Here's one from 1922:
So here we are, number 100 in my reading log of the last three years. For such a milestone I needed a novel with few rivals. I chose Ulysses, referred to by many as the greatest work of the 20th century. For the last couple of months I’ve been eager to pull it off the shelf. Despite the anticipation, and subsequent achievement of reaching the goal, it has taken me a further two weeks after putting the book down to collect my thoughts.
I wasn’t, and in fact I’m still not, really sure where to start. In writing this, two loads are bearing down on me, firstly, the need for some recovery time from which to reflect, and secondly, the acknowledgment that we are talking about a book held in such high regard by so many, its legacy looms large. But after worrying about the selection of my words I’ve realised that I’m just a fence sitter.
The analogy I’ve been using to describe reading the book is that of a marathon runner who has only ever trained for a sprint. This is not a comment on the length of the work, but rather Joyce’s complex narrative of interweaving characters, disparate locations, frenetic structure and challenging language. In hindsight I wasn’t prepared. I’ve read some of his contemporaries (Beckett, Woolf, etc) but the onslaught of Joyce’s is another league altogether.
Yes, this is a crudely funny story centered around the often pathetic adventures of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. But their relationship is only part of the journey. Broken into 18 episode over the course of a single day, Joyce takes us on a rollercoaster of craft. From perplexing passages tapping into a stream of consciousness to finely crafted debates of nationalism, Joyce certainly offers much to the fanatic and academic. I am neither. I can see that this is very clever, but to me the changes in style between each episode is so dramatic that it damages your enjoyment of plot and character.
Of the 930 pages in my Penguin edition, I would say that I was engrossed in only 300 hundred of them. With the rest I continually ran the risk of falling into autopilot, letting the sentences wash over me with little comprehension. Nevertheless, when I say engrossed I mean it. For example, the introduction of Bloom in episode 4 is a burst of colour, it is impossible to fault the description of food, both its consumption and expulsion. Two other highlights are in Bloom’s detached seduction of a young girl in episode 13 and Bloom’s drunken hallucinations in a brothel in episode 15. But never is Joyce more impressive than in the newsroom of episode 7 where the reader is served the narrative in bite-sized classified ads, and in episode 17 told entirely through one question and answer after another, surely some of the greatest wit ever written.
I would like to say that those readers without the stomach for a long distance race that could enjoy Ulysses by fishing out these passages, but really it doesn’t work like that. I believe that you do need to read the whole thing as episodes will no doubt pack their biggest punch when building to a greater understanding of our protagonist, Bloom.
Was it all worth it, maybe, maybe not. There is a lot of books in this world. But I did run the race, I did make it to the finish line, but in the end I was so focused on breathing that it was only on rare occasions that I broke through the pain barrier, just enough to keep me going, but not enough to attempt the race again. Despite claims that the Ulysses gets better with every read, I think I’m just going to chalk it up to experience and move on to another classic.
Here's a passage from the brothel:
Bloom is bisexually abnormal. He has recently escaped from Dr Eustace’s private asylum for demented gentlemen. Born out of bedlock hereditary epilepsy is present, the consequence of unbridled lust. Traces of elephantiasis have been discovered among his ascendants. There are marked symptoms of chronic exhibitionism. Ambidexterity is also latent. He is prematurely bald from selfabuse, perversely idealistic in consequence, a reformed rake, and has metal teeth. In consequence of a family complex he has temporarily lost his memory and I believe him to be more sinned against than sinning. I have made a pervaginal examination and, after application of the acid test to 5427 anal, axillary, pectoral and pubic hairs, I declare him to be virgo intacta. (Bloom holds his high grade hat over his genital organs)