucher (here) often point out, the work of the Tschumis and the Hadids accounts for about 0.00001% of what actually gets constructed. Why this work attracts the critical/intellectual attention it does -- and why the claims that get made for its significance continue to get made -- is more than a bit bewildering.

"Ulysses" is the central fiction-text of Modernism -- I've got no trouble with this assertion, which is simple fact. And Modernism was quite a phenomenon -- I've got no trouble with this assertion either. But if the Modernism cult is -- as a practical matter -- evaporating, where does that leave "Ulysses"? And where does that leave its reputation?

Whatever my opinion of the book -- and I kinda-sorta liked it, I guess -- I find it hard to believe that in 40 or 50 years "Ulysses" will be seen as anything but a quaint and perplexing oddity, of historical interest to a small number of scholars, and of artistic interest to a vanishingly small number of artsy folk. Kids today are born into a world the Modernist art-geniuses helped dream up. In a be-Webbed (and be-Webbing) age, why should it seem an urgent matter to young people to consult "Ulysses" at all? Cyberspace has usurped and completed the Modernist dream, and although it may lack Joyce's poetry, it's also easily available, non-soporific, and instantly understood.

Curious to hear about other people's wrestles with the book, as well as reflections and hunches about what the book means now, and may come to mean.

UPDATE: George Hunka responds here.

posted by Michael at May 26, 2004


One thing that is interesting about Joyce is that he wasn't a Modernist out of the gates, and that's what interests me about Ulysses. And no, I've never gotten all the way through. But, while it may be so "that in 20 or 50 years it's likely to be regarded as a quaint odditiy, of historical interest to a small number of scholars and of artistic interest to a vanishingly small number of artsies" we will still have the preceding Dubliners.

Those stories, I don't think, will ever be discarded from the Canon. Nor Portait of an Artist as a Young Man. Rather an accomplishment, it seems, to cover such extremes so well.

Posted by: Karl on May 26, 2004 12:56 PM

Fifteen years ago I was a Joycenut - I read everything he published (even FW). I relished in the modernist tricks of obscure allusion and interior monologues. I now know I approached them as trophies. I was interested as much in wringing out as much authorial intended "meaning" as I could, with the help of guide books and skeleton keys and explications.

But the pleasures I got from the trophy hunt were transitory - I was reading the map but not seeing the territory. I think the closest I got to pure pleasure was when I had to turn off my close reading truffle snout in reading Finnegans Wake. I fell into reading it half out loud in what I could fashion of an Irish accent. I got more out of it that way than I ever did by analyzing every word and phrase. The meter and poetry of FW was exhilarating.

You are correct in that Ulysses and FW are seemingly dead-ends. But I think the road that Joyce took was the one that he fashioned only for himself. It is that personal "road-making" that may be his (and other Modernists) true legacy.

Posted by: Jim on May 26, 2004 01:12 PM

The cult of Ulysses is something quite different from the book, Ulysses.

The book wasn't a dead end. I think Nabokov did some interesting things with the idea of the novel as a puzzle, in a much more fun an interesting way than Joyce attempted. Pale Fire, like Ulysses, is a book that rewards rereading as much as it does reading. These books are not trophies to acquire; they're not mountains to climb. They're not even "experiments" in form. They are problems to be solved. They are fun, they can be beautiful, but most of all they are clever. If you're the type that enjoys puzzles and word games, you'll like Ulysses.

The dead end was the attempt to elevate Joyce to a level of universality that he could never live up to.

And by the way, do not try to read Ulysses straight through, as you would any other book. It's much easier to cheat. I recommend "The Bloomsday Book", which is basically a thorough plot summary with some basic analysis, and "Ulysses Annotated", to help with the many obscure references and allusions.

Posted by: John on May 26, 2004 03:00 PM

I agree with Karl that The Dubliners will never leave the canon, because they are among the most exquisite stories ever written. The world may turn, though, to newer novelists -- the Joyce expert at my university is about to retire, and I can't imagine them hiring another one. There are so many more au courant writers for doctoral students to hitch their stars to.

This is the way it goes -- fashion changes, the canon changes. I'm not sure the world will be any poorer if we stop reading Ulysses, as long as we're reading something seriously.

Posted by: missgrundy on May 26, 2004 04:44 PM

"Ulysses" has plenty of really good bits, it just needed a vastly more ruthless editor. My advice is to get the rough plot/idea from elsewhere, then just enjoy the good bits. No problem.

As to whether the book matters anymore- the sheer audactity of the showy-offy improvisational chapter structure (no I don't take Joyce as seriously as he did) reminds me not a little of Tarantino's uber-movie, "Kill Bill". Except for that editing, obviously. Little plot, plenty of jazz. Just a thought.

Posted by: Alice Bachini on May 26, 2004 07:28 PM

I read about half of it six months ago.

In order to really appreciate it you would need to know a *lot* about the intellectual history of Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century (which I certainly don't), and then be familiar with a host of Irish colloquialisms, and hopefully have a pretty good acquaintance with the Catholic church, and the geography of the city of Dublin too.

I have a definite aversion of reading a synopsis or critique of such a canonical text before reading the book itself. I think one should try to read it straight through first (it's not that long) or read each chapter separately before getting into other people's analysis of the work.

I think the book will live on as a landmark in literary history but I doubt that any but a very small clique indeed will be reading it for pleasure a century from now.

Posted by: Graham Lester on May 26, 2004 09:46 PM

Michael, thanks for daring to say anything about Ulysses. It seems to me that all the thought and writing of specialists is rooted in air unless somewhere, someone is reading as an amateur for the pure pleasure (or something else?) of it.

Ulysses has been one of my favorite novels since I read it as a student in 1964. Since then, I've read it at least twice more. It's never the same twice; and obviously, it isn't the same to different individuals. Last time, it seemed to me to be a vast liturgy, based more in the Latin Mass than in Homer. I don't say that's what it is; that's how I took it that time. Afterward, I happened to go to Manhattan (I live in California). Manhattan struck me as a vast liturgy, including a man playing and singing Ave Maria on a cheesy electric keyboard in the subway. Perfect.

