Ulysses deals with a single day, June 16, 1904, in Dublin, the principal characters being Leopold Bloom, a salesman; his wife Molly, an opera singer; and Stephen Dedalus, a part-time teacher:
Since its publication, the book has attracted controversy and scrutiny, ranging from an obscenity trial in the United States in 1921, to protracted textual “Joyce Wars”. The novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring, and experimental prose—replete with puns, parodies and allusions—as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history; Joyce fans worldwide now celebrate 16 June as Bloomsday. [Wikipedia]
I’ve begun reading it a few times but never got past the first few pages. This time I tried something different. Before reading a chapter (or “episode”), I read the chapter’s summary on Wikipedia. I thought knowing in advance what was happening would make Joyce’s novel easier to read. This turned out to be true. But it didn’t make it easy enough.
There is probably an annotated Ulysses available, but given the number of annotations it would need, it might weigh 40 pounds. I ended up skimming chapters and skipping others. If it was a normal novel, with a plot and character development, I would have missed too much. But the book’s central character buys sausage, wanders around Dublin, has lunch, has a drink in a pub, attends a funeral, bumps into acquaintances, watches girls at the beach, and so on. Most of the conversations or thoughts he has are only semi-understandable. Here is a typical moment:
Mr Bloom, strolling towards Brunswick street, smiled. My missus has just got an. Reedy freckled soprano. Cheeseparing nose. Nice enough in its way: for a little ballad. No guts in it. You and me, don’t you know: in the same boat. Softsoaping. Give you the needle that would. Can’t he hear the difference? Think he’s that way inclined a bit. Against my grain somehow. Thought that Belfast would fetch him. I hope that smallpox up there doesn’t get worse. Suppose she wouldn’t let herself be vaccinated again. Your wife and my wife.
Mr Bloom stood at the corner, his eyes wandering over the multicoloured hoardings. Cantrell and Cochrane’s Ginger Ale (Aromatic). Clery’s Summer Sale. No, he’s going on straight. Hello. Leah tonight. Mrs Bandmann Palmer. Like to see her again in that. Hamlet she played last night. Male impersonator. Perhaps he was a woman. Why Ophelia committed suicide. Poor papa! How he used to talk of Kate Bateman in that. Outside the Adelphi in London waited all the afternoon to get in. Year before I was born that was: sixtyfive. And Ristori in Vienna. What is this the right name is? By Mosenthal it is. Rachel, is it? No. The scene he was always talking about where the old blind Abraham recognises the voice and puts his fingers on his face.
Joyce portrays the character’s minds as extremely busy, much busier than a normal human being’s. When conversations occur, it’s as if they were taken down verbatim, except with strong Irish accents and no context provided. But I did enjoy the language, and being privy to the character’s inner musings, and the lively portrayal of Dublin.
Selections from Ulysses would be enough for most readers. But one chapter I did read word for word was the last. That’s the famous chapter in which Molly Bloom considers her life and expresses her passions while lying alone in bed. Some of her sexual thoughts are very explicit, which must have been part of the prosecution’s case in the obscenity trial. Unfortunately, Joyce decided not to include punctuation in Molly’s soliloquy. That makes it hard to tell when one thought ends and another begins. But getting to know Molly from the inside was still a pleasure.