“Ulysses” (1922) by James Joyce

Ulysses” (1922) by James Joyce

You hit the wall of words at full speed. The wall is large, tall and thick. If you’re wearing a crash helmet — that is, if you’re contemporaneously reading a guidebook or explanatory text — you might survive with your head intact, but your body will break no matter what. You’ll be lifted up to unknown heights of English language glory, soar with phrases that fly, and then tossed back down onto the rocks of invented words, jolting scene changes and incomprehensible passages. If you make it through — and I did not — you’ll be a changed person, with scars or marks on your mind & soul that cannot be easily erased. As the cat said, “Mrkgnao!”

a book review by Gregory
Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018
Seoul, Korea


Today over lunch I finished Chapter 13 Nausicaä of “Ulysses” (1922) by James Joyce. That took me to page 382. The novel has 18 chapters, totaling 783 pages. So I’ve read 72 percent of the chapters, but only 49 percent of the book.

To compare “Ulysses” to a less grandiose work of art, Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” is only four-operas long, and takes only four nights at the theater and about 15 hours to enjoy; and it has a plot and character arcs. “Ulysses”, on the other hand, will take about three months to read, eats up many lunch hours, and has a weak plot of one-dimensional, albeit amusing, characters.

Both those grandiose works of art have monsters, fairies and journeys, but in the opera they’re garbed in Germanic myth and fantasy archetypes. In the novel, they’re garbed in grey day-to-day urban life, with many less-than-noble aspects to their one-dimensionality.


James Joyce was 33-years-old in Zurich in 1915.


“Ulysses” is an amazing oeuvre to experience, but it’s definitely “to experience” rather than “to read” or “to read for pleasure”. There’s an overarching plot that’s only faintly visible in each individual chapter or paragraph. You feel lost most of the time. What’s happening here? Where is this leading? Why is this happening? The main character — Leopold Bloom — wanders around Dublin, musing on this and musing on that. He walks, he goes to a funeral, he eats, he runs into people on the street, he’s disgusted by the people around him, he gets a letter from his potential new lover, he thinks about this and about that, he pops into a bar over lunchtime where a bunch of racist nationalists are drinking, he masturbates while sitting on a park bench watching young women nearby take care of their baby siblings, he chats amicably with those young women, he moves artifacts from one pocket to another pocket, he solicits a bit of business, he thinks about his cheating wife, he crosses paths with her suspected lover on the streets, and so on. Can you discern a plot therein? A character arc? Defining moments of crisis?

Scriptwriting 101 posits that each scene must have a physical action and that each dialogue must move the plot forward. The chapters in “Ulysses” do have physical action, but each dialogue is just people chitchatting, more like a Quentin Tarantino script or a Robert Altman scene, as opposed to an Agatha Christie conversation or an Arthur Conan Doyle exclamation. You have to squint at “Ulysses” from a distance, tilt your head to one side, in order to see how each individual conversation and action fits into what amounts to the silk-thread overarching plot.

There’s no energy that moves our hero forward and there’s no plot laced through the chapters. It’s more like a collection of Chekhov short stories, but with wilder writing. Each episode has movement through time and space, yes, but no actual moving-forwardness of the plot. Bloom simply is, and it’s beautiful.

 Don’t stop believin’, hold on to the feelin’

Some of the best writing comes near the end of “Ulysses”.

  •  Chapter 14 Oxen of the Sun shows the complete evolution of the English language, from Chaucer to Joyce. Each section of the chapter progresses along the stylistic developments of English writing throughout the centuries.
  • Chapter 17 Ithaca is written in a Q&A format. Joyce breaks the fourth wall.
  • Chapter 18 Penelope drops like a bombshell. It’s one of the best in the whole novel, where Joyce wows the reader in the end. It’s the longest chapter in the book and has no punctuation.


Joyce’s artistry is in this doing of nothing. Each of those kinetic doings-of-nothing is created and crafted most verbaciously. This is clearly not standard vocabulistics: this is a new wild world of letters. Like finely whittled walking sticks or ever-more-intricate rice grain carvings, the 18 chapters of “Ulysses” come alive in the detail; truly alive. Nothingness lives!

