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Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce

James Joyce, author of Ulysses.

Book Review
Ulysses (1922)
by James Joyce

  Even writing about Ulysses is intimidating. Almost universally acknowledged as THE masterpiece of high modernism in literature (Virginia Woolf called it a disaster.) Reading Ulysses without a guidebook handy is almost impossible- the paper copy I bought is something like 800 pages.  I decided to listen to an audiobook version on the theory that I would get more out of the text listening to it. The 18 sections of Ulysses added up to 30 hours of audio.  I listened to it entirely while I was either driving between San Diego and Los Angeles, San Diego and El Centro or running.  Mostly running.   While listening I kind of read along, although as I write this after finishing the audio version I'm only three hundred pages into the print version.

  Ulysses is a kind of litmus test for whether a person is serious about literature.  It is one of those works that is more often referred to than read. but I would imagine intimate familiarity with Ulysses is essentially a prerequisite for graduate study of Literature in English speaking countries.  It is hard to imagine anyone actually getting through Ulysses in print or audio and not appreciating it.  The well publicized obscenity prosecutions which prevented wide spread dissemination of the text for decades only add to the allure.

  James Joyce self consciously wrote Ulysses as a text that would occupy scholars and become immortal due to its complexity, which includes intentional errors and a panoply of specialized areas from medicine, to linguistics, to the study of literature, to religion, geometry, Irish nationalism, etc, etc etc.  The combination of intentional obscurity, innovative narrative techniques, specialized knowledge and earthy sexuality is a heady mix, and again, it is easy to feel the direct influence that Ulysses has had on literature which has followed.

 At the same time, Ulysses is an incredibly frustrating, dense, exasperating ordeal to consume, and it is hard to see where someone not obsessed with 20th century literary modernism would ever find the time, let alone the will power to undertake the quest outside of the framework of schooling.  Perhaps though the analogy can once again be drawn between undertaking the comprehension of Ulysses and the experience of binge watching an entire television show with multiple seasons.   One could read Ulysses in the same amount of time it takes to watch a show like the Walking Dead and the reward is an understanding of the keystone of modernist prose.

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