Last time through, I read the book out loud all the way. Jim is right; that's an irreplaceable experience. I had tears streaming down my cheeks through most of the final soliloquy. IMHO, not to read it out loud is about like expecting to Get Mozart by staring at the score.

I hope interest in the book doesn't die out. I think the world would be a lot poorer without it, and I scarcely know what "modernism" is.



Posted by: Thomas Drew on May 26, 2004 11:37 PM

Hmmm, interesting.

I've never read it. There is a copy in my sister's library, and if I was so inclined I suppose I could attempt it. But I couldn't finish Dostoyevsky so I can't imagine I will be able to plow through Joyce.

Alas, for me culture is mostly confined to music. The world of literature washes over me, and leaves me unmoved.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein on May 27, 2004 01:15 AM

Are films like Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind the present generation's equivalent of art as religion, art as revelation? If so they seem like pretty watered down versions to me. In any case the phenomenon in the traditional arts is over.
Is there a writer or painter out there staking all on art? More important, is there an audience out there, even a small one, waiting with baited breath for the next great statement from a new Joyce, Hemingway, Beckett, Brancusi, Pollack, Rothko? No.
For whatever reason (my guess is that the phenomenon was tied to the primacy and self-confidence of bourgeoise civilization, which, though much derided, formed the ground from which such effort could rise, and which is no more) ART as "THE ANSWER" is over.

Posted by: ricpic on May 27, 2004 10:32 AM

Karl - I'm with you on that. I think "Dubliners" and "Portrait" have already shown themselves more durable and more influential than "Ulysses." They're more accessible and more usable, somehow, aren't they?

Jim -- Art as "personal road-making," that's a perfect way of putting it. If only the litcrits could be so succinct and clear.

John -- That's interesting that you found "Bloomsday Book" etc helpful. I didn't manage to get thru "Ulysses" until I set all that aside. I'm sure you've hit on something when you talk about puzzles too. I suspect one reason I was never wild about the book was that I dislike puzzles. As you'd imagine, I'm completely at sea in the world of videogames and computer games. I can't understand why the designers keep putting all those puzzles in my way. Even with Nabokov, who I was taken with for a year or two, I finally abandoned, probably largely because of my dislike of all the gameplaying. Hmm, not that's not quite right, there are some kinds of game-playing I like. It probably is the puzzle thing. I've never fully explained to myself what the diff is between brains that take pleasure in puzzles and those that don't. But they certainly seem to be two different kinds of entities. Or something.

Missgrundy -- That's fascinating to hear that your school isn't interested in filling the Joyce spot. What a dramatic change from 30ish years ago, when such a person really swung some weight around. Curious to hear your thoughts about a halfbaked theory of mine, which has to do with long narrative prose works generally. I have a suspicion that they're going to grow rarer and rarer. Shorter attention spans, lots of electronics beckoning for attention, and many attractive alternatives, etc etc. The taste for immersing yourself in one mind and one voice for many many nights is striking me as an odder and odder one. (I like it myself, but I find it easy to understand that kids growing up today might experience it as weird.) So I wonder if in 50 years how much reading-and-enjoying of long narrative prose works there'll be. I can see it being the taste of a small minority. I can also see it being a low-budget way to try out stories, characters, hooks, situations -- a kind of minor league maintained for the higher-budget electronic arts. But I have a hard time imagining that tons and tons of people in 50 years will have the same taste for long narrative prose works that many of us take for granted. What's your hunch? Which, come to think of it, may help ensure "Dubliners"' place in the canon: great small and short stuff.

Alice -- Great to see you again, how's life sans blogging? A different thing? I'd be curious to hear your reflections about having been a blogger. Everyone: let's keep applauding until Alice agrees to do a Guest Posting here. Anyway, yeah, IMHO "Ulysses" sure could have benefited from some sagacious pruning. I'm always a little amazed when people compare "Ulysses" to another book. Given that Joyce worked on it for centuries and poured everything he had into it, wouldn't it be more appropriate to compare it to a group of, say, ten books by any other author? "Ulysses" -- more like a library than a novel.

Graham -- It does seem like a magnificent oddity sometimes, doesn't it? Too much erudition, too much complexity, the entire universe between two covers, etc. Fascinating, but really, isn't it asking an awful lot of people leading real lives to spend that kind of time and energy on one book? But, as you note, a landmark too.

Thomas -- Thanks for being kind about my amateur reflections. And that's a beautiful way of expressing/evoking what's great about the book, thanks. It really hits some people hard, and moves them deeply. I wish I were someone who could be affected more by the book's power.

Scott -- Hey, I blank out on Dostoevsky too. It's one of my big blind spots. I actually think taking note of our blind spots -- the places where we don't respond and don't light up -- is kind of fun, as well as central in interesting ways to the art experience. After all, nobody "gets" everything, and this experience of "not getting it" is common to all of us. Yet another underdiscussed arts subject ...

