Rereading 'Ulysses' by James Joyce: The Best Novel Since 1900

The season of lists is now upon us: best book, best film, best album ... of 2010.

But, I was recently tempted by another, older list: the Modern Library's best novels in English since 1900 (first published in 1998 and judged by the likes of Daniel Boorstin, A.S. Byatt, Vartan Gregorian, and William Styron).

Ranked number one is James Joyce's Ulysses, written from 1914 to 21, published in 1922 and a source of controversy every since (for example, banned as obscene in the U.S. until 1933).

My last reading of the novel was in 1962 as an 18-year-old college freshman in one of the best courses I have ever had—a "close reading" introductory humanities class that in the spring semester focused on just four books (Paradise Lost, Huckleberry Finn, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses). We spent more than a month on Ulysses itself. I first found it dense, perplexing, and often incomprehensible, but after reading and re-reading, after studying interpretations by others, I came to love it (and understand some of it).

Yet as the years passed, and the inevitable dinner conversations occurred about the five best novels we had read, Ulysses was never mentioned by anyone (except the stray English major). And when I would ask about it, most would answer: "have started it several times, but never got very far. Too hard."

So, inspired by the "best novels since 1900 list" , with affection dimmed by time and having forgotten almost everything I may have once known about the novel, I decided to try again almost 50 years later (!!!!).

What I found was two novels: a deeply humanistic one which brilliantly and beautifully captures the life of a day in Dublin primarily through three main characters; and a second, highly literary one of surpassing complexity and, without careful study, limited accessibility.

The deeply humanistic novel gives us remarkable insight into Stephen Dedalus (a young writer who aspires to literary greatness, is haunted by the death of his mother, rejects the superficiality of journalism and is teetering on the edge of alcoholism and dissipation); into Leopold Bloom (an advertising salesman, lapsed Jew, lover of food and drink, son of a suicide, father of a dead son and a ripening teenage daughter and wanderer who traverses Dublin during the day and night, befriends Stephen, and returns to his marital bed which, as he knows well, was the scene of an afternoon affair between one Blazes Boylan and his wife); and into Bloom's wife Molly (a singer and earthy mother/wife who fears aging, is jealous of her younger daughter, longs for a sexual relationship with Bloom, relishes her afternoon affair, talks frankly about her bodily functions, speaks in vivid contradictions about love, children, life, aging and women, and at the end remembers romantically the time when she and Bloom first made love).

Unlike many 19th century novels, this humanistic one does not end in either marriage or death, but in ambiguity about what will happen in the future to Stephen, Bloom and Molly and to their relationships. But this uncertainty grows out of a vivid recreation of the multiple sights, sounds, smells and voices of Dublin on June day in 1904. Bloom's pork kidney breakfast frying in a pan. The sound of the trolley cars. The vomit in the bedside bowl of Stephen's dying mother. Tugs moving across the horizon on the "snotgreen sea." The funeral of an old drunkard. The birth of a child. The arguments in a pub. Bloom masturbating on the beach as he watches a young woman show off her knickers. Stephen and Bloom in the nightmare of Nighttown. Stephen and Bloom at Bloom's home watching the wandering stars and peeing below Molly's window. Molly relieved that her menstruation shows she is not pregnant by Boylan.

Joyce set out to create life in all its fullness without heroic scenes or gestures or declamations but through a fully realized expression of a city and its people on one typical day—and through ironic puncturing of human pomposity and pretense. Despite its reputation as a difficult read, many of the chapters or important passages in Ulysses are accessible to a regular reader who is not a candidate for a PhD. For example: the opening chapter where Stephen is mocked by his friend and critic "stately plump Buck Mulligan; the passages in the pub where Bloom engages in verbal warfare with the anti-Semitic "citizen;" the distant seduction of Bloom on the beach by Gerty McDowell who reveals herself as she leans back to watch the fire works shoot into the sky and then reveals that she is lame as she limps away; and even the last two chapters, one in the form of a catechism revealing the relationship between Stephen and Bloom and the second the famous stream-of-consciousness thoughts of Molly as she lies next to Bloom in the early hours of the morning.

Presented by

Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

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