First Impressions: Ulysses

Always passing, the stream of life, which in the stream of life we trace is dearer than them all.

Back in January, I and a few bookish Twitter friends set ourselves the challenge of reading War and Peace in the new year. We knew we were setting ourselves in for a long haul – the best part of 1,500 pages long, in fact – but the hope was that by tweeting our thoughts and favourite passages as we read we could act as both book club and support group, and thus defeat Leo Tolstoy’s gargantuan classic through unity and solidarity.

Come the end we all found we’d enjoyed the experience so much that we couldn’t wait to do it again. All we needed was another challenge, another classic, another book so vastly impenetrable as to break the spirit of all but the stoutest reader – all we needed was James Joyce’s Ulysses.IMG_1462

Naturally, I was a little apprehensive heading into Ulysses. I’ve never known a book to inspire such uniform fear in readers; between its never-ending sentences, nonsensical words and notoriously baffling stream-of-consciousness style, Joyce’s opus is made of the stuff of literary nightmares. “I can’t do it,” one Goodreads reviewer confessed. “It fell in my toilet and didn’t dry well, and I’m accepting it as an act of God.” With testimonies like that, it’s hard not to wonder if Ulysses was perhaps written but never meant to be read.

But after one week and 160 pages, I’m glad to report that Ulysses hasn’t killed me yet, nor has it so far been the uphill struggle I was expecting. Sure, sometimes there are paragraphs or even entire sections that need to be reread a few times to sink in, but there’s a rhythm to the whole thing that once locked into will carry you through effortlessly. I imagine reading Ulysses is a little like driving a lap of the Monaco Grand Prix – it demands your full attention and will spit you straight out if it doesn’t get that, but once you’re in the zone you’re flying.

Although the book’s premise – a chronicle of an ordinary day in the life of Leopold Bloom – sounds pretty mundane, Joyce makes it into something ethereal, almost mythical (unsurprising, given Joyce wrote Ulysses partly as a parallel to Homer’s Odyssey). At its best the narrative floats dreamily between Bloom’s thoughts and the physical world of Dublin surrounding him, sometimes dwelling in one realm and sometimes the other, sometimes even both or neither.

Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butterscotch. A sugarsticky girl shovelling creams for a Christian brother

I must confess however that compared to some of the other classics I’ve challenged myself with recently, I’m finding Ulysses a little harder to love. I always enjoy settling down to read it, but when I finish a chapter there’s no mischievous voice in the back of my head urging me to read another.

Though that being said, that’s hardly anything to read too much into: War and Peace started out the same but ended up becoming my favourite novel, whereas Moby Dick grabbed hold early and let go all too soon. Perhaps Ulysses is simply one of those books that shouldn’t be judged until the end, when you can see it as a full picture and not just a handful of brushstrokes.

‘O!’ Mr Dedalus cried, giving vent to a hopeless groan, ‘shite and onions! That’ll do, Ned. Life is too short.’


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