has been labelled dirty, blasphemous and unreadable. In a famous 1933 court decision, Judge John M. Woolsey declared it an emetic book--although he found it not quite obscene enough to disallow its importation into the United States--and Virginia Woolf was moved to decry James Joyce's "cloacal obsession". None of these descriptions, 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 its own way) suspenseful. And despite the exegetical industry that has sprung up in the last 75 years, Ulysses
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 astonishing command of the English language.
Among other 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 could 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 inforgettable Dubliners. We watch them teach, eat, loiter, 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 accordion-folds of a single day, which makes Ulysses not just an experimental work but the very last word in realism.
Both characters 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 naïve 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?" --James Marcus
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