Ricpic -- Remember the era of Really Big Literary Novels? Pynchon, Gaddis, McElroy, etc. What a time -- I hated all those books myself. World-engulfing genius-god stuff. I wonder if "Infinite Jest," early Rushdie, and Mark Danielewski (sp?) are today's equivalents. Never finished 'em myself. But the BigStuff certainly doesn't dominate the lit world today the way it did back in the days of late-heroic Modernism. Curious what you think about something, though. I mean, we're post-modern now, everything's bits and pieces and partial and it's become uncool to try to make claims that are too big, etc. But have we really eluded the Modernist "I can do without God" trap? I wonder. I wonder if the faith-energies and the I-wanna-believe urges haven't simply gone underground. I go back to architecture for an example. OK, part of the prob with Modernist stuff was that it was inhuman, it was hygienic, it was a rational grid we were being forced to fit into. The po-mo (decon, etc) worlds have torqued and twisted and fragmented and dissolved the Modernist grid -- but does that really solve the essential problem, or does it tell us that we misidentified at least part of the central problem all along. Everything's now goofy or skewed or disassembled, but it seems (to me anyway) as inhuman as ever, even if it's a little more distracting. And it seems to me that the central problem isn't whether or not it's all "entertaining," it's whether or not it's rewarding and helpful in human terms. Back to lit: maybe novelists aren't trying to play god anymore, which may be a good thing. But does it really solve the more basic problem, which I'd argue is: what is the relationship between art and religion (or the spiritual, or faith, or whatever)? If lit is simply something a buncha people do ... well, really, why should anyone else pay attention? But if it's "just" entertainment ... well, again, why should we care much?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2004 12:21 PM

Certainly the spot of the Joyce scholar will be filled in the sense that they'll hire someone to do 20th century British stuff, but I doubt that someone will come forward who's a Joyce scholar, though of course I could be wrong. I just recall that 20 years ago our "Individual Author" courses regularly featured names like Hemingway, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot and so on, but no more. We didn't replace our Hemingway guy, and though Eliot is still taught, that person is heading out the retirement door, too. It remains to be seen which individual authors will come to the fore in the next 10 years.

Regarding long narrative works, while I still love them (immersed right now in "The Floating Book" -- a juicy summer-type read), I can clearly see that undergraduates, at least at my school, strongly resist reading longer narratives to the point where it influences what I will put onto a syllabus. My son, a very bright 19-year-old raised in the computer game/MTV generation, will read the occasional book that really grabs him (The DaVinci Code, Into Thin Air), but mostly reads magazine articles, although he's no slouch when it comes to magazine reading -- The New Yorker, etc. But he's rarely attracted by a long lazy afternoon on the couch, reading a good book--my hobby of choice, when I have any time to do it.

Posted by: missgrundy on May 27, 2004 02:14 PM

The problem is the opportunity costs of reading stuff that hasn't been properly edited and had the garbage removed. Compare the 27 hours of 'Ulysses' with the cover-to-cover audio version of 'Vanity Fair', which lasts 31 hours, and never a dull moment.

Ulysses? My advice: stick to Cliff's Notes unless you REALLY have time on your hands.

BTW, if you're interested in unabridged audiobooks, try:


At least you can do something useful like ironing your shirts at the same time.

Posted by: Cathal Copeland on May 27, 2004 05:58 PM

I believe third time was the charm for me. Something funny happened around page 200 or something, once I was mercifully through with Stephen’s early sections. The stream-of-consciousness thing actually kicked in. The odd sensation of actually thinking the writing, or rather, keeping up with most of its obscurity in real time. I enjoyed the book from there.

If Joyce pioneered, anticipated, or exhausted so many rhetorical forms and writerly strategies, then his novels’ “dead-end” qualities can’t really be a weakness, but rather testimony to his, gulp—genius.

How about the neo-Luddite’s take: the (post) modern is too distracted, too over-extended, too *too*, to find the silence, presence, and time to be in the (stream-of-consciousness) moment.

BTW, friends of mine and I (I actually didn’t play this April, but they did) play Irish trad music for the “James Joyce Ramble” road race at which as you may know, along the length of the race, reader’s in period garb read from Joyce’s works. He’s alive and well in Dedham, MA!

Posted by: Sean Kane on May 27, 2004 09:33 PM

The single most accessible introduction to James Joyce in general and Ulysses in particular that I've come across is Anthony Burgess's Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader, which is sadly long out of print.

But if you can find it in a library or are prepared to pay the $65 being asked by one of Amazon's second-hand affiliates, I can't recommend it highly enough. As the title implies, Burgess was writing for the intelligent layman rather than the literature academic, and his book is a marvel of elucidation, especially when it comes to the more overtly experimental chapters such as the 'Sirens' episode (for which Burgess draws on his own considerable musical knowledge in order to clarify what Joyce is doing).

Posted by: Michael Brooke on May 28, 2004 07:22 AM

I prefer another of the encyclopedic novels, namely, Gravity's Rainbow by Pynchon. Joyce's view seems, well, protomodern, with its emphasis on the family as the originary nexus of society. Pynchon is more up to date (duh, fifty years later) when he suggests the multinational corporation (and its chum Nazi-style fascism) has come to take that position. (Check out Berman's Coming to Our Senses for a historian's parallel viewpoint on this.) About the only further development of this trend is sociobiological (the hardcore we are prisoners of our gonads variety) but I haven't heard of an encyclopedic novel (a la the above, plus Moby-Dick, Don Quixote and The Divine Comedy) that treats the subject.

Posted by: Contra McLuhan on May 31, 2004 10:31 PM

Michael Brooke - Burgess's Re Joyce is still in print; dunno if it's the same book. It's surely the best book on Joyce that I've read, though I've found that the more I read about Joyce and his work the more I get out of the work itself.

I read Ulysses on my own as an undergraduate, dipping simultaneously into critical and for-the-baffled-reader wells for aid, and I've got to tell you: it's beautiful and sad and on every single goddamn page it's laugh out loud funny. I didn't need the Irish accent, though I can imagine one: I always get the sense that the 'all you need is the brogue and it all becomes somehow clear' claim is nothing more than a pose on the part of those who resent or fear or just dislike literary criticism. No matter.

Complaining about the Enormous Books seems odd to me, too often driven by embarrassment or resentment. It's like disliking the Yankees because they keep winning and everybody else dislikes them too. Gravity's Rainbow is a nearly opaque albatross of a book until about page 150 or so - the Pynchon Wall, a phenomenon occurring in all his books, the point at which suddenly his ludicrous long Mobius strip sentences begin to seem, Jesus oh my, natural. At which point the laughter comes in gales, and the sinister-hallucination quality of the book can take you over for the remaining 500 utterly bizarre pages.

