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Classic Letdowns: Ulysses by James Joyce

Ben Jureidini delivers a scathing dismissal of James Joyce's monolithic novel 'Ulysses'.

There are some rites of passage simply not worth the walk – just ask David Cameron. From pig’s heads to pyramids of naked would-be rugby players, sometimes the ends simply do not justify the means. For any English student, after the wonder of that UCAS acceptance letter pinging into your inbox wears off, after celebrations and congratulations, comes the realisation: you have to actually spend time reading. Certain titles come with the territory, such as Beowulf, To the Lighthouse, Middlemarch – texts that the great and the good have powered through and come to terms with, texts referred to as a rite of passage for a literature student. A spectre looming over any modernism paper, however, like overdue gonorrhoea test results, is Joyce’s Ulysses. 1195 pages, according to the annotated student edition that haunted my bedside table throughout the Michaelmas vacation, of literary swampland. Moving from Middlemarch to Ulysses between Michaelmas and Hilary is the equivalent of graduating from the philosopher’s stone to the goblet of fire, and trying to read Joyce’s masterwork certainly finds some kind of analogue in the boy wizard’s attempts at divining clues from that screaming dragon egg before Robert Pattinson tells him to submerge it in a bath (a method which crossed my mind around chapter four).  

‘You swine!’ – I hear you, my tutor, and Anthony Burgess yell through the dusty corridor of literature studies – ‘Everybody knows now that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century!’ This very quote, in fact, sits on the back cover of the edition, next to a photo of Joyce himself, a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Twat, sneering out at my pathetic little uncomprehending mind as I read a page-long passage of Leopold Bloom evacuating his bowels. This, apparently, is the novel to end all novels, the greatest artefact of the English language – to which I reply, like Mr. Bloom himself: ‘Pprrpffrrppfff.’ 

I am fully willing to accept that Joyce’s art is simply beyond my comprehension, that I’m just not smart enough to grasp the genius behind the word ‘contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality’ (which, apparently is a play on the hilarious words ‘consubstantiation’ and ‘transubstantiation’, as well as a joke about the famously irreverent sex life of the virgin Mary). Indeed, I’m reliably informed that Ulysses is a laugh a minute, but Joyce’s polylinguistic puns, based on knowledge of Polish subjunctive verbs, street names in historical Dublin, and scribal error in a medieval poem about the missing bollocks of a Benedictine monk simply pass me by. Apparently, Joyce was attempting to create a language so allusive and specific it borders on the private. If only it remained as such. 

The novel is a classic, and its place in the history of innovation is undeniable. On the other hand, this seems like innovation in much the same way as 3D TVs and Google Glass: sure, it’s new, but I don’t want it anywhere near my face. Finally, the critics tell me, it is a rendering of the human mind in all of its complexities and subjectivities: wonderful, yet if I wanted an exact descriptions of the goings on in someone’s brain I’d save the £24.99 and just sit and think for the thirty-eight years it took me to actually make it to the end of this book. I can’t actually root the sheer, visceral hatred Ulysses evokes in me in any considered, intellectual, literary analysis. It’s just really long, it doesn’t make any sense, and it gives me a headache. Whilst reading, I missed out on all of the things Joyce was doing because I couldn’t stop thinking about more productive, more pleasurable ways I could be spending my time, ranging from sitting staring at a wall to sticking a toothpick under my toenail and kicking said wall. By page 800 I was wistfully longing for the dishwater preaching of Dorothea, or the specific conjugations of class 4 Old English verbs, anything that didn’t feel like the literary equivalent of Chinese water torture, each of Declan Kiberd’s laborious annotations, like a hammer to the skull, informing me that this particular line is a reference to an arctic bird, or perhaps a scholar of medieval Catholicism, or perhaps another fart joke.

In all likelihood I’m missing the point, Joyce was actually parodying difficult books, don’t you know, it’s me taking all of this too seriously, the joy of the book lies in its glorious irreverence and self-referential innovation and other chains of meaningless words. Perhaps I was the pig-headed one all along. It is not so much that, as Virginia Woolf venomously put it, that Ulysses is ‘illiterate’, nor is it even illegible: I just don’t want to read it. I would love to be proved wrong, to have my eyes opened to what makes this overgrown mass of pages actually really fun to read, worth more than an emergency supply of 1000 sheets of toilet paper. For now, however, Anthony Burgess can keep his book of the century and keep it in the 1900s, in the venerable company of Polio and the Nickelodeon time capsule. 

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