Reading “Ulysses” is like appreciating 18 Gaudi architectural monstrosities all along one street; or comprehending 18 abstract Picasso cubist paintings all hanging in a row along a wall; or listening to 18 Mahler symphonies one after the other in one sitting at the concert hall; or consuming 18 perfect Proust petite madeleines even after your tummy’s full; or watching 18 heady Kubrick films in a row. That is “Ulysses”. It’s too much for the human mind to comprehend, and yet we do get it. We enjoy it and keep reading it. We enjoy the beauty of the nothingness.

It’s the simplest of stories — Bloom’s just going home, you know? Like Odysseus. — crafted with the most complex and beautiful of written words, and each chapter written in a different literary style. It is us in our most mundane, but draped in angelic phrasings of Joycean gossamer. It’s very modern, despite being almost 100 years old. That is “Ulysses”, and it’s exhausting. I’m only half way through and I need a break.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

What did Joyce do here? If it’s so incomprehensible, with such fanciful descriptions of kinetic nothingness, why is it considered a classic? Where is my well-written Dickens, my perfectly-plotted Dumas and my precisely-paced Dostoyevsky?

Two overarching aspects of Joyce’s writing stand out. First, he writes a lot about the mundane day-to-day stuff; the minutiae of one’s adult urban life. Second, he writes as if transcribing the inner-thinkings of the human brain.

First, the minutiae. Much of Bloom’s wandering around Dublin is filled with doing nothing. Joyce spends whole paragraphs describing the nothing that we do, say, while walking to the subway station or while waiting for our significant other. Many critics says he’s elevating the day-to-day, making the normal glorious. Hmm. Perhaps. Suffice it to say, we get an almost slow-motion precision in all the characters’ actions, whether they’re debating a Shakespeare theory, complaining about immigrants or picking their nose.

Second, the inner dialogue of our minds. If you look seriously at your own mind, you’ll see that our heads are filled with a lot of unfiltered blather, unfinished thoughts, sometimes ignoble thoughts, andWHATSTHATOVERTHERE? Oh… Oh, well. Anyway, as I was saying… All of this, Joyce gets onto the written page. Joyce is incomprehensible because he tries to capture on the page what our thoughts sound like; “mind language” or “mind speak”, as it were. To read Joyce successfully, like riding a kayak through the rapids, listening to insane babble or being forced into a verbal confrontation in a foreign language, just go along with the flow and nod your head. Don’t try to stop or intervene or understand. Hold on tightly. If you’re lost… well, you can always read a “Ulysses” support text if you need guidance.

I made it through the wilderness. Somehow I made it through. Didn’t know how lost I was until I found you.

There’s a whole industry of Joyce aides and support texts. Only three are mentionable, and only one of those is required.

The absolute necessity is the light paperback “The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses” (1966) by Harold Blamires. Before you read each chapter of “Ulysses”, read first what happens in that chapter in Blamires’ book. It’ll take 20 minutes or so per chapter: quick, fast and enlightening. Blamires covers the main events, explains what’s happening, and doesn’t overwhelm. As salt is to a boiled egg, so, too, is Blamires to Joyce: he makes it that much more delicious. This way, when you read “Ulysses”, you’ll know what’s going on. This book allows you to enjoy the art and pleasure that is a Joyce sentence, a Joyce turn of phrase and a Joyce chapter arc.

There are then two lesser “Ulysses” crutches. I inspected these both, tried them, and, in the end, chose not to use them. First is “Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses” (1988) by Don Gifford et al., and second is the lecture series “Wings of Art” by Joseph Campbell.

The first is a very, very detailed, word-by-word explanation of each and every image and word that Joyce uses. It’s a big A4-sized paperback, thick like a university textbook. It’s too dense. Its detail and precision actively take away from one’s enjoyment of “Ulysses”, whereas the slim Blamires text, above, enhances one’s enjoyment. Perhaps if you’re a Joyce scholar, or if you re-read “Ulysses” for the third or fourth time, or if you’re translating “Ulysses” into Korean and taking three years to do so, you could use the Gifford et al. text to look up each and every word. For a normal human, however, it’s too much detail.

Second, the Joseph Campbell series of lectures is kind of interesting, but it’s actually more wishful fantasy on Campbell’s part rather than proper literary analysis. Campbell tries too hard to shoehorn Leopold Bloom into his Hero’s Journey. It’s clear that Campbell respects Joyce, and there are obvious elements of the Hero’s Journey in both Homer’s “Odyssey” and Joyce’s “Ulysses”, but I think Campbell’s stretching a bit here. He’s putting Joyce on a pedestal, turning the man into a god, whereas I see Joyce as just having some wickedly crafty fun with his pen, staying up late after the family went to bed.