And as for Danielewski: House of Leaves is an extraordinary novel, but if you don't have a taste for the language of literary criticism and parodic-but-creepy-nonetheless theorywanking (this odd blend of a Gothic horror tale with the claim, enacted rather than articulated, that at their heart such tales are only symbol-systems anyway) you'll not have patience for it. Which is a pity. He's a writer of real talent. The final descent into the House, the image of a man burning each page of a book to shine a light for reading the next page...oh good stuff!

Posted by: Wax Banks on May 31, 2004 10:59 PM

I have tried four times to read it. I have put it on my very short list of books I will never attempt to read again, right next to the other entry: "Don Quxiote." As someone mentioned earlier, it seemed that you have to know a lot about the Irish Catholic mentality as it was in the first half of the last century to enjoy it. When I was younger, I would complete a book that was dull enough where I'd nod off occasionally. Now, life's just too short for boring books. Morrison and Rushdie included. My opinion is that Joyce, Morrison, Rushdie, Bellow, and Doctorow are all writers of a personal genre. If you share their culture and outlook, then you will love their novels; they will speak to you. If you are outside of their culture, they are not a good window into it. There aren't many useful shared experiences. There are no universal "handles" to grab onto. Thus, they are dull or impenetrable.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 1, 2004 12:20 PM

Bah. Way late to this thread, for which I am sorry. This may roll off and not be read. Let me explain to you. Kant in the Second Critique talks of "the Moral Law Within and the Starry Skies Above", the connection of Western Science and Judeo-Christian Ethics Through Reason. This is one of the top achievements of our civilization.

Joyce, in the penultimate chapter of Ulysses, Ithaca, frames his narrative using the Science of Astronomy and the Technique of the Impersonal Catechism. This is not a coincidence, he knew Kant.
Read with an open mind and heart, one can experience Kant's connection in an intuitive sense. In addition, he demonstrates the connection through the character of a very ordinary man you have grown to love, Bloom. So now you have an emotional connection to Kant's Idea. Additionally, connected thru Ithaca and the last chapter "Molly", to the natural world.

To summarize, a receptive reading, non-intellectual, approached as St Theresa approached her prayer, grants an experience of Transcendance in Western Civilization, felt much as Theresa felt her Visitation. Science+Ethics+Nature emotionally internalized. Ecstatic and transforming.

Boring and irrelevant. Right.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on June 5, 2004 12:38 PM

I don't know about Ulysses being unreadable, but I certainly found Michael's posting to be so. Why does this "graying amateur" try to write like an inarticulate schoolboy? Does he think this style is amusing, or is this really his best shot at expressing his "thoughts"?

I'm amazed that Arts and Letters linked this site. The opinions (about Ulysses, at least) are petulant, incoherent and unsupported. He sounds like a whiney kid complaining because the Pringles are too far from the couch to reach. "Blowhard" is right!

Posted by: Rob on June 16, 2004 01:46 AM

I agree, Rob.

I mean, if it's too hard, leave it to the big kids, okay?

"Fascinating, but really, isn't it asking an awful lot of people leading real lives to spend that kind of time and energy on one book?"

In resonse to that, I'm going to quote someone "postmodern" at you:

Art cannot be tamed, although our responses to it can be, and in relation to The Canon, our responses are conditioned from the moment we start school. The freshness which the everyday regular man or woman pride themselves upon; the untaught ‘I know what I like’ approach, now encouraged by the media, is neither fresh nor untaught. It is the half-baked sterility of the classroom washed down with liberal doses of popular culture.
The solid presence of art demands from us significant effort, an effort anathema to popular culture. Effort of time, effort of money, effort of study, effort of humility, effort of imagination have each been packed by the artist into the art. Is it so unreasonable to expect a percentage of that from us in return? I worry that to ask for effort is to imply élitism, and that the charge against art, that it is élitist, is too often the accuser’s defence against his or her own bafflement. It is quite close to the remark ‘Why can’t they all speak English?’ (Jeanette Winterson, “Art Objects” 15-16)

Posted by: August on June 16, 2004 09:01 AM


Interesting article, but I don't understand why you're using "IMHO", "FWIW". Would you use them if you were submitting an article to the Financial Times or The Guardian or The Hudson Review? Probably not.
It seems similiar to using a ":)" in an email to indicate something humorous. But in the past people didn't do this when writing letters, for example.

A. Coward

Posted by: A. Coward on June 16, 2004 10:19 AM

Jocular Joyce sets the Intellectuals a-jostling like a buxom girl amongst the jocks in the locker room.

Posted by: Chris on June 16, 2004 11:11 AM

This isn't a blog posting about whether "Ulysses" is a good book or a bad book. I wasn't that enthusiastic about it myself, but I certainly enjoyed parts of it, I'm halfway glad I read it, and I certainly "got" it. People who love or hate the book will be eloquent pro or con. Me, I don't feel that strongly about the book either way. I have observed some things, though, about the book's place in culture generally, and that's what this is a blog posting about.

If people want to debate whether "Ulysses" is a good or bad book, far be it from me to get in the way. But please, folks, don't waste your energy accusing me of dissing the book. I've got no interest in fighting about opinions here. I respect the experience of people who have loved the book; I respect the experience of people who haven't loved it too. But in this blog posting, I'm talking about something else.

Here's how it goes:

* 30 years ago, all western art was seen as leading inevitably to Modernism.

* "Ulysses" was seen as the culmination of Modernism. You weren't truly an arts person unless you'd given the book multiple wrestles. The "Ulysses" industry was in full flourish, and the English Department's Joyce specialist was The Man. "Difficulty" itself was made a fetish of.

* Today, I'm finding it commonplace to run into arts kids who have barely heard of "Ulysses," let alone given it a read. It wouldn't occur to most of them to bother trying.

