Ulysses

“You find my words dark.”

James Joyce

Glory glory hallelujah, I have finally FINISHED this 700-page monolith which at the moment feels like my greatest achievement of 2012. This in a year that included getting into university.

The above quote isn’t the best to be found in Ulysses, but it sums up the novel so well that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write it down. It is just so, so obscure. The plot is basically non-existent: two men wander around Dublin for a day and think about things ranging from Shakespeare to soap.

That’s it. For 700 pages. Oh, sure, there’s lots of surreal modernist stuff, playing with narration, reinventing old tropes, etc., but everything that actually happens can be summarised in a paragraph.

There are twelve “episodes” (I think), each supposedly corresponding to twelve “episodes” of Homer’s Odyssey (Ithaca, The Sirens and so on), although the link is tenuous to say the least. What, exactly, does Oxen of the Sun, set in a maternity hospital, have to do with the bit in The Odyssey where the sailors kill the cattle of the sun god? Answers on a postcard please.

I feel a bit guilty saying all this because Ulysses is supposed to be the best thing to happen to English literature since the invention of the novel. But when, after eleven chapters of surrealism and obscurity, I read this in the notes:

Ithaca appears formally to take leave of literature altogether

I nearly lost the will to live. At least I’m not the only one; a former English student has written in the margin (it’s a library copy; no I don’t write in library books, but other people do) of a particularly difficult passage about aspiring poet Stephen Dedalus “I HATE YOU STEPHEN”. It provided a moment of light-heartedness in the opprobrium of an endless stream of words about, well, what, exactly? In the end, what is Ulysses about? Irish nationalism? The breakdown of society? (That one’s a pretty good bet – nearly every work of literature has some breakdown of society in it somewhere.) Being A Writer? I have absolutely no idea. And, it seems, neither does anyone else. Yay!

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