The Balmires support book is the only crutch you’ll need to properly enjoy “Ulysses”.

Some Good YouTube Videos About James Joyce


There are many “Ulysses” clips and analyses on YouTube. These are the best.


“A Long and Difficult Journey, or The Odyssey: Crash Course Literature 201”


Feb. 27, 2014


“Top 10 Notes: Ulysses”


June 25, 2014


“Ulysses to go (James Joyce in 18 minutes, English version)”

Sommer’s World Literature to go

Sept. 5, 2015


“LITERATURE – James Joyce”

The School of Life

Aug. 5, 2016


“Why should you read James Joyce’s “Ulysses”? – Sam Slote”


Oct. 24, 2017



51xHe7w-PCL ulysses

There have been at least 18 editions of “Ulysses”, each with many errors and different corrections and passages. The story was serialized in the U.S. from 1918 to 1920, and then banned until 1934. It was published (in English) in Paris as one volume in 1922.


Joyce: But first, let’s look at Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens and Waugh

Ernest Hemingway would write this: “…Hooper was cool. He didn’t live in childhood, soldier fantasies. By the time that I was a teenager and only cried when caned at school, Hooper still cried, but never for noble heroics. His history books had no tales of chivalry, only law and technology. Famous battles that stirred me to the core, which moved me, sounded in vain to Hooper…”

William Faulkner would write this: “…It was on the far side of the creek, across the dirt path, that the dark clouds that were gathering over Hooper showed his lack of romance, the way he was never moved by any form of ancient tale or heroic deed. By the time I was already old enough to never cry, except when reading some particularly moving poetry — when I was in those middle years, with scuffed knees on the playground and beaten knuckles in the classroom — Hooper still wept often, but never for famous stirring speeches or heroic battles. The histories he learned about didn’t include any of the thundering, silent tales that towered above mortal men; he just learned the law, in the abstract, and all about mechanical and industrial processes. All those gory bayonet charges that screamed inside a man’s head, silent to the outside world, those banshees in his mind, tales of glory that even now, in my listless afternoon of life, as the thunder clouds roll in over the fields, call to me across the creek, across the dirt path and across time; these all howled for naught in the mind of Hooper, whose ears heard a solitary, quieter call…”

Charles Dickens would write this: “…For a long time after I met Hooper the first few times, it came commonly to my mind that he really wasn’t much of a Romantic person, in the continental sense of the word. As a boy, it was clear that he had never read the books that swept him up with wild English cavalry of yore, nor sailed across the Aegean with Homer’s mariners. Indeed, by the time I was grown up enough to not cry at most anything, except for perhaps the occasional passage of moving poetry — that still-too-young age when a young man feels as if he stands tall, but when society still sees the growing boy as small, when boys’ knees are scuffed and when headmasters still hold the upper hand — Hooper still genuinely cried at some things, but was never truly moved by anything noble, or royal, neither for Shakespeare nor for Homer. The library that surrounded young Hooper in his youth covered mostly, and solely, Serious Matters, like the law and engineering. There are a hundred battle sites and royal proclamations that move me, and, indeed, would likely move any former boy equal to me in my youth; they would move me today, too, my current advanced age notwithstanding, but those particular clarions called on deaf ears when they harked out toward Hooper…”

Evelyn Waugh writes like this: “…Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry— that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast-flowing tears of the child and the man— Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales and Marathon— these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper…” — Waugh, Evelyn. “Brideshead Revisited” (pp. 9-10). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

James Joyce would write like this: “…Hooper wasnt any romantic and had none of the Prince Ruperts in battle or the kings of Thebes on the march when he was in britches when I was at the age when I would only cry at poetry in the middle of that noble bruised age span that the schools force on us between childhood and adulthood Hooper would always have the Dodder Poddle Camac Liffey flowing out of his eyes and snuffle snuffling his nose drips never for Hamnets words or his fathers ghosts speeches nor for the great Persian wars on the ploughing Peloponnese all of that was out of any cryfest tearfest that he would attend instead for his education it was all social law and London law and smokestack tramcars blackening Nelsons figure from Dardanelles to Crimea to Saint Lawrence to Corinth to Forth to dead Roland and back to Persia ploughing Peoponnese with round nights at table and hornbone tubarumpet calling blasts like lost fathers of tubarumpets Im fading phading phasing from the shore as they reach out for me through the scribbling something letters from the noble bruised age span and similar stuff were all empty to the ears on Hoopers heady head…”


Routines, Quotes & Letters


In one of his own letters, Joyce described himself as “A man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism.”