* That's quite a change: from Pinnacle of Civilization and One of the Half-Dozen Greatest Novels Ever to all-but-ignored in 30 years. (Note: I'm refraining from discussing whether this is a good or a bad development.)

* How to account for this dramatic change? Part of the explanation, I guess everyone agrees, is a general dumbing-down. What I'm suggesting is an additional factor -- and I'm happy to hear about yet more factors.

* My suggestion has to do with the nature of Modernism. Part of what Modernism was selling, if you will, was a vision: this is what art (and life) could be. In pre-Modernist times, art was a vehicle for selling a larger vision. What Modernism did was propose art itself as the vision. That's where the emphasis on the "flatness of the picture-plane" came from, as well as the idea that a novel might be a self-generating thing that's a cosmos unto itself.

* For decades, some people found this Modernist vision entrancing and exciting. Works of art were often evaluated and discussed by reference to how well or how fully they realized the Modernist vision.

* Individual Modernist works also, of course, had degrees of character and flavor that were being experienced alongside the vision. Messaiean is lush, Picasso aggressive, Matisse serene.

* What's happened in the last few decades is that the Modernist vision has been semi-realized, in the existence of the computer and the 'Net. After all, the wired world is Indra's net, Borges' library of all libraries, an ever-morphing cosmos of its own.

* So, not unsurprisingly, the Modernist vision has lost much of its galvanizing quality. For kids growing up today, the Interconnectedness of Everything is simply a state they're born into.

* So, in audience terms, what remains of Modernism? Modernism did, after all, deliberately make itself difficult and challenging. In order to lure people into those difficulties and challenges, something better be there that appeals. Audiences need that reward.

* I'm suggesting that some Modernist works have a lot to offer in addition to the Modernist vision, and that some don't. You might imagine a Modernist continuum with, say, Cage and Duchamp (mostly mind games) at one end, and Bonnard and Messaiean at the other (lots of accessible optical and sonic pleasure and delight).

* Why would young people bother with Cage and Duchamp these days? Cage and Duchamp were largely selling the vision, and these kinds of games and attitudes are essentially buiilt into wired Ibooks. Why crack your brain over Cage and Duchamp -- why go to all that effort -- when you can very easily enter the same cosmos simply by turning your computer on? (Again, please note I'm not advocating or quarreling with any of this, simply taking note and trying to account for it.)

* On the other hand, Bonnard and Messaiean made a lot of easily-graspable, gorgeous work. It's difficult in some sense, but not terribly so, and it offers immense sensual rewards. So I can imagine that Bonnard, Vuillard, Varese, Messaiean and others might continue to have lives and influence among arty young people (ie., the culture future). We'll see, I guess.

* "Ulysses"? Well, it seems to me to shade a little toward the Bonnard end of things -- some of the language and some of the situations are very juicy, funky and sexy. It's got its sensual and entertainment rewards. But in its more clotted passages and in its overall (and deliberate) "difficulty," it also shades quite a ways towards the Cage/Duchamp pole.

* In these drier, more compicated sections, either the Modernist vision is carrying you along or you're probably fighting sleep. And, like I say, once we've entered an age where the Modernist vision has for many people lost its hypnotic and exciting qualities, why (realistically speaking) would we expect the book to retain its hold on the general culture?

Disagree with me about this account if you will. Someone might well say, But gee, lots of young people are into "Ulysses." Or: Gosh, that doesn't seem like a plausible account at all of why the novel has lost its hold on the culture. Fine, cool, eager to hear other observations and ideas. But please don't mistake me for someone who's quarreling with anyone's opinion of Joyce or of "Ulysses."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 16, 2004 11:56 AM

A. -- Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for asking about the IMHOs and such. You're onto me: I indulge in this kind of thing because I'm not writing a formal article or essay. These are personal musings and reflections, not an attempt to break into the Nation or the NYRB. And I use a variety of tricks to remind readers (and myself as well) of that fact. Also because I enjoy the conversatonal quality of blogging. Since I'm largely interested in comparing notes with other people about the arts, I try to make my postings function as conversation-starters rather more than as rants or articles. Some people don't enjoy this approach, or they find it strange or bizarre. But, what the heck, there's no shortage of professional magazines for them to choose among for their reading pleasure. I'm trying to put forward a slightly different approach to talking about culture -- one that's more conversational and open-ended -- than you'll run into in the pro publications. IMHO and FWIW, of course. Many thanks for stopping by.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 16, 2004 12:04 PM


You should have posted that first. It's 10x more coherent (and much less deliberately-antatoginistic sounding) than your original post.

But point about being able to experience connectedness (I would argue about your concept of what modernism is; it bears only a passing relationship with my concept of what modernism is, but maybe that's for later) by just turning on a computer is valid, but do they understand that connectedness? Ulysses doesn't just express that connection, it tries to understand it, and that's something that I find many of my peers (being one of those young people entering the arts--both as an artist and as a critic) don't understand the first thing about what they 'experience'. Knowledge without understanding is a major problem in contemporary arts, and it has created entire branches of rhetoric that love to dismiss the past (modernism in particular) without having even given it even a cursory glance. Dismissing something outright without knowing what you're dismissing is a stupid, stupid thing for an artist or a critic (academic or industry) to do, and that's exactly what these wonderful young people "living real lives" are doing.

Posted by: August on June 16, 2004 12:41 PM

Yes, ReJoyce is the American edition of Anthony Burgess's Here Comes Everybody. has more.

I grew up in Dublin, which gives me a head start on the Irish accent and the knowledge of Dublin, but I still find large parts of Ulysses to be heavy going.

For the last two years, I've been involved with staged readings of parts of Ulysses in Seattle. I've been through this year's chapter, Wandering Rocks, at least twenty times, and I get a little more out of it each time. This chapter, unlike some of the others, is quite approachable on the first reading. Repeated readings limn a little more detail, clarify the cross-references, augment the allusions.

