First published in novel form in 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses is notoriously difficult to read. Joyce himself wrote: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” This unusual book contains echoes of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, but is set in Dublin in 1904. It has shocked some readers, while fascinating and inspiring others.
A hundred years ago, the main challenge for potential readers of Ulysses was getting a copy. A section of the book had already been judged obscene in a US court, mainly because of its sexual content, and it was therefore banned. But in 1934 a United States District judge, John Woolsey, overturned that ruling. At the trial, Woolsey said that, having read Ulysses carefully, he judged it to be not an obscene book but “an amazing tour de force.”
Is it really so difficult?
Set in Dublin in 1904, the mosaic-like novel is around nine hundred pages long and brings together a whole range of writing styles, some more accessible than others. To help guide ordinary readers through the difficulty of Ulysses, literature teacher Patrick Hastings has created a website with an accompanying book entitled The Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Hastings spoke to us about his own experience of reading Ulysses. We began by asking him what made it so extraordinary.
Patrick Hastings (American accent): In my experience of reading all kinds of literature and looking at all kinds of art and watching film, I find Ulysses to be an unparalleled work of art in its successful expression of the whole of the human condition. I think it’s as funny as it is tragic. It’s timeless as it still feels modern a hundred years from its initial publication. It has something for everyone, whether you’re interested in Nietszche or if you’re interested in the geography of Dublin in 1904. It contains so many truths and reflects back to a reader so much of what human beings are.
THE HUMAN COMEDY
Joyce made the book deliberately challenging. We asked Hastings why.
Patrick Hastings: I think, also, it’s worth the effort, in part, because of its difficulty. I think that its difficulty is not for its own sake, although there may be moments where you feel that Joyce is just showing off or something. But I think, the reason why it’s challenging, or why it feels challenging, is because it is packed-full of so many of those aspects or elements of our experience and of our condition that make us human. I also just think it’s also really funny.
The novel contains many echoes of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Hastings explains how, by understanding these allusions, we can access another level of meaning in Ulysses.
Patrick Hastings: The Cyclops in The Odyssey [is] a monster with one eye who traps Odysseus and his men in a cave. And in Ulysses, the Cyclops is [a character called] the Citizen, this hyper-muscular, myopic, hyper-nationalist, Irish nationalist, who has a very limited view of who can be Irish and who belongs in Ireland. And that’s monstrous, those are monstrous ideas that Joyce is hinting at through that allusion or through that parallel structure or scaffolding that The Odyssey presents to a reader.
AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE
In his guide, Hastings includes various photos and maps of Dublin, the city that plays such a prominent role in Ulysses. He recalls his experience of reading Ulysses there.
Patrick Hastings: Oh my gosh! That was… What a wonderful expe... That was maybe the second or third complete reading that I did of Ulysses was over the course of two weeks on site, in Dublin, all by myself, knew nobody there, just walking around the streets of Dublin reading the episodes in as close to their locations as I possibly could, and really having an immersive experience in the novel. And trying to take photographs of anything, any place that was referenced in the book. And a lot of Joyce’s Dublin remains. There’s the obvious things, like the Martello Tower, where the novel opens, is still there in Sandycove. And is now a Joyce museum. And they put on Joyce readings and it’s a wonderful place to go and visit.
james joyce (1882-1941)
Born in Dublin on February 2 1882, James Joyce was the son of an affluent alcoholic. He studied at a prestigious boarding school and later attended University College Dublin. When his review of a Henrik Ibsen play was published in the London Fortnightly Review, he became determined to be a writer. Joyce moved to Paris for a while, returning to Dublin in 1903 to start a novel that became A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). He was commissioned to write Irish-themed stories for a farmers’ magazine, and responded with Dubliners (1914). By that time, Joyce was living in Trieste in Austria-Hungary (later Italy) with his partner, Nora Barnacle. Joyce taught English while he tried to get his work published. The couple had two children, Giorgio and Lucia. Joyce published Ulysses(1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) from abroad. He died in Zurich in 1941.