His preferred daily schedule was to sleep late, teach English or piano for money in the afternoons, write in the late afternoons and evenings, and then stay out all night drinking with his friends.

He once wrote only two sentences after two whole days of work. Joyce was asked if he had been seeking the proper words. “No,” he replied, “I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentences I have.”

After seven years, Joyce finished writing “Ulysses” in October 1921. As he himself wrote, he had been “diversified by eight illnesses and 19 changes of address, from Austria, to Switzerland, to Italy, to France… I calculate that I must have spent nearly 20’000 hours in writing ‘Ulysses’.”

Most illuminating, however, is one of his wife’s letters.

In a letter, Nora Joyce, née Nora Barnacle, was commenting to a friend that she was having difficulty sleeping at night. Asked why, Nora replied that, “I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing.” Joyce seems to have never stopped either.[1]

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

— Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)


If you were an author, how many analyses of Shakespeare could you sneak — like a Pixar Easter egg — into your modern-day re-write of Homer’s “Odyssey”? Well, Joyce managed at least two, and he put them both in the same chapter, just because he could.

Of the first 13 chapters (382 pages) in “Ulysses”, Chapter 9 Scylla & Charybdis stands out because it’s fun and wonderful. Instead of our hero Odysseus sailing between a rock and a whirlpool on his way back to Ithaca, we have a group of secondary characters discussing Shakespeare and analyzing “Hamlet” (c. 1600). There’s one analysis of “Hamlet” in the first part of the chapter, Scylla. Then there’s a second analysis of “Hamlet” in the second part of the chapter, Charybdis. The main character, sailing his ship delicately between the two, shows up in the middle to divide the chapter into halves, merely popping in and then leaving again.

So, yes: Joyce got two complete “Hamlet” analyses into his one chapter about weaving between two difficult objects. Each analysis is a multi-person conversation, in slang and invented words, with no modern punctuation in the text, with plenty of nicknames for each character, risqué jokes, weird formatting, plays on word and obscure references, and it’s ostensibly just about Odysseus sailing home or Leopold Bloom walking home.

What Joyce did here and in other chapters was clearly fun for the writer. He very clearly had fun writing this, cackling maniacally into his tumbler of Irish whiskey while sitting in a Paris bistro or staying up late at night in his study. Each passage is creative and verbally acrobatic: firework arches of wordplay and sentences shoot upward into the air, bursting into color with invented words and plays on word. Word aficionados can see what he did with each passage. Aficionados can read each chapter and appreciate it for the craft. Such beauty brings a tear to the eye. Joyce writing may not be cuddly and welcoming like a kitten or a P. G. Wodehouse story, and it may not be sparse and light like a Chekhov passage or a Chopin trill, but we can truly appreciate what Joyce has done. It’s a true joy to read.


James Joyce (1882-1941)

In three decades, he published two books of poetry, one collection of short stories, one play and three novels. They were all set in Dublin.

  • 1904 (22-years-old) — leaves Ireland, moves to Trieste, Austro-Hungary
  • ensuing decade — has two kids and gives them both Italian names; earns money teaching English at the Berlitz school
  • 1914 (32-years-old) — “Dubliners“, a collection of short stories, published in London; had been rejected 22 times prior
  • 1916  (34-years-old) — “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man“, a novel
  • 1922  (40-years-old) — “Ulysses“, a novel, published in English in Paris; written from 1914 to 1921, serialized in the U.S. from 1918 to 1920, when it was banned after publication of Chapter 13 Nausicaä until 1934; banned in the U.K. until 1936
  • 1939 (57-years-old) — “Finnegans Wake“, a novel, complete glorious gibberish
  • 1941 (59-years-old) — dies unexpectedly in Zurich; buried in Fluntern Cemetery, just near Zurich’s main zoo


All in all, “Ulysses” is tremendously well-crafted. It’s a wonderfully interesting pleasure to experience the words and passages in this novel. You don’t read “Ulysses” as much as you merely experience the words and passages. Like a Picasso cubist painting, it’s not pretty in the conventional sense, but it’s certainly skillful, and with aides or guidebooks, it can be appreciated for what it is.

I look forward to reading the remaining half of the book, but not until I take a break for a few months.