Readings Wed 16th and Sat 19th at the University of Washington:

Posted by: George V. Reilly on June 16, 2004 03:47 PM

I read Ulysses in the 1960s in San Francisco. It was part of the price to pay then for considering one's self a person of superior taste and intellect, which is what I had come to San Francisco determined to do, no matter how much tedium had to be endured. All I now remember of the book is my determination to plow through to the end.

I would like to suggest a much stronger contender for the title of pre-eminent novel of modernity, Journey To The End Of The Night. In technique, it is almost old-fashioned compared to Ulysses, but Celine's sensibility is radical, profound, and funny. Journey is a book of appallingly funny despair. Isn't that the signature emotion of modernity? I also think that many of Hemingway's short stories are stronger than anything in Dubliners.

Best wishes,
Richard Shur

Posted by: Richard Shur on June 16, 2004 04:03 PM

I'm trying to plow through Ulysses. One hundred pages down, 600 more to go. I tried reading it on the subway, during my commute to and from work in Manhattan. Alas, that did not work, as the book requires more focus than the NYC subway allows. I have not read the Dubliners, but I did read Portrait of the Artist, and thought it brilliant, and very moving--and of course less arduous and more user-friendly than Ulysses. I agree with the person who suggested that Nabokov did what Joyce tried to, and met with far more success.
However, Portrait was a fantastic read, and I'm hoping that at some point, Ulysses will prove worth the effort. Until then, between Ulysses reading sessions I will turn to Hemingway, Nabokov, and Dostoyevsky.

Posted by: Shana on June 16, 2004 10:34 PM

Michael -- Interesting thoughts yesterday (and I speak as one, I think, who may have originally somewhat misinterpreted your original comments on Modernism). I will, though, take exception to your comments on Cage and Duchamp: far from creating l'art pour l'art, it seems to me their primary mission was to encourage the observer to look at the quotidian world artistically. But that's an entirely different post.

What's missing from that kind of artificial, Internet experience of "connectedness" is the artistic consciousness through which those disparate elements of the world are made politically, culturally, emotionally, spiritually or metaphysically significant. I guess with the Death of the Author in the 1960s we're not supposed to worry about that sort of thing any more. But what the structuralists, deconstructionists, etc. seemed to have missed out on is the fact that the author stands in for the reader, or the observer, as a sense-making consciousness. We receive the author's world at second-hand, but authorship is a form of hand-holding, isn't it? It's a means of saying to the reader, "Here, look at this world, quite the same as yours but here's the way I look at it, perhaps you may find it interesting as well." Google's no stand-in for Joyce, or even for Cage.

Posted by: George Hunka on June 17, 2004 08:08 AM

This discussion is interesting to me largely because my own view of Joyce study (adulation, more like?) seems to be radically--and delightfully-- different from Michael's, and everyone else's. I'm entering my third year at a private, Int. Affairs/Poli Sci-focused liberal arts university; we English majors are a puzzle to our peers and a collective neglected middle child to the university administration. With little money and a shrinking faculty, the English department has space for one Joyce class every other semester, taught by a non-Joyce specialist. While one would expect "Ulysses" to fall by the wayside, especially since only a handful of majors barely scrape its surface in the classroom, it's actually the favorite reference of not the pretentious--they tend to stick to "Middlemarch"--, but of the most eager, quiet, and perceptive. The loud and pompous don't seem to bring up Joyce nearly as much as the quietly, unaffectedly brillant, while the faculty is exactly the opposite, and in fact seems to consider "Ulysses" a lost cause because those who talk a lot don't ever mention it (never mind that they don't really say much in the first place).

I bring this up because I sense a shift in the study--though that's not the right word, really, but "fandom" is too scarily now-day to be applied here--of this particular novel, away from the book as an institution; to those my age, it's more the one that got away, the one we've stopped hearing our professors talk about, the one that has always been the pillar of Being A Literary Person but has never actually been recommended to us. It's an untouchable that we touch and don't tell anyone about (because who would believe that the Nintendo generation could--and does--tackle it?). Maybe the "Ulysses" school of thought is losing steam (and bombast); the book's always going to be a puzzle, though, and a fun read, and a chunk of time well-spent. In other words, even if it's not immediately apparent, the book remains and probably always will remain totally awesome.

Posted by: Meghan on June 17, 2004 10:45 AM

August -- Glad I could make my argument a little clearer for you.

George -- I bet taking part in readings from "Ulysses" is lots of fun, as well as a special challenge. I've got no real idea, of course, but I'd imagine that there's be some people who are normally good at reading who can't manage "Ulysses" very well, and others who kind of specialize in vocally presenting the book. An interesting sub-subculture, or so I'd imagine.

Richard -- Artsfans (or at least litfans) really did have to earn their stripes once upon a time, didn't they? And "Ulysses" really was like the SAT that stood between you and the Promised Land of modernist revelation. Crack "Ulysses" and you could "get" anything. Amazing how that whole set of attitudes and assumptions has been vaporized. Funny as well to remember how seriously the Modernist requirements were once taken -- not just as a set of tastes and preferences but as the final and raw truth about art, if not consciousness itself. Oops, well, I guess not. It'll be interesting to see which of the modernist books go on being read and discussed. I'd bet that you're right, that Celine will speak more to people in a few decades than the later Joyce will, but who knows? Have you tried the current French writer Michel Houllebecq (I think I'm spelling that right)? I enjoyed a few of his early novels, which reminded me of Celine. Celine lite, maybe, but even so ...

Shana -- Wow, "Ulysses" on the subway! Even to manage a few pages in that kind of environment means that you've got amazing concentration. It's all I can do to flip around a magazine. It sounds like you're in a meaty-reading phase generally, which is great. Or is this a permanent state with you?

