pages Reissue edition (June 1990)
has been labeled dirty, blasphemous, and unreadable. In a famous
1933 court decision, Judge John M. Woolsey declared it an emetic
book--although he found it sufficiently unobscene to allow its
importation into the United States--and Virginia Woolf was moved
to decry James Joyce's "cloacal obsession." None of
these adjectives, however, do the slightest justice to the novel.
To this day it remains the
modernist masterpiece, in which the author takes both Celtic
lyricism and vulgarity to splendid extremes. It is funny, sorrowful,
and even (in a close-focus sort of way) suspenseful. And despite
the exegetical industry that has sprung up in the last 75 years,
is also a compulsively readable book. Even the verbal vaudeville
of the final chapters can be navigated with relative ease, as
long as you're willing to be buffeted, tickled, challenged,
and (occasionally) vexed by Joyce's sheer command of the English
things, a novel is simply a long story, and the first question
about any story is: What happens?. In the case of Ulysses,
the answer might be Everything. William Blake, one
of literature's sublime myopics, saw the universe in a grain
of sand. Joyce saw it in Dublin, Ireland, on June 16, 1904,
a day distinguished by its utter normality. Two characters,
Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, go about their separate
business, crossing paths with a gallery of indelible Dubliners.
We watch them teach, eat, stroll the streets, argue, and (in
Bloom's case) masturbate. And thanks to the book's stream-of-consciousness
technique--which suggests no mere stream but an impossibly
deep, swift-running river--we're privy to their thoughts,
emotions, and memories. The result? Almost every variety of
human experience is crammed into the accordian folds of a
single day, which makes Ulysses not just an experimental
work but the very last word in realism.
add their glorious intonations to the music of Joyce's prose.
Dedalus's accent--that of a freelance aesthetician, who dabbles
here and there in what we might call Early Yeats Lite--will
be familiar to readers of Portrait
of an Artist As a Young Man. But Bloom's wistful sensualism
(and naive curiosity) is something else entirely. Seen through
his eyes, a rundown corner of a Dublin graveyard is a figure
for hope and hopelessness, mortality and dogged survival:
"Mr Bloom walked unheeded along his grove by saddened
angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults, stone hopes
praying with upcast eyes, old Ireland's hearts and hands.
More sensible to spend the money on some charity for the living.
Pray for the repose of the soul of. Does anybody really?"