Pritchard Score: 11


tl/dr: “Ulysses” is truly amazing. It’s a superior experience to other writings, but for the layperson it requires too much effort. Instead, go read, say, the “Dubliners” (1914) and then from “Ulysses” only Chapters 6 Hades, 9 Scylla & Charybdis, 12 Cyclops, 13 Nausicaä and 17 Ithaca (and maybe 18 Penelope), give or take. That will have almost the same amount of awesomeness, but it’s a lot more accessible and enjoyable.


An excerpt from “Ulysses”, describing the Cyclops, as Odysseus approaches…

The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero. From shoulder to shoulder he measured several ells and his rocklike mountainous knees were covered, as was likewise the rest of his body wherever visible, with a strong growth of tawny prickly hair in hue and toughness similar to the mountain gorse (Ulex Europeus). The widewinged nostrils, from which bristles of the same tawny hue projected, were of such capaciousness that within their cavernous obscurity the fieldlark might easily have lodged her nest. The eyes in which a tear and a smile strove ever for the mastery were of the dimensions of a goodsized cauliflower. A powerful current of warm breath issued at regular intervals from the profound cavity of his mouth while in rhythmic resonance the loud strong hale reverberations of his formidable heart thundered rumblingly causing the ground, the summit of the lofty tower and the still loftier walls of the cave to vibrate and tremble.

He wore a long unsleeved garment of recently flayed oxhide reaching to the knees in a loose kilt and this was bound about his middle by a girdle of plaited straw and rushes. Beneath this he wore trews of deerskin, roughly stitched with gut. His nether extremities were encased in high Balbriggan buskins dyed in lichen purple, the feet being shod with brogues of salted cowhide laced with the windpipe of the same beast. From his girdle hung a row of seastones which jangled at every movement of his portentous frame and on these were graven with rude yet striking art the tribal images of many Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity, Cuchulin, Conn of hundred battles, Niall of nine hostages, Brian of Kincora, the ardri Malachi, Art MacMurragh, Shane O’Neill, Father John Murphy, Owen Roe, Patrick Sarsfield, Red Hugh O’Donnell, Red Jim MacDermott, Soggarth Eoghan O’Growney, Michael Dwyer, Francy Higgins, Henry Joy M’Cracken, Goliath, Horace Wheatley, Thomas Conneff, Peg Woffington, the Village Blacksmith, Captain Moonlight, Captain Boycott, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus, S. Fursa, S. Brendan, Marshal MacMahon, Charlemagne, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Mother of the Maccabees, the Last of the Mohicans, the Rose of Castile, the Man for Galway, The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, The Man in the Gap, The Woman Who Didn’t, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, John L. Sullivan, Cleopatra, Savourneen Deelish, Julius Caesar, Paracelsus, sir Thomas Lipton, William Tell, Michelangelo Hayes, Muhammad, the Bride of Lammermoor, Peter the Hermit, Peter the Packer, Dark Rosaleen, Patrick W. Shakespeare, Brian Confucius, Murtagh Gutenberg, Patricio Velasquez, Captain Nemo, Tristan and Isolde, the first Prince of Wales, Thomas Cook and Son, the Bold Soldier Boy, Arrah na Pogue, Dick Turpin, Ludwig Beethoven, the Colleen Bawn, Waddler Healy, Angus the Culdee, Dolly Mount, Sidney Parade, Ben Howth, Valentine Valentine Greatrakes, Adam and Eve, Arthur Wellesley, Boss Croker, Herodotus, Jack the Giantkiller, Gautama Buddha, Lady Godiva, The Lily of Killarney, Balor of the Evil Eye, the Queen of Sheba, Acky Nagle, Joe Nagle, Alessandro Volta, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Don Philip O’Sullivan Beare. A couched spear of acuminated granite rested by him while at his feet reposed a savage animal of the canine tribe whose stertorous gasps announced that he was sunk in uneasy slumber, a supposition confirmed by hoarse growls and spasmodic movements which his master repressed from time to time by tranquilising blows of a mighty cudgel rudely fashioned out of paleolithic stone…

From “Ulysses” by James Joyce, from Chapter 12 “The Cyclops”. (Kindle Locations 5869-5896). Kindle Edition.


[1] I found this quote in the New York Review of Books. Fintan O’Toole was reviewing the book “James Joyce: A New Biography” by Gordon Bowker in October 2012.

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