I’ve been having a kind of rolling conversation with Professor Stephen Swartz regarding James Joyce’s Ulysses. It reminded me of what I realized when I was reading it in college–that it is a series of great one-liners strung together. It is nearly incomprehensible to folks like me when taken in a large chunk, but like all of Joyce’s work, cut down to small bits, it’s got some hilarious, witty moments. So what is this fascination that I feel for James Joyce and his work? I’m a moderately uneducated hack-writer of genre fiction, but there is something about his way with words, a kind of addiction that keeps pulling me back.
Ulysses was never originally published as a single volume, instead it was first published as a serial in the American journal, The Little Review over the span of two years from March 1918 to December 1920, in 18 episodes, and was first published as a single volume in 1922. It’s an incredibly long book for the era, 265,000 words. Books of that length are much more common nowadays, but usually only in genre-fantasy. (Robert Jordan, Tad Williams.)
Ulysses details the wandering appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin over the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Roman name of Odysseus, the hero of a classic Greek heroic tale that was Joyce’s favorite as a boy, Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. The novel establishes a series of parallels between its characters and events and those of the poem. Leopold Bloom corresponds to Odysseus the Wanderer, Molly Bloom to Penelope (Ulysses’s long-abandoned, ever-faithful wife), and Stephen Dedalus, Telemachus (Ulysses’s and Penelope’s son who seeks endlessly for knowledge of his father.)
265,000 words to describe one day in the life an extraordinary Irishman.
But they are great words, a series of deliciously twisted, carefully structured phrases strung together in a delirious, stream-of-consciousness that hovers on the edge of making sense while entertaining you–if you can face the wall of words that is each episode.
“History,” Stephen said, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.
Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
“Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand.”
“Bury the dead. Say Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it.”
“We were always loyal to lost causes…Success for us is the death of the intellect and of the imagination.”
All of what James Joyce put into his work is what we, as modern writers, want to inject into our own work; only perhaps in a more accessible form that a broader audience of readers will enjoy.
It takes a special kind of obsession to wade through a doorstop like Ulysses for pleasure, as most people are forced into it (as I was originally) by the requirements of a college class in literature. It’s the sort of thing no one does without a good reason.
For me, that reason is the fabulous one-liners that pepper the nearly hallucinogenic narrative. I simply open it to any page and start reading, letting what happens on that page sink into my consciousness, cringing or laughing as may be.