At the very bottom of the evolutionary tree of modern literature there lies one book and one book only: Ulysses, by the Irish writer, poet, alcoholic, egomaniac James Joyce. As wonderful a writer as he was a difficult person (the man who refused to fulfill his mother’s dying wish that he take communion). Ulysses is the seedling from which sprouted all the literature we cherish today. Without it and without Joyce there would have been no Hemingway, no Faulkner, no Bellow, no Nabokov, no Roth.
It is a masterpiece meant for writers – and those non-writers who have a sense of fun.
Why is it such a fundamental text in modern literature? (Apologies for the near-religious tone of that sentence, hopefully Joyce would have appreciated the punning) Geographically: it is a novel that fits into its 600-odd pages the entire city of Dublin. Never before or since has a city been successfully transmuted into a novel. To know Ulysses is to know Dublin. Its pubs, its views, its people, its harbours, its rivers, its history. This makes the otherwise postmodern and abstracted novel the greatest exponent of realism since Zola. Dublin, in the novel, is an entire universe – in fact, the only universe. Joyce is said to have told a friend: “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”
Ulysses did to literature what punk did to music. It pierced a thorn into the rigor mortis flesh of literature and injected it with a newfound confidence. Joyce showed writers that novels aren’t mere books. They are everything besides: and our lives, so wondrous, so diverse, and meaningful… they are nothing in comparison to the vastness of the universe. This is the novel’s greatest joke and literature’s most poignant irony. With that in mind, Joyce tells us, if all of this, all we hold dear, is meaningless, then might as well hold nothing bad. Joyce is one of history’s most eloquent lapsed Catholics, but in this he is almost reflecting Jesus’ admonition to give no thought for the morrow. But Joyce wasn’t teaching us morality like the hell raiser (only in this context can that be meant in its literal sense) Jesus was trying to: Joyce demanded no followers or acolytes. And yet, it is impossible not to follow him.
But above all else, Ulysses is a literary novel. A novel with little plot, little genre stuff; it is a novel dedicated purely to language. In this Joyce is one of history’s greatest poetic novelists. In so much as he writes not in a poetic manner, but he writes using the freedom only poetry can divulge. In Ulysses Joyce writes like an animal let loose from life imprisonment. In moments of deliberate restraint such as when he writes, “Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand.” Joyce is a poet that deserves the Parnassus reserved to the likes of Baudelaire and his Romantic compatriot Yeats. But when Joyce wants to let loose, he does it in a manner of a schoolboy – but in a way no schoolboy can ever master:
“Alone, what did Bloom feel?
The cold of interstellar space, thousands of degrees below freezing point or the absolute zero of Fahrenheit, Centigrade or Réaumur: the incipient intimations of proximate dawn.”
But there is still, you can feel there, an element of restraint. This is still proto-punk, not quite the sex-pistol writing yet.
“Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Maior) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet….”
Here the language explodes like a Big Bang of novelty. There is utter freedom in this prose, an undeniable musicality, a great injection of science and reality; this is the only kind of prose that dares tackle the vastness of the cosmos with a parallel vastness of linguistic bravado. These are the writings of a confident lyric poet transubstantiated. Reading this is infectious. For a writer to read this is analogous to a musician watching a Sex Pistols performance in 1977. Suddenly writers stopped being sheep and became wolves. They abandoned the sedentary life of a bull to become matadors.
There is genius running throughout Ulysses, of course. But is an inclusive genius, not the kind of genius that puts a bouncer at the door keeping others out of its hallowed halls. It’s a genius that challenges you, inspires you – of course, no can or will write like Joyce, but that’s not the issue: everyone (writer or not) has their own artistic path to find. What Joyce and Ulysses do is give you the courage to pursue it.
The greatest short-story writer of the 20th century – another one of Joyce’s later disciples – the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges (who suffered from bad eyesight all his life much like Joyce) wrote a story called The Garden of Forking Paths. In this mythical garden every path one may choose leads to another still, then the next path leads to another, and so on until, essentially, infinity. Ulysses is that very same garden when it comes to literature. It is a self-contained universe that holds within its borders the entire history and future of literature. From Hellenic monologues to poetry to drama to essays to modernism and, hatched in its pages, postmodernism. To read Ulysses is to read the entire literary history of the Western world. And it makes you feel proud to belong to the same civilization that gave us the Greeks, Romans, Florentines, the Victorians and the Ireland of Joyce. Remember, all of this is at stake, it will all be lost if we lose the war that cannot be lost! Ulysses is more fundamental to our Western laurels than any Bible or any Adam Smith. It is the apex of our culture.
The last 50 pages or so of Ulysses are amongst the greatest prose ever constructed. They are told from the perspective of Molly Bloom, who was based on Joyce’s own wife Nora Barnacle. It is the only time in the novel where the narration is female. The stream-of-female-consciousness is a daring attempt by the writer to get into his wife’s mind via the mind of Molly Bloom. It is breathtaking, unpunctuated and less self-indulgent than the rest of the ironic novel. It is explosive, lyrical poetry yet again. And I will end by quoting this last passage (no spoiler alerts necessary) because, where Ulysses ends, the rest of literature begins.
“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”