When James Joyce finished writing Ulysses, he was so exhausted that he didn’t write a line of prose for a year. I can believe it; I needed a nap after reading 40 pages.
For the last three months, I’ve glared at its fat, lumpen form on my floor with a vague sense of personal failure. I’ve opened Ulysses twice, determined to finish it, and achieved getting all the way to page 46 (it’s a bit longer than that). I have read so little both times I started that I have never bothered with a bookmark; it seemed too sad flagging such a hollow achievement.
At first, it was fun. Ulysses isn’t like anything else I’ve read. There are a plethora of lines that I immediately decided to use on a daily basis, like: “Lend us a loan of your noserag” (“Ho!” thought I, filing it away for “things to say next time I have a cold”) and: “We’ll have a glorious drunk to astonish the druidy druids” (filed away under “things to holler on a night out”).
Even when staring at cramped pages without absorbing a word, I thought nice thoughts about it: I like the community this book has spawned, its inherent sense of freedom and celebration of all things rude and true. I like that it created a holiday. I like that the anarchic style and language allows for readers to pick and choose how they read it – some recommend skipping chapter three, some recommend reading it only after reading ABOUT it, some recommend reading it mostly aloud – but I still get stuck.
‘Just 1,238 pages to go’: could you read War and Peace in a week?
Why do I get stuck? I’m not entirely sure myself. On the ‘Most difficult novels’ list on Goodreads, Joyce takes the top two spots, with Ulysses in top position and Finnegans Wake plodding behind for second place. A lot of the Goodreads top 10 – Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow – are weighty tomes, but I like big books (and I cannot lie). I think what is holding me hostage to page 46 is the language: the big fat bursts of Chaucerian English, sprinkled with slang and jaunty dialogue that, while entertaining me, is also leaving me a little lost.
There are a few other “worthy” works of literature I’ve yet to read – including fellow top 10-ers Infinite Jest and War and Peace – but they only spark little pangs of shame that I have not read and/or enjoyed them. I really want to love Ulysses and I feel deeply frustrated that all the while appreciating its uniqueness and its weightiness and its Joyceness, I can’t finish the damn thing.
The dapper James Joyce.
The dapper James Joyce. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Virginia Woolf thought Ulysses was – not in her words – bollocks, calling it – in her words– “an illiterate, underbred book” as she raged in her diaries about the pressure to finish it: “I... have been amused, stimulated, charmed interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters--to the end of the Cemetery scene; & then puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” But then Nabokov loved it. It seems Ulysses is a different experience for everyone: I’ve read it likened to sex (sometimes unpleasant, big pay off at the end), Jazz-fusion (an innovative of genre), and a boxing match (wanting to punch yourself in the face at page 46, probably).
I like James Joyce: I enjoyed Dubliners, his excellent choice of spectacles and his frankly odd erotic letters to Nora Barnacle (“Dirty little Fuckbird” is another fantastic Joyce-ism, filed away under ‘things I won’t say in front of my nan’). So, people who love Ulysses, what am I getting wrong? Or is it okay to struggle, and proceed victorious to page 800-odd on the third, fourth, eighteenth try?