- Rank: #3
- Author: James Joyce (1882 – 1941)
- Published: 1922
- Publisher: Sylvia Beach
- Pages: 783
- First Line: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
- Last Line: “and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
- Acclaim: Modern Library Top 100 English-Language Novels of the 20th Century #1
- ML Version: ML Giant #52 (two dust jackets – 1940, 1967); Ulysses in Nighttown (excerpt published as P-45); tan dust jacket; gold dust jacket (1992)
- Film: 1967 (dir. Joseph Strick – ***), 2003 (Bloom – dir. Sean Walsh)
- First Read: July – August 2000
The Novel: Ulysses is looked upon as the great novel of the 20th Century – the novel that ranked above all others when the Modern Library put together their modest list in 1998. It is also widely viewed as one of the great difficult novels of any century, the one that so many people actively avoid. It is not only nearly 800 pages, it not only delves into a number of different literary styles within its pages, it not only ends with 46 pages that lack any punctuation and barely any paragraph breaks but it also has an entire book that has been published to help you understand all the references.
I came at Ulysses through a long journey. I first read Joyce as a Freshman in high school when we read “Araby” in class. I didn’t pick him up again until my Senior year when we read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in AP English. I was intrigued enough (though I knew there was a lot going on in the novel that I wasn’t getting) that I bought Dubliners and read it. This countdown has been of novels, so Dubliners doesn’t come into it. If I had to rank it, I would call it (and often do) the greatest short story collection ever published. I have my five perfect works of literature – the five works in which I would not change a single line. Two of them are poems (“somewhere i have never travelled gladly beyond” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), two of them are novels (the last two on the list) and the other is the story “The Dead”, the final story in Dubliners and whose last line is one of the most beautiful sentences in the English language (“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”). Can you tell I’m a Modernist? In college, I had one class where we read Portrait and this second time through it I felt I understood it better. I had another class where we read Dubliners and I was kind of the de facto Joyce scholar in my class because I had read both books (and more than once). But I waited on Ulysses. And I waited. And then two years after I graduated came the Modern Library list. And I read my way through the list. I had read something like 33 of the books when the list came out. And I still waited for that #1 book. By July of 2000 I was up to around 90 or so. And so I finally started tackling Ulysses (it lead to a rather interesting exchange – at my interview that month at Powell’s I was asked what book I was reading and I felt dumb for saying Ulysses because it seemed like an answer designed for the question, so I explained that I had been reading the list and I that I was now on Ulysses – my future boss then asked me if I had ever read Infinite Jest and when I explained how I felt about David Foster Wallace he hired me anyway). I read it slowly. I read it only at home, never in bed, so I could focus on what I was reading. It took a while, and I read other things in bed and on the Max (on the way to my new job at Powell’s) but I slowly made my way through it. But I knew there were things I was missing, pieces that didn’t seem too complete (yet, still far more complete than Finnegan’s Wake – I still don’t understand half of what I read in there). But I loved it all the same, was in awe of its language (“Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets. Moist pith of farls of bread, the froggreen wormwood, her matin incense, court the air.”), of the way everything works so well towards a concentrated whole. And then Veronica went off to London on a trip and came back with a shirt for me from the Joyce Museum in Dublin that said “and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
This time as I read it, I decided to sit there with Stuart Gilbert’s book (yes – the same Stuart Gilbert who translated my #4 novel into English) that explains all the parts of the book, that denotes the 18 individual episodes and what is going on and how they relate to Homer. This time I could read a line like “The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay, on the weedgrown rocks along Sandymount shore and, last, but not least, on the quiet church whence there streamed forth at times upon the stillness the voice of prayer to her who is in her pure radiance a beacon ever to the storm-tossed heart of man, Mary, star of the sea.” and not just be in wonder at the way Joyce makes use of the English language, but also get an idea of what he is getting at. But the Gilbert book actually didn’t help. It made me try to focus too much on the structure that Joyce had given the book. Yes, there is a precise structure and yes, Joyce as a scholar is something to marvel at. He didn’t just write an amazing book that confounds and transforms the English language and how we use it. He did it in such a way that we could lack back to our ancient Greek myths and see the story in the style. And there is something to be said for that and there are a lot of people who will find the book much easier with the Gilbert by their side to help guide them down the streets of Dublin. But I don’t need to know what it means when Joyce writes “She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled under foot and had gone, scarcely having been. A poor soul gone to heaven: an on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.” I just need to be taken away with the language. I love Ulysses not for the amazing structure that it has but for what it can do, for what it can make me feel when I read it.
I love it because it is alive in so many ways. Look at the way that Leopold Bloom eats, what a description of both the process, but also the contents: “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” It is not the most tasty description, it is not going to want to make you ask for a recipe like you would do with Tolkien, but you feel how alive Bloom is with every bite.
