Thursday, July 12, 2007

Review: Ulysses by James Joyce

Get it here.

Well - has the emperor got new clothes, or no clothes? I don't know. Perhaps its a skintight bodystocking.

Its hard to read this book with an open mind. It has become such a tribal piece of literature that it seems that you can either claim it as the greatest novel in history, or a pretentious pile of rubbish, and nothing in between.

I tried reading it a few times, but always failed. I thought it was because I had insufficient knowledge in the classics, so went away to read Homer - about twenty years ago. I found Homer to be far better than anything else I had ever read - awesome and moving, and, if you read a good translation (Richmond Lattimore), as accessible as you like.

But knowing Homer provides very little insight into Ulysses; that seems to be just another blind alley. In fact, there are far more parallels to be found between Joyce's own life. And that is my reading of the book. There is not a plot, really. Each of the 18 episodes would work as a short story, and could very easily fit into 'Dubliners' if written in a more conventional style. But Joyce mimics a cavalcade of styles, expertly, it must be said, and by the end, as with every schoolboy impersonator, you just wish he would shut up and get on with it.

And ultimately, all it adds up to is Joyce saying: 'I am a genius, but would never be acknowledged as such in Dublin. So I'm going. If I stay, I will end up like Bloom' and a few years later writing a book about what a parochial little place Dublin was, and what a genius he still is. That Dublin only has significance to the world, because he lived there.

A few points. This is not an entertaining book, in places it is downright dull. It is deliberately obscure and arbitrary in (large) places. However, through the curtain of obscurity, deliberate puzzles and misleading themes, there are moments of truly lovely writing. But Joyce was brutal on himself, on his characters, and on his readers, and seems to have no wish to entertain - he is doing far more important things; creating an encyclopedia of Dublin.

So, ultimately a frustrating book, which I am glad that I read. But, as Joyce never returned to Dublin, I will not return to Ulysses.

Next: Scaramouche by Sabatini. Read by the great Gordon Mackenzie. It's like coming home...

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