“We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.”

Photo: CC Paul Hermans

This novel is mind-boggling.

It took me more than six months to read it, together with most of Shmoop’s notes and analyses of chapters, themes and trivia. If you are going to read Ulysses, make yourself a favour and plough through it with a good companion text at hand from day one. Shmoop is not exactly an oracle of rigour and scholarship — but I found their informal guide surprisingly thorough and well researched; if you want something more serious, use Ulysses Annotated. I think a reference or summary for Ulysses is essential if, like me, you are not a native English speaker: I would have missed lots of details in the action and many allusions, subtleties and puns without it.

This is probably the most difficult text I have ever read. I had hard times with other books in their original language many times before (Il pendolo di Foucault, Il Principe, Heart of Darkness, The Lord of the Rings back when my English wasn’t very good…) or even written in my mother tongue (Don Quijote with its 600 pages of Golden Age Spanish). But Ulysses is something entirely different.

Reading The Origin of Species or The Name of the Rose and finding those books difficult, then opening Ulysses — that feels to me like studying English or Italian and feeling frustrated because one is making very slow progress, then trying to learn German or Japanese. That gives one some perspective!

Another piece of advice: read at least these books, and in this order, before attempting Ulysses: The IliadThe OdysseyHamlet. Of these, Hamlet is the least necessary: there are references to it (and to other works by Shakespeare) in Ulysses, but they are concentrated in a few chapters, and aren’t essential to enjoying the novel. If you have time for one prerequisite book only, make it The Odyssey; it’s the most important one and it is honoured, reworked and parodied endlessly in the novel, from cover to cover, starting with the title “Ulysses” itself.

“After God Shakespeare has created most.”

I was a good boy, and did all that: I came to Ulysses having read those other books, and with the introductory Shmoop pages well digested and the Shmoop summary and analysis for each chapter in my bookmarks. I was prepared to be patient with the novel, and decided to overcome the frustration that I anticipated at a text that I imagined dark, baroque, dense.

In the end there was some of that, yes (patience and frustration), but less than I imagined. Barring the plethora of obscure allusions to Irish historical figures, place names, games and slang… the many quotes and verses in different languages (Latin, Gaelic, German, Italian, French, Spanish)… etc, most of my hours with Ulysses were of surprise, admiration, laughter, curiosity and emotion.

Photo: public domain

Joyce is an erudite reader and a virtuoso of language who spent seven years deliberately composing a masterpiece teeming with innovative ideas and playful devices that would dazzle readers forever. If ever a writer and his literary project were to achieve something amazing, that was it.

You can read about the many incredible stylistic inventions in Ulysses elsewhere (the stream-of-consciousness thing; the last chapter being entirely an internal monologue rendered in the form of just eight sentences without any punctuation at all; another chapter written as a catechism; all the unfinished, impossible-to-parse sentences and made-up words; and so on). I will just say that in spite of all these barriers (and like they say in Shmoop), Joyce’s characters are alive. One can smell Bloom, hear Stephen, touch Molly. Love Stephen, pity Molly, despise Bloom.

Never before had I been so intimate with the character of a novel. I was overwhelmed by their humanity, their weaknesses, their animal instincts and their absolute love (for literature, for reason, for one another, for life). Joyce has written a comprehensive catalogue of all their neuroses, dreams, fancies, memories and small-mindedness (as well as their mundane actions, guilty pleasures and bodily functions and humours). As a reader, you are privy to their most basic impulses and thoughts. You love them like you love your family and your close friends: via intimate knowledge of most of their flaws and peculiarities.

“Naked women! naked women! What about that, eh?”

Ulysses is pornographic, disgusting, touching, sincere, credible. And it is funny sometimes, very funny; and so clever in all the parodies and hyperboles. Episode 15, “Circe”, I found savagely clever, irreverent and hilarious. I had so much fun with that one that I was pointing my finger at the (virtual) page with eyes wide open, and laughing out loud.

Ulysses is something quite different of what I was expecting. It’s not the heavy, pompous, highbrowed exercise I thought. Rather, it’s the answer to the question: “what would an epic novel be like, if its subject were mundane people going about their daily lives, and one wrote it full of compassion towards those characters but also with radical honesty, with immense erudition, and with no prejudices about how language should be used?”

Definitely worth the effort. Read it.

Photo: National Library of Ireland

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