24 December 2015


If you want to read the classics you can't put off Ulysses very long. I was curious about it; I knew it was a book that described 24 hours in the life of an Irishman in Dublin, and that it was inspired by Homer, but not much more. I was in for something.

It was a hard book to get through. Well, I could have expected that. But on the first page I wondered if I should keep a dictionary next to it. What is or are ouns? What is Chrysostomos? But I decided against; that would just be cumbersome. I figured I would not get all out of it that way, but I wouldn't anyway; I don't know the Odyssee off by heart and don't have the same cultural luggage as Joyce had. I would just read as is and see what would happen.

It didn't get better for a while. As soon as Bloom himself gives acte de presence it gets confusing as then too many characters get introduced; I struggled to keep them apart. A bit like the start of a Russian classic, like War and Peace. But these get better as well; I persevered.

I was quite often a bit unsure of what was going on. A page-turner it is not! But as I struggled on it did grow on me. For instance, as a Welsh resident I was interested in the discussions on the Irish language. And I didn't know beforehand Bloom was (part) Jewish, and that Jewishness would be discussed a lot (which shows you how little I knew of the book when I started).

When it came to the style I also got into it more as I came along. In the beginning it looked like doing difficult for the sake of doing difficult. Since when is a sub-heading of "Sophist wallops haughty Helen square on proboscis. Spartans gnash molars. Ithacans vow pen is champ" anything other than a piss-take? But later a chapter followed in which the whole history of the English language was travelled through. I was starting to enjoy the daftness of this book. Then it turned into a play with stage directions. These could not possibly be followed; characters change appearance all the time, come out of nowhere, exchange gender, and do whatever else Joyce feels like. He must have had a lot of fun writing that! And a later chapter written in a very scientific style went down well of course (on the boiling of the kettle: "what announced the accomplishment of this rise in temperature? A double falciform ejection of water vapour from under the kettlelid at both sides simultaneously.")

The last chapter is somewhat awkwardly punctuation-free, but I enjoyed it anyway; it's the thoughts of Bloom's wife Molly, and it proves Joyce can write a plausible female character, which is something not all male writers can. Reading the classics can hurt my feminist heart quite a bit, but not this time! And when I got to then end I wasn't quite sure what I'd read, but I could see why this book was quite an icon. How many books have this much freedom of style in them? Maybe one day I'll re-read it and get more of it, but as long as this took me, I'm glad I gave it a try. What's next?

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