Over the holidays I gave a copy of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport to a friend. The British novel was published in North America in 2019 by the Canadian press Biblioasis. It has been a wild success – about 48,000 copies sold so far. Ducks, Newburyport is more than 1,000 pages, 98 per cent of which consists of a single long sentence featuring many, many clauses.
To encourage my friend, I offered a comparison I had read in a newspaper. “It’s like Infinite Jest for women,” I said, referring to David Foster Wallace’s 1996 opus. Infinite Jest is also more than 1,000 pages, also challenging to read and also a surprise bestseller in its day.
A confession: I have read neither of these behemoths, at least cover to cover. With Foster Wallace, I have tried. But I have finished many of the mid-to-late 20th-century novels that begat such works, including Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and William Gaddis’s The Recognitions.
But who, in turn, begat those baggy, encyclopedic, relentlessly innovative works that pushed so hard on the form, not to mention on even the most dedicated reader? That honour – or notoriety, depending on whom you ask – belongs to a novel first published 100 years ago this month.
That book is Ulysses, which takes place in Dublin over a single day. The original edition from February, 1922 was made up of 900 pages of dense, often dithyrambic prose. Its author was a cocky, uncompromising 40-year-old Irish writer with two previous published works of fiction, neither much appreciated.
If anyone knew of James Joyce at the time Ulysses appeared, it was probably as a minor pornographer, based on excerpts that had run in a small American magazine a couple of years earlier. The magazine editors were prosecuted for obscenity, and prepublication