(Original Review, 1991-03-18)
I had the good fortune to read “Ulysses” in my late teens without knowing much of its reputation other than that Anthony Burgess, an author whose novels I was enjoying at the time, recommended it highly. I read it as basically a comic novel, sometimes drunk with its author’s learning, sometimes just drunk. Our local library had a book, “Allusions in Ulysses” which ran to several hundred pages, explicating literary, historical, and cultural references in the book – I used it to translate the foreign phrases scattered through the book, but otherwise did not worry about catching the many other references. It wasn’t until after my first reading that I even became aware of the references to the Odyssey in the book (though obviously the title alluded to them) and that scholars had assigned each of its chapters a Homeric title.
Do you laugh at Ulysses? I can’t imagine someone reading the book and sticking with it without regularly cracking a smile or even, as I did, LOL’ing every now and then. From “The Ballad of the Joking Jesus” in the first chapter on through the circumlocutions of the catechism in the penultimate chapter, there’s plenty of humor in there, and even when not explicitly funny, as I don’t recall the closing chapter monologue to be, it is warm and human, with lots of brain, but also an abundance of heart and other organs, at least once Leopold Bloom enters in the fourth chapter.
Perhaps the problem is that I knew the books reputation before I started it. I see Joyce as a steamroller crushing my lesser little mind beneath his. There are places where the richness of the imagery captures the absolute essence of something, though, and that's what keeps me staggering back for more.
Hell yes. I laugh at Ulysses! It may not be right to call it a comic novel but it sure is fun. For what it's worth, the few parts of “Finnegans Wake” that I get and/or enjoy are also pure fun, and I suspect that the many more parts that make me go "Huh?" would also be fun if only I got them. I have a lurking suspicion about Ulysses. Joyce is working at his kitchen table, the rent is due, there's been nothing but stale bread again for dinner, and he thinks, "Okay, right here, an allusion that will keep old Carruthers glued to his Golden Bough for a week - he he he..."
In Ulysses (the Aeoleus chapter, for you scholars) Joyce says, “Sufficient unto the day is the newspaper thereof”; I might state my credo as “Literature was made for man, not man for literature”.
I’m certainly never going to read certain authors (reputation again!) and I can’t imagine sticking with any book I find grueling, not even if Harold Bloom promises me that pastel coloured unicorns will bring me chocolate chip cookies if I finish it. Even beauty of language can carry me, at best, to the end of a sonnet, never through a 700+ page novel. I do stick with things I’m not particularly enjoying once in a while – this year it was “Melmoth the Wanderer” - but after 50-100 pages there has to be some momentum, something enjoyable I get from the book that I want more of. There are probably books whose beginnings are great but that then peter out and disappoint, Melmoth is one and, though it’s been years since I read it, I suspect I feel the same about “Finnegans Wake”, that I will finish for the sake of their beginnings, but if a book seems tedious to me from the beginning, I can’t stay with it.
[2018 EDIT: Some years later, I read Ulysses properly ...]