George -- I agree with you completely. I guess what I'd add as well is that the existence of the Web throws (IMHO, of course) modernist (and modernist-descended) art into a kind of crisis. If the radical-utopian interconnected/interprenetrating vision thing has been realized (or semi-realized, anyway) in tech terms, then what are the "advanced" arts really offering to people? I guess my hunches/conclusions/preferences are that I wish that arts people would start offering an alternative to computer-tech values, or maybe a little something that enhances the electronic-media universe with some shadings, nuances, perceptions. Did you see the recent Robert Hughes piece in the Guardian? Linked to by ALD. He'd like to see the art world offer slower, deeper, more genuinely spiritual (Robert Hughes actually uses the word "spiritual" in a positive way! Who'd have thought we'd see the day?) values -- that it's impossible to compete with the zipzipzip, twinkly pace and rhythms of the commercial world on their own terms. I'm pretty much with him on that. People can do as they please, of course. But it seems to me that fine-arts types who these days try to sell the modernist vision, or the interconnectedness of everything, or radical attitudinizing are shooting themselves in the feet. The public can find plenty of all that cheap and easy, and more or less everywhere they look -- TV ads, magazines, computers, videogames, etc. The commercial/pop/electronic world is amazingly radical and de-stabilizing, plus it's got all that commercial oomph behind it. What it isn't offering are experiences of depth, beauty, of sinking into the real matter of life, of new and convincing points of view, etc. I never thought I'd be saying such words with a straight face -- I started out as deluded by the idea of the arts as a vanguard thing as any other '60s or '70s person. But somewhere around 1984 I registered that the arts worlds had just that instant gotten left in the dust by the commercial and tech worlds. Vanguard no more! What would your own pref be? What would you like to see the arts worlds focus on these days? I've got nothing against the radical/avant-garde thing in the arts, so long as I don't have to live or work in one. But I do wonder about the people who persist in arguing that that's what art is all about. Where have they been the last few decades?

Meghan -- Wow, a current English major, a species I didn't know existed! Great to hear that some kids are enjoying exploring Joyce. That must be a real puzzle to the profs. What would the profs have you focusing on instead? The PC (women, gay, people-of-color) canon? Or am I a decade behind? I'd love to know what college-kid Joyce fans get out of the book. Are they drawn in by the puzzle-like quality of it? As I guess I've said often enough, what got me through the book was the juiciness of the language. Some of the language, anyway. (I tend to dislike puzzles.) But I seem to be a minority in this. Or are you and your friends digging the way Joyce builds the book out of allusions, layers, pastiches, slipping in and out of minds and thoughts, etc? I remember having some of those "Oh, wow, so that's what writing is!" moments, but I tended to have them while reading stuff in French -- the extra distance that the foreign language imposed helped me see the making-and-fabricating qualities of what I was reading more clearly than when I read stuff in English, at least at that point in my life. Nabokov did it for me too for about five minutes, 'till I got fed up with his fanciness -- I think the fact that English wasn't his first language was a help for me. Thanks for the bulletin, would love to hear more.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 17, 2004 11:26 AM

I think your concept of modernism is one of the things that's making people feel so antagonized (sp?--is that even a word?) by your viewpoint. Connectedness is a fundamental part of modernism, but it is not its central property, nor was it modernism's central goal. Finding comfort through order (even if it had to be manufactured) in the face of despair and a crumbling idea of civilization--that is what modernism was all about, as far as I have studied it.

I think, as I've said before (although not in this comment thread), that the shift towards the "postmodern" is much more radical in the United States than it is elsewhere, and that's something American critics tend to forget. Studying Joyce, Woolf, and other modernists is still mandatory at most major university English departments in Britain and the commonwealth (I recently graduated from one of Canada's top university's with a degree in English Lit, and now I'm doing graduate work, and I can assure you that in Canada, interest in Joyce et al is still astonishingly large--I was embarrassed to find that in my Modern British Lit seminar I was one of the few that hadn't already tackled Ulysses).

The cultural divide between English-speaking nations is often quite wider than it seems, and literature is one place where that divide can be seen more clearly. Most of the people I graduated with had read Joyce, Woolf, Rushdie, Atwood, Eliot, Byatt, Barnes etc. for *pleasure* but I could count on one hand the number of people who had read Updike, Eggers, Sedaris, David Foster Wallace, Moody, DeLillo, etc., and only and handful more who had even heard of them (and most of those people had only heard of them because of the American Lit. classes). I have not encountered the attitude you speak of in Canadian universities, rarely in the Canadian press, and almost (but not quite) as rarely in most commonwealth media.

Again, I would suggest that the cultural divide between English-speaking nations is often wider than it seems, and this debate may be very close to that divide.

Posted by: August on June 17, 2004 02:33 PM

Ulysses as real to me as most of the people I have met in my life. It is my favourite man-made thing. Its biggest problem, though, is its cultural particularity - I cannot imagine how anyone could fully grasp its genius without being greatly immersed in Irish culture and history - and that, indeed, is a huge part of the book's genius: its peculiarity. Nobody would argue that Eliot works at that level - Eliot or Pound or Stevens or Woolf. Joyce is more culturally specific.
And this is precisely part of Joyce's political project: to render the centre obsolete, to elevate the marginal, and the marginalized.
It is a deeply anti-imperialist work. It demands to be understood on its own terms, or none at all - not on British or American terms. It is confident enough to say: I will speak my own language: if you want to come along for the ride, you are welcome to try to keep up - but I really couldn't give a fig wheather you're up to it or not... I am the greatest since Shakespeare, who is the greatest since Dante, who is the greatest since Homer.
The master-slave dialectic: the slave understands the master's language, but the master does not understand the slave's. Joyce writes in the slave's language, but he also writes the master's better than the master himself.
The master, here, is anglo-american cultural hegemony.

Posted by: Tott on June 17, 2004 06:59 PM

I can be faulted for not reading the entire section of comments preceding this one, however, I have read enough to throw in my two bits.

