Book: Ulysses

Well, students, I did it. I finished Ulysses. All 783 pages of it.

James Joyce’s Ulysses

“Oh, Mrs. Shifflett,” you’ll say, “what’s so hard about that? We read long books all the time. We’re brilliant.” Well, yes, you are, but this book is different. Each chapter of Ulysses is written in a different style, from blustering, bloviating, overblown prose, to stylized Middle English, to David Lynch-esque dialogue with creepy stage directions, to 40 pages of stream-of-consciousness monologue with nary a punctuation mark to be seen. Did I also mention that the allusions are miles thick, there are multiple languages incorporated, and you frequently have no idea what’s going on?

Now you’re saying, “This book sounds awful! Why would anyone want to read that?” Well, why would anyone want to run a marathon? You prepare for months, or years, and push yourself to the limit for not much other than personal glory at the end. Reading this book is the same way. Now I get to walk around Dublin and really get the literary references to Ulysses. But even more than that, I have the satisfaction of having read and studied one of the most difficult books ever written in the English language: a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey as a single day’s adventure in the life of Leopold Bloom.

Beyond that, though, I have to say that I enjoyed it. I’ve always had a thing for banned books, and Joyce struggled for a decade to get Ulysses published; it was called inappropriate, inaccessible, illegible, or just plain bad. (It’s not. It’s brilliant.) And while reading it, not only did I get to see Stephen Dedalus from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man again; I also kept running into characters from Dubliners. It was very Wizard of Oz: “And you were there, and you, and you!” It was like seeing old friends, even the characters you didn’t like very much. And while I usually find Joyce depressing (all modernism is depressing to me, really), I have to say that I felt uplifted at the end of this novel; hopeful, even. Maybe that’s my mistake in reading it, but I felt like despite all the misadventures of Bloom and Stephen, there was something hopeful and forward-looking at the end of the book.

More on Ulysses this week as I traipse the city like Bloom.

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