Because it’s there, is the reason people climb Everest. Because I could, was the reason Clinton gave for certain indiscretions. Because it is the pretentious thing to do, was the reason I downloaded Ulysses by James Joyce onto a certain oblong device that can carry ebooks.
The book with the second-highest ratio of purchases only to be left on the shelf and never finished apart from The Bible, Ulysses is modernist literature that follows Leopold Bloom around Dublin for the course of June 16, 1904. Except, it’s not that simple, and even Wikipedia uses multi-syllabic words to explain it. Bloom doesn’t appear until part two, so for the first seventy pages we are spending the day with Stephen Dedalus as he wakes up, has breakfast, says “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and uses words like “consubstantial” and as many foreign languages as he can.
My favourite bit so far? Joyce’s description of the “scrotumtightening sea”.
The question is, why am I doing this to myself? Why battle my way through a book that makes The Picture of Dorian Gray seem like Spot Goes to School? I’m not really sure, either, to be honest. I like to think I’m learning, as though I’m taking a one-book literature studies course. But then, it’s not entirely written in Latin, and there are beautiful passages in between the ones that cause headaches.
Paulo Coelho had this to say about the brick otherwise known as that book that takes up space on the shelf that could otherwise be put to good use: “There is only one book that arouses the unanimous admiration of the writer and his peers: Ulysses by James Joyce. No writer will ever speak ill of this book, but when someone asks him what it’s about, he can’t quite explain, making one doubt that he has actually read it.”
Pretty much on the money there, and I have to say they are the two sentences I’ve read of Coelho’s that I’ve enjoyed the most, so far. But I’ll disagree with half of it, even though this is an early opinion and there are still hundreds of pages left for me to read between now and the day I die. I’ll have to add my voice to the supposedly unanimous admiration, there is no doubt there is a vast amount of skill involved in the creation of the work, and leaves me feeling daunted.
However, I do want to speak ill of this book. Joyce set out to write the most difficult, convoluted and self-absorbed book in the history of mankind, and with the notable exception of religious texts, he succeeded. He claimed to have “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” at least according to The Guardian which likes to write about modern books by quoting authors who died decades or even centuries ago so we can probably trust them to get such a reference correct.
Each episode in the book relates or equates to Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce assumes we know this, and anyone who wants to read Ulysses must be a good enough reader to read Ulysses otherwise you are clearly not worthy of his magnificence.
In short, if Ulysses was a person, we would all call it a wanker.
PS. Further thoughts will be posted if and when I feel like it, but there will certainly be something else if and when I ever get to the end.
UPDATE: I’m ten per cent (10%) of the way through. Not a terrible read so far. But, I have been reading other things in the meantime to keep my brain happy.