The craft of fiction and its attendant lack of rewards in Joyce’s time we seem to have taken for granted; or worse, writing practice has become usurped by a singular desire for unrealistic rewards (mainstream success), such that the craft has been forgotten. Joyce was striving to perfect his craft; if anyone really wants to argue about it, the works stand on their own. I have read “Ulysses”, and I can note, like any great work of fiction, it has its missteps, some minor, some rather large (about 100 pages or so, most notably the 'Circe' section, Ch. XV, pg 429 the Vintage Paperback ed.). However, the fact that he did it and did it the way that he did, is enough of an accomplishment. What is the equivalent literary juggernaut today? Joyce did not earn significant money for his efforts (read Ellmann’s biography, another large, loving work of art), and had home and life difficulties to boot. He had a list of health problems, not made better by his habits. He supplemented his work with translations and teaching. He was committed to the creation of his Art--how many novelists today can say this?

Everyone prefaces their comments on “Ulysses” as “I read it,” or “I didn’t (or couldn’t) read it.” I’d much rather hear from people who have read the work, than from the whiners and naysayers who couldn’t be bothered—which unfortunately, are in high number when it comes to James Joyce.

We always want these works of art to be something that were not decided by the cultural paragons of the time. However, the popularization of the work didn’t happen during Joyce’s time. This work has become, like many cultural artifacts, a source of mild cult fanaticism, and for good or bad, “Ulysses” has become more notorious and popular for the convenience of a date (June 16th) a tradition (Irish literary culture) and an enigmatic exile. It was an event in its time that gathered a great number of the paragons of the literary culture to consensus. Who can argue with that? I think much of this discussion is becoming a criticism of the cult, which I agree with. This should not detract from the fact of the work itself.

I know you say this to provoke, M.B., but Ulysses, a “quaint and perplexing odyssey”? I believe in a previous era they called this general mode of thought philistinism. C'mon. This was the birth of Modernism.

Let’s always hope some toiling member of humankind will be capable of producing, and aspiring to produce, as great a work of literature as Ulysses.

Posted by: Robert Detman on June 17, 2004 09:39 PM

Reading abridgements is a really terrible idea. 120 pages of Joyce might persuade one Ulysses was a great novel after all Joyce certainly could write, but a full reading of the book reveals basically the book is an attack on the Odyssey and the western tradition as a whole. The whole shebang reduces to a cuckolded Jew who sells ad and masturbates at the beach at the sight of juvenile girls. And who is helpless to help anyone.

Posted by: Musil on June 17, 2004 10:27 PM

August -- Thanks for the report. You'd be amazed how many of the old standards have dropped by the wayside in the U.S., at least in academia. Creative-writing profs tell me that most of their students haven't read Faulkner, and that some haven't even heard of him. As for "antagonism" ... This has actually struck me as quite a cheery long comments thread. People will get offended if they think a work they love is being dissed. I'm not doing so, of course, even if I am talking about it rather breezily. But it's a sign that people really care about the art they love, and that's great.

Tott -- I knew that in a general and dim way, but I've never heard it expressed so eloquently. Thanks.

Robert -- Yo, dude, I'm not calling the book a quaint and perplexing oddity, I'm betting that that's how most people, even arty people, will see it in 50 years. I may well be wrong, but I'm making a prediction, not passing a judgment. I'm not a big fan of the book, but who cares? Quoting myself: "'Ulysses' is the central fiction-text of Modernism -- I've got no trouble with this assertion, which is simple fact. And Modernism was quite a phenomenon -- I've got no trouble with this assertion either." What's becoming, and what's likely to become, of difficult Modernist fiction -- that's what I'm hoping to yak about a bit here. I'll leave the cheerleading (or razzing) to others, at least on this subject.

Musil -- But doesn't the worth (or not-worth) of reading an abridgement depend a bit on which book it's of? "Clarissa," for instance, would probably be a better book if severely abridged. Does every word of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" really have to be read? "Ulysses"? Hmmm... Well, you're certainly right that it's got a constructed unity of a sort that an abridgement could only disrupt. Still, wouldn't a person who's spent five or six hours with 'Ulysses" deserve more kudos than someone who's spent no time with it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 18, 2004 12:23 AM

Michael - Thanks for your original posting.

It doesn't matter whether or not 'Ulysses' will be read in x years' time, or whether lots of people say it's the greatest/worst book ever, or whether people have written too many words about it, or whether Modernism went anywhere, or whether the book is or is not a more or less cogent indictment or praise of Ireland or Catholicism or Imperialism or Literature or Kidneys For Breakfast.

What matters is the writing on the page. Ulysses contains much of the most brilliant and inspiring writing I have read. And the more I know it, the funnier it gets.

So, what to do for those who can't get through it?

Don't try to get through it. Read just enough of it that you can tell people like me how misguided we are. I suggest reading Chapter 1 (often referred to as 'Telemachus'), Chapter 4 (the first chapter of part II - 'Calypso') and the last chapter ('Penelope'). 'Penelope' is fairly long, so if you find yourself fading, start 10 or so pages from the end and see it out. This way you will meet all 3 major characters in the book: Stephen, Leopold, and Leopold's wife Molly. You will be qualified to attend Bloomsday breakfasts because you read the chapter with Bloom's breakfast in it, and you can write amusing opinion pieces on 'Ulysses' involving some or all of the words "yes I said yes I will Yes" because you read that too.

You might read more, and find that while we may merely be pissing against a wall while stars are born and die overhead, there is consolation in pissing with others.

Posted by: Adam on June 19, 2004 08:15 AM

Joyce was a middle-class man, first and foremost; he cared nothing about Picasso and the like. I don't know why the above reviewer kept harping on "Modernism": it's just a book, a book about the Irish experience, a book that, to me, isn't so complex; it's very clear---after you've read it a dozen times!

That's what knocks me out now---"How did he DO it?" Joyce created a universe that bites its own tail ("yes" fits in to "StatElY"--get it?) and it is an evergreen source of joy for me. God bless 'em.

Now we have to worry about "Finnegans Wake"...

Posted by: Tom on June 25, 2004 08:45 AM

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