Ulysses, final reflection

2022-07-03 @Literature

At nearly five months of nonuniform reading, some days twenty three minutes, some three and a quarter hours, some nil, arrived at a close of the famously pornographic Penelope chapter. Molly Bloom’s raw consciousness lacking any punctuation marks I found far easier to digest than imagined, largely thanks to the uniformity I don’t recall since the commencing chapters.

The saucy final chapter also made far clearer the circumstances behind the banning of the book from the US until the 1930s: an interesting bit of history in its own right whose development curiously parallels the US alcohol prohibition.

As the novel progresses the complexity more or less follows: from the initial briefer chapters of simpler prose (excepting the third) to the increasingly complex and longer, the reader having presumably developed the needed stamina by then.

The reading journey felt distinctly like an Odyssey, to parallel the Odyssey Leopold Bloom undertakes, Homer’s Odyssey, the Odyssey across the Amazonia, all other Odysseys one can parallel, and one can parallel countless, hyperbolic quantities of Odysseys, to speak of Odysseys.

Every chapter reads uniquely: a combination of voice, narration style and literary tradition (trying hard to draw a distinction between the latter two). The work is surely known for heavy stream of consciousness, though only portions adhere to that approach, and even then of heavily varied form, beyond anything I’d deemed conceivable in literature.

Raw consciousness can mask itself in an eloquently constructed third-person narrative, theatre play, a catechism, or whatever avant-garde spectacle the author abundantly casts upon the sea.

Apologies for even those spoilers. Spoilers they are, as the epic emanates an overwhelming portion of it’s value from not the argument, but the ambitious prose.

(What is the argument? A summer day in the life of a few troubled persons strolling around 1904 Dublin and exchanging clever dialogue. Though of greater interest and entertainment are their uncensored thoughts, whenever accessible.)

Case point, there’s more than enough variance to render each of the eighteen chapters a unique experience worthy of independent scholarly pursuit.

Is Ulysses one of the more difficult reads in the English language?

Sure, at least in retrospect of the last two-hundred-plus years of literature a seasoned reader would expect to somewhat comprehend. Confining to strictly the English-language works of prose (of that period), it’s the most challenging I’ve yet undertaken. Next follows Moby Dick. Everything else feels drastically more accessible.

Now Joyce’s culminating effort Finnigan’s Wake which I surprisingly found in the humble foreign section of the Belém public library, upon the initial half an hour of perusal can frighten if not already expecting that sort of thing. Though by no means did it feel intractable.

But let’s not stray. You can attain the capacity to read Ulysses, though some acquaintance with the modernists helps. If nothing else, at least read Joyce’s Portraits and Dubliners. If you struggle with those, Ulysses might crush your spirit.

Though seriously, step up. It’s readable and highly enjoyable. So what if sentences lack punctuation marks or queues of changing voice? So what if Latin and Italian (and sometimes seemingly imaginary languages) permeate the text? Read the bloody book.

If you at least manage to the fourth chapter, you can claw your way through the end. A few later sections might still frustrate, though not impede your effort, provided the motivation. My level of motivation by this point: immeasurable. A chapter could be written in reverse letters (shuffled after) for all I care. For there must exist rationale behind.

Or perhaps Joyce would derive much humour over the decades of fruitless analysis where no inherent meaning underlies. I would.

I don’t think I’ve extensively discussed the themes. From a bird’s eye perspective we encounter the working grind of 1904 middle-class Dublin, the politics, advertising, gambling, gastronomy, antisemitism, racial prejudice, troubled marriage, adultery, academia, music, religion, death.

But there’s a great deal more once you begin to entertain the allusion or the number of inherent Homeric/somatic/chromatic/scientific/sexuality-based frameworks. Search the schematics online.

Though high the level of erudition, you need not mind any of this. The work enables widely varying degrees of immersion. It’s up to you how much to clutch and pursue, how much to limit at the superficial, or how much to toss over. Of endless reread value, you can vary reading strategies with each iteration.

Much of the novel reads like free-verse poetry: some rude or even perverse, some eloquent, some hopelessly esoteric, some of near encyclopedic rigor, and rarely without a sense of satire.

I’m happy to have read the naked Vintage (1960’s edition) version of the text lacking any explanatory remarks or annotations, whereas I’ve encountered others whose 40% girth comprises supplementary text. The latter I generally find distracting, preferring to conduct those infrequent inquires on the web.

Is it my favourite work of prose up to now? Not the single favourite, but easily among. Though confined to the last two hundred years of strictly English prose, very plausibly the favourite so far.

I’ve noted a lot of remarkable excerpts from many different chapters. Should I share or leave for the posterior? Or toss into the wiki? Or plain disregard? TBC.

Questions, comments? Connect.