The secret to reading Ulysses for the first time is letting go. You’re not going to understand every allusion, every historical reference, every inside joke. So put that annotated guide away. Accept that you will be confused, probably often and profoundly. You’re supposed to be. Read on. Don’t let its reputation as modern literature’s Everest get in your way. It wasn’t always widely read, universally praised, relentlessly pored over and taught.
If you can do this, if you can let go, you’ll see that Ulysses is really a simple story about a man, out for a walk, trying to distract himself. (Of course, it’s also about Everything Else in the Universe, but that can wait until your second or third or fourth reading.)
It might also help to read Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. A former Dublin bartender and current Harvard history and literature lecturer (two jobs that make him uniquely qualified to write this book), Kevin has set out to write a biography not about James Joyce, but about Ulysses. And by doing so, Kevin reminds us that it was written in the same way every other book is written: by a human being and sentence-by-sentence.
It’s easy now to picture Joyce at his desk, watching confidently as the words poured from his pen, but the reality was much different. Joyce struggled for years on each scene, writing and re-writing and re-writing again. It’s easy now to picture the millions of readers cheering him, begging him to finish, but Joyce was a relative unknown, a destitute and failed writer who could barely support his young family. And even if the book was finished, there was no guarantee that anyone would read it – in fact, if the few published chapters were any indication, the only guarantee was that it would be censored around the world. It’s easy now to think of Ulysses as a given, but it wouldn’t exist without the support (financially, legally, and otherwise) of a ragtag group of booksellers, publishers, poets, lawyers, literary magazine editors, and readers.
The Most Dangerous Book is first and foremost wonderfully entertaining. It’s funny, it’s thrilling, and it’s even kinda raunchy. But what I love about it most, as someone who works in publishing, is that it celebrates the unsung heroes of the book world. Without Sylvia Beach at Paris’s Shakespeare and Company bookstore, without Margaret Anderson at The Little Review, without Bennett Cerf and his lawyer Morris Ernst at Random House, Ulysses may not have been read at all. These people, and many others, believed in the power of words, story, art, and they fought large institutions that wanted to repress and control freedom of expression. The stakes were high – many served time in prison and many were ruined financially – and the struggle must have seemed to them unending. But ultimately, spurred by a federal judge who was unexpectedly moved by Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of the book, art beat censorship. Ulysses was finally published.
That reminds me: Molly Bloom. Push through. Get to the Molly Bloom section. That’s when you may realize that Ulysses is not an abstract, literary puzzle; it’s a book about people – their flaws, their uncertainties, their love, and especially their bodily functions. Oh, and when you get stuck, it helps to have Guinness nearby. (This is good advice for any book, really.)
Read Biographile’s article on James Joyce’s Ulysses and its debt to feminism here.