It’s done. It’s finished with. After three weeks, 265,000 words and 300 pages of accompanying notes, James Joyce’s Ulysses has finally returned to its shelf as a read book, its pages dog-eared and spine crinkled in battle. The book that leaves readers quaking in their wee little boots has been weighed, has been measured, and has left me wondering what all the fuss was about.
I won’t pretend I wasn’t a little frightened of Ulysses at first. When my copy first arrived in the post, I felt like a plucky Rebellion pilot seeing the Death Star for the first time – both wider and taller than War and Peace, printed in minuscule font with the lines spaced no more than a Rizla paper apart, tackling Ulysses looked to be a task every bit as epic as the Greek sagas it parallels.
But once I’d actually got going, I found those fears slipping rapidly away. It starts off surprisingly gently, stretching itself awake as Stephen Dedalus takes in the brisk sea air of Sandycove over breakfast and Leopold Bloom busies himself with buying soap and feeding his cat. Early on, the only real rocks to navigate are Joyce’s made-up words, obscure historical references and brief passages in Latin and French, but you’ll find worse than that in The Three Musketeers or any Jane Austen.
It’s not until later that Joyce starts pulling out the more deadly of his weapons, like the trademark stream-of-consciousness style for which Ulysses is both feared and revered; and those only once the novel has built up to them, so that reading those episodes is more like easing into a warm pool rather than being thrown headfirst into the snotgreen, scrotumtightening sea.
And that’s one of the things I really loved about Ulysses – the way Joyce deploys his different styles and techniques to reflect perfectly the moods of each episode. Stephen’s hazy, midmorning amble along Sandymount Strand is given in stream-of-consciousness as he mulls over his life, his family and his mother’s death; Leopold’s working day at the Freeman’s Journal is broken into short, frantic spurts of text, like newspaper clippings shooting from a printing press; as the two men head home in the early hours of the morning, Joyce’s pen stumbles on as if he is just as drunk and bone-weary as his protagonists.
It would be wrong to say I found all of this as clear and engaging when I was actually reading it. There’s a reason so many people give up on Ulysses before the end, and there were plenty of times when Joyce’s language-busting experiments made me want to take the book down to the beach and hurl it into the Bristol Channel.
But thankfully those moments were few and far between, and even the muddiest episode could not outweigh the magic of the rest. The underlying waltz rhythm of ‘Sirens’; the sultry opening of ‘Nausicaa’ as the sun sets on Sandymount; Molly Bloom’s mesmerising soliloquy in the closing episode ‘Penelope’: if I had to read every difficult episode three times over before moving on to those above, I would do it without ever asking why.
If you’re mulling over of taking on Ulysses, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Yes, it’s dense and yes, it’s difficult, but it’s also thoroughly rewarding – and no one will judge you if you read it with a companion guide to help you through the darker parts of the jungle. It’s also worth smoothing the way with a beginner’s course in Joyce: his first major work, Dubliners, is a great initiation into his views on Irish politics, society and religion; and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man introduces Stephen Dedalus and many of the techniques that reappear in Ulysses.