This month marks the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of James Joyce’s Ulysses, originally serialized in The Little Review between March 1918 and December 1920, and then published in its entirety in February 1922. From the start, it was held in almost religiously high regard, but also as a work of imposing impenetrability and pretension. Vladimir Nabokov called it “divine”; Ernest Hemingway called it “goddamn wonderful.” Virginia Woolf called it “illiterate, underbred”; Aldous Huxley called it “one of the dullest books ever written.” While literary giants debated its merits for decades, many readers merely shrunk away entirely, despite the novel’s enduring reputation as one of the 20th century’s defining English-language masterpieces. Its status as an impenetrable masterwork is self-reinforcing at this point: It is as great as it is complex, an Everest to be scaled only by those hardy enough to undertake it.
I used to have a habit of leafing through the huge-ass novel at bookstores, seeing a weird soup of words and non-words commingling, and wondering what advanced degree of intellectual capacity I’d need to unlock in order to not just slog through the book but really grok it, get the whole thing, perhaps casually reference it at future dinner parties. (I would also be a regular attendee of dinner parties in this genius future.) Standing in one of those old-timey Barnes & Nobles, I’d flip to the front, see that opening buckshot of words—“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead”—and return to the cozier confines of other reading, the sort of books that didn’t necessitate a separate guidebook to understand. This went on for years until, for whatever reason, I ended up finally acquiring a copy in my first year out of college, and decided to give the whole thing a go, at which point I discovered something truly shocking.
Ulysses is not that big of a fucking deal. Yes, it is complex; yes, it is great. But you could totally read it, and you should.
A lot of modernist literature plays aggressively with the canon of Western literature, reconfiguring religious texts and classical works with a sacreligious glee. Ulysses is no different: From its title onward, it chops up Greek mythology, Catholic guilt, Irish history, and the English language, playing them off of each other with ever-increasing archness. You may know this already about the book, or by only skimming its Wikipedia page. So the thinking might be that in order to read Ulysses, you’d need to read what Joyce had—you’d need to have some semblance of his worldliness in order to engage in the 700-page dialog with him. You probably do not have time to read the entire canon of Western literature, so I can understand why this would be intimidating.
In reality, you really only need to read two books before you read Ulysses, and those are Joyce’s two books before Ulysses. The short story collection Dubliners, if you weren’t forced to read it in high school, is a series of brief vignettes of turn-of-the-century malaise; it’s heartbreaking and beautiful, and a great introduction to the themes of stasis that define his later works. It is also written in strikingly clear, sturdy language—no Latin required. Follow that up with his first novel, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, published two years later, which introduces Stephen Dedalus (an important character in Ulysses) as well as Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness prose style. This galloping, lyrical style can seem intimidating if you jump in midstream, but in the Portrait it scales from the meandering thoughts of a child in the earliest chapters to the more densely introspective preoccupations of an adolescent. It rises in complexity as it goes, letting you keep up alongside it, and a lot of its innovations are pretty well-worn stuff over decades of imitation. If you’ve read Dubliners, you can read Portrait.
And if you’ve already read those books, then guess what? You’re ready for Ulysses, my friend. You will, of course, want some sort of guide along the way. I used Stuart Gilbert’s study, which was sort of the first to crack the book’s code, but there are plenty others out there. All of them will, in one way or another, break down the book’s structure, which is part of what makes it easier to read than you’d think. Ulysses is broken up into 18 chapters, each of which varies wildly from all of the others, and those chapters themselves comprise three parts. So at any given time, you’re not tackling Ulysses, The Greatest And Most Complex Book Ever—you’re reading the colossal drama of “Cyclops,” or you’re reading the filmic vignettes of “Wandering Rocks,” or you’re reading “Sirens,” the chapter in which Joyce tries to come up with words that sound like music feels, which is as batshit insane as it sounds. These chapters and sections are discrete challenges that all have a specific set of allusions and techniques and motifs, but once you know them, they’re wildly inventive, fun little challenges to undertake, and then they’re over. If you were feeling ambitious, you could read a chapter in a sitting or two. You could even knock out a few chapters over a few weeks, then take a break and come back; you will not forget what’s going on. The plot mostly consists of a dude walking around, thinking about things, and occasionally cranking his hog.
This brings me to my last point, which is that, once you’re in, the book is filthy, and very funny. Occasionally Joyce’s sexually charged letters to his wife make the rounds; if you like those, you will love Ulysses, which reaches its first of several climaxes during a hallucinatory chapter set in a brothel. Joyce’s vaunted stylistic extravagance was innovated, in part, to conjure the density of human thought, and he didn’t shy away from how often those thoughts drift toward the needs of the flesh. The book is full of piss and shit, low-brow puns, hunger pangs, and endless horniness; what’s so fun about the book is watching him describe all of this in some of the most heavenly sentences ever constructed, and fitting it into the larger tapestry of Western intellectual culture.
It took me the better part of a year to read it, but I read at a snail’s pace for some probably undiagnosed reason; a faster reader could knock the whole thing out in a few months, easy. And then, guess what? You’re in the fucking club! Having read Ulysses is almost as fun as reading Ulysses, and not just because you’ll have a dog-eared and underlined copy as proof of your intellectual magnificence. I still flip through the book longingly today, just as I did before I had read it, revisiting spaces and ideas and jokes and confluences of words that don’t exist elsewhere in fiction. When you’ve engaged that deeply with a book, your affection for it and its characters is enduring: You want to revisit old affable Leopold, or proto-sadboy Stephen, or Molly, who looms large over the novel and (spoiler?) speaks at last in the book’s oceanic final chapter. The book, which attempts against all odds to pack the fullness of Western literature and Irish history and human emotion into a single man’s meandering day in Dublin, is an overwhelming affirmation of the possibilities of life, which is part of what makes Molly’s final “yes” such a perfect ending. It may take you a year to read it, but in the end it kicks you in the ass, out in the world, demanding you live fully and chase beauty wherever it rears its unlikely head.
Ulysses, in other words, is a justification of the effort it takes to read Ulysses. Hence the overwhelming cult around it. Go wandering into its labyrinth and you come out changed by the effort. But—and this is my point—you will find your way out, and you’ll be changed, in some measure, by the experience, too.