Or sex. The book is alive with sex and with lust and with love. Look at what one glance of someone in the haze can do: “She dances in a foul gloom where gum burns with garlic. A sailorman, rustbearded, sips from a beaker rum and eyes her. A long and seafed silent rut. She dances, capers, wagging her sowish haunches and her hips, on her gross belly flapping a ruby egg.” Or look at the kind of description that earned this the ban from all the censors before that 1933 decision from Judge Woolsey freed it to be properly published in this country:
Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet and sour with spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft, warm, sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her; eyes, her lips, her stretched neck, beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.
These are lines that are alive with not only the love and lust, but with the description. Because sex and lust and love and passion and embraces and kissing, these are all part of being alive.
All of this book is about being alive on one day, on 16 June 1904, not coincidentally, the day that Joyce had his first date with Nora Barnacle, who would share the rest of his life with him (and if you think Ulysses is dirty you should try reading their unexpurgated letters). We follow Stephen Dedalus (the narrator of Portrait), Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly through the day, through teaching and funerals, through meals and trysts, and finally into the wee hours of the morning. That is only a very loose description of the actions of the novel but if you want the breakdown of the actions look in the Gilbert book. Come to the novel for the language rather than the story. Or come for the story and stay for the language. But come to the novel because so many claim to or talk about the novel’s greatness without ever having approached it.
The book ends with the stream-of-consciousness descent into the thoughts of Molly Bloom. We listen to her as she lies in bed, thinking back on the day, not only of this day, but of days past, and we can follow the pure poetry of her thoughts, however carnal (and potentially dangerous to those opponents of the book) they might be: “I wish some man or other would take me sometime when hes there and kiss me in his arms theres nothing like a kiss long and hot down to your soul almost paralyses you then I hate that confession when I used to go to Father Corrigan he touched me father and what harm if he did where and I said on the canal bank like a fool but whereabouts on your person my child.” This is, without question, the most difficult part to read through, these final 46 pages, with barely any paragraph breaks, without punctuation, with all of Molly’s thoughts blending together, carrying us across time and space, from her childhood straight through to her current moment in bed. But it brings us, finally to a beautiful section that concludes the book, her memory of that moment when her husband proposed to her and she remembers it with such lyrical beauty that its final eight words have been imprinted on collective memory. But it isn’t just the final eight words. We can skip back a little and see how those final words unfold upon us.
and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
The Film: The film version of Ulysses, directed, produced and written (with Fred Haines) by Joseph Strick was nominated for Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium at the 1967 Academy Awards. This nomination had probably less to do with the quality of the script than with the fact that it was one of those novels that had widely been considered unfilmable. After all, it had been banned in numerous countries around the world as a book. If people were afraid of what it could do without visual images to go along with it, what could a film do? That Strick decided to take a try at the novel and that he succeeded at any level was thought to be an admirable feat. So, he ended up getting nominated.
But did the script deserve to be nominated? Well, it’s not a great film and the script meanders along the way. There were better scripts that could have been nominated (though the other four nominees – In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke and In Cold Blood deserved their nominations). They could have gone with Point Blank or Deadly Affair or Wait Until Dark. It’s hard to stay focused on any particular moment in the film, because that’s how the book works. So it only succeeds to a degree as a film because there is only so much anyone was going to be able to do with a film version. And that is an argument that the nomination was not that bad of a choice – certainly Strick could have made a mess of it, could have tried to focus too much on sex. He found a path to take with the film that followed the novel fairly well and there’s something to be said for that.
But, let’s also look back at the novel. Ulysses is renowned for being a difficult book, for its steam-of-consciousness, for its trail through Homer, for its length, for its final section of 46 pages without so much as point of punctuation. But is it really that difficult a novel to film? Well, prior to 1967 it certainly would have been – a relaxing of codes meant that certain things could be at least portrayed on screen (though this version is still fairly tame when it comes to showing any sex). But the episodic nature of the book actually lends itself more to a film adaptation than say, Portrait of the Artist. Strick’s attempt at that a decade later was much more of a mess because there isn’t any kind of storyline to follow. Here, he could pick and choose which sections to use and which to leave out entirely. For a difficult book like this, it is actually relatively easy to take entire sections and leave them on the floor because they have nothing to do with the story.
So, what do we have at the end? We have a solid film. Milo O’Shea is pretty enjoyable as Leopold Bloom and Barbara Jefford isn’t bad as Molly. Maurice Roeves is fairly lifeless as Stephen, but Stephen is a character who works almost entirely on the page – look at what a disaster he is in Strick’s later film. It’s the Blooms who were always going to take life on the screen (which is perhaps why the later film is called Bloom). Yes, Strick filmed what had always been called unfilmable. But that’s more because the times changed than because of anything amazing he did. He did a fine job, but then the actual adaptation of the novel to a script was never going to be as difficult as everyone always thought it would be.