A drawing of a stretched-out person holding onto a copy of Ulysses against a blue background
A drawing of a stretched-out person holding onto a copy of Ulysses against a blue background

Ulysses has a reputation for being hard work – at once enigmatic and chaotic. Sure enough, most first-timers give up on it, tormented by the mysterious allusions and verbal experiments, persuaded that this is a book to study rather than devour.

But for all its intricacies and erudition, Ulysses is winningly funny. To those who share its author’s delight in playing with words, peerlessly so. An aura of intense seriousness clings to Joyce, but he can be prankish, as when he remixes one of Jesus’s miracles – “Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job.”

He especially likes to toy with clichés, either piling them up till they assume farcical proportions or giving them a wry twist – "Absence makes the heart grow younger". Even the onomatopoeia is gleefully irreverent: a cat goes "Mrkgnao", lumpen piano music is ‘lugugugubrious’, a man’s behind emits a "Pprrpffrrppfff". A good route into the novel is to savour Joyce’s wit and whimsy, rather than worry about unpacking the significance of every sentence.

The setting

For readers seduced by the promise of pungent humour, the sheer dimensions of Ulysses remain intimidating. They imply monumental subject matter. The truth, though, is that the world of the novel is domestic. It takes place in Dublin, Joyce’s birthplace, which he left in 1904, aged 22, and to which he never returned after 1912. Think, then, of Ulysses as a particularly unsentimental, raw and earthy sort of love letter to Dublin – written by Joyce in Trieste, Zurich and Paris.

The time-frame

Joyce devotes 265,000 words to the events of a single day. The date, 16 June 1904, is of no obvious historical significance; in real life it was the occasion of his first romantic rendezvous with his future wife, Nora.

The characters

Of the three main characters, the first we see is 22-year-old aspiring author Stephen Dedalus, who is Joyce’s unflatteringly drawn alter-ego. The others are Leopold Bloom, a 38-year-old advertising salesman, and his 33-year-old wife Molly, a singer. Stephen and Bloom, who don’t know each other at the outset, are both on a symbolic quest: Stephen, who is effectively an orphan, seeks a father, and the childless Bloom is looking for a son.

Instead of making these quests feel Herculean, the novel depicts the characters going about their ordinary business: preparing breakfast, feeding the cat, reading the newspaper, running errands, arguing about politics. As they do so, we taste their thoughts and sensations unfiltered. No novelist before Joyce had captured with such intimacy and integrity the little nuances of the everyday or what he called the ‘subterranean complexities’ of the mind.

Where to start?

There’s a lot to be said for jumping right into that subterranean zone. This would usually mean starting at the beginning, but here it needn’t; Ulysses is a wandering novel and rewards the wandering reader. 

Although the first sentence acquaints us with Buck Mulligan, a medical student, the dominant presence in the early episodes is his housemate Stephen, an intellectual exhibitionist who’s thin-skinned and painfully self-conscious. Some readers fall for Stephen’s sour hauteur and quotability (“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”). But most don’t. If the opening leaves you cold, it’s worth skipping ahead to episode four, where Joyce introduces Leopold Bloom.

Generous and compassionate, Bloom bumbles through life. He may resemble Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, but his thoughts teem with trivia, and whenever he is the novel’s focus it has the air of an encyclopaedia: his interests are omnivorous, so he’s constantly accumulating or recycling scraps of information, whether about beekeeping, statues, astronomy or gymnastics (the parallel bars, no less).

Bloom’s mind is consumed with questions, fantasies, indiscretions, advertising jingles, fragments of jokes, nagging memories, his relish of smells, the delights and disappointments of his own body. It’s through him, not Stephen, that most readers will tune into Joyce’s way of disclosing what his characters see, think and feel.

Making sense of the structure and narrative

The novel is full of other voices and moods, and for each of its 18 episodes Joyce adopts a distinct style: one is like a hallucinatory piece of theatre, another is a parody of journalism. No sooner do you adjust to a particular tone and technique than you’re expected to start what seems like a different book.

For many readers, making the jump has a dizzying effect. When acclimatising to a new episode, it pays to read the text aloud or listen to it being performed – and feel Joyce stretching language to see how much it can contain.

Ulysses is a densely sociable novel, peopled with the citizens of Dublin, some of them nonentities and others monstrous or ghostly. Most are talky, and even objects are eloquent. Joyce therefore invokes a vast range of idiom. We might compare Bloom’s vividly condensed reminiscence “Hot I tongued her. She kissed me” with Stephen’s arcane lyricism or Molly’s ecstatic “and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes”.

And what about The Odyssey?

A further source of anxiety for many new Ulysses readers is the fact that it is modelled on Homer’s Odyssey. Do you need to be familiar with Homer before you can fathom Joyce’s tribute? Should you tool up with a scholarly guide?

It certainly helps to grasp that Homer’s main characters include the impulsive adventurer Odysseus, otherwise known as Ulysses, who is represented here by Bloom (and perhaps by the reader, too). Also that Ulysses’s faithful wife is Penelope, whose counterpart here is the not-so-faithful Molly, and that Stephen corresponds to Telemachus, Ulysses’s son.

But while being steeped in Homer deepens the resonance of some scenes, it can shed no light on the many nods to Irish politics or popular songs. A brisker and better preparation is to read Joyce’s earlier novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which introduces Stephen and traces his development.

Should I get a companion guide?

Several book-length companions to Ulysses are available, and there are others online. All are packed with insight, yet risk slowing the reader to a standstill. It’s worth locating one of the two recognised ‘schemas’ (just look online for ‘Ulysses schema’), to orientate yourself before embarking on each episode. But navigating an ocean of notes in order to understand every esoteric detail will quickly become a chore.

Though it’s natural to fret about the cultural references we’re missing, plenty of them puzzle even the experts. Joyce wanted “to keep the professors busy for centuries” – evidently, he’s succeeded. If you get the Ulysses bug, you’ll feast on the novel more than once, and that’s when the guides are flavour-enhancers.

But nothing can match the zest of the first encounter. Ulysses obliges us to reframe the act of reading; a process we tend to take for granted feels alien, exciting and open. It’s an education in what we notice, the limits of our attention, the strategies we devise for making sense of language and the world. People often speak of getting lost in a good book, or of literature as an escapist pleasure; in this case the experience is an escape into the self.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Flynn Shore/Penguin

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