Is Ulysses difficult?
Many people believe that James Joyce’s Ulysses is a difficult book. I was among their number until I read it.
It’s a long book certainly, but so was the last Harry Potter. It’s also an uneven book: there are some extremely obscure sections. But overall, Ulysses is not an impossible read accessible only to the elite and the very pretentious.
I know this because as part of my degree course I was required to tackle Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Now that is a difficult book, and after it, everything is a comparative doddle.
To illustrate, here is a random quote from Kant, which I have open before me:
“If we thereupon proceed to hypostatise this idea of the sum of all reality, that is because we substitute dialectically for the distributive unity of the empirical employment of the understanding, the collective unity of experience as a whole; and then thinking this whole of appearance as one single thing that contains all empirical reality in itself; and then again, in turn, by means of the above-mentioned transcendental subreption, substituting for it the concept of a thing which stands at the source of the possibility of all things, and supplies the real conditions for their complete determination.”
There are 668 more pages like that.
Now, here’s a random quote from Ulysses:
“In his broad bed nuncle Richie, pillowed and blanketed, extends over the hillock of his knees a sturdy forearm. Cleanchested.”
The great thing about Joyce is that you can choose a sentence at random from any of his books (except Finnegans Wake – which is, admittedly, a difficult book) at random, and you can guarantee that it will be unusual, original and completely free of cliché, but probably no more impenetrable than Shakespeare.
It will probably also be rather funny. Here’s the next one I chose at random
“The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freely freckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hariylegged ruddyfaced, sinewyarmed hero.”
And here’s some famous lines:
From Chapter One (Telemachus):
“God! he said quietly. Isn't the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.”
From Chapter Four (Calypso):
“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
From Chapter Seventeen(Ithaca)
“What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”
How to read Ulysses
Here’s my tips on how to read Ulysses:
1) Don’t bother trying to decipher every line. If it’s too obscure, just skim over it. There’ll be another line along any second that you’ll perfectly understand, and which will make you laugh.
2) Read some notes, but don’t get bogged down in all the allegories, the parallel with the Odyssey and the academic layers. Just read it through for entertainment, then go back if you want to know about all the puzzles etc. The Oxford World Classics 1922 edition has loads of great notes.
3) If they're slowing you down, skip Chapter 3 (Proteus), and Chapter 14 (Oxen of the Sun). these are the most difficult chapters, especially the latter. Better to go back to them at the end, when you're more in the swing of things, than to let their obscurity frustrate you into giving up.
4) Have a few pints of Guinness handy.
5) Better yet, read it in Dublin with a few pints of Guinness handy.
Everything you could want on Ulysses, including the entire text, is avaiable at this excellent website: The Internet Ulysses.