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Recent reading: Ulysses

6 November 2009

Ulysses Ulysses by James Joyce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one of the books that appears on lists of “books you ought to read before you die”, and “greatest novels of the 20th century”.

I can’t remember where and how I acquired my copy; I’ve had it for years, and it’s been on my “to read sometime” mental list ever since then. As time passed, I became more aware of the possibility of dying without reading it.

Another reason for reading it was that I did English I at the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal) in the 1960s. The English Department at that time was thoroughly Leavisite, and a friend of mine who was doing English Honours (a post-graduate course) was told by a member of the department that he should not read Ulysses because “it will blunt your critical faculties”.

The same friend also remarked one day that he had seen a copy of Ulysses on the professor’s desk, and we wondered if he had confiscated it from a student to protect his critical faculties.

So I thought that my critical faculties aren’t going to be much use to me when I’m dead, so I’ll take the risk and try to read it before I die.

I have to say that I was underwhelmed.

I debated whether to give it two stars or three, and eventually decided on three because I admired Joyce’s ingenuity, though without really appreciating it. When I think of great novels of the 20th century, I think I agree with the hoi polloi rather than the lit crit crowd, and would give Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings first place.

Ulysses is usually classified as a “modern” novel, and I suppose in a way it is. The height of literary and artistic modernity was after the First World War, and that’s when it was written. There was the Bauhaus school of architecture and all that kind of thing.

But it is written about a day in 1904. That was before my marents were born. That was when my grandfather was getting married. So the people in the book are of the vintage of my grandfather’s older brother. It was the Edwardian era, which seems altogether remote. Though I didn’t live through it, I have the impression that the world before the First World War was utterly different from the world that followed that conflict. It was a different culture, a different landscape. Russia, the largest country on earth, was under Bolshevik rule. Clothes were entirely different. Motor vehicles and aeroplanes were no longer experimental toys for the rich, but became part of everyday life.

So Joyce was remembering a vanished past when he wrote Ulysses, and as I read it, I was trying to imagine it in its setting, the Edwardian clothes and attitudes, and all that went with them. Joyce experimented with new techniques of writing, new ways of describing things. In that his novel marks a break with the past, but one can admire his technical artistry without really appreciating it. For a “modern” novel I prefer Sartre’s Nausea. At least it is set in modern times. OK, 1904 isn’t exactly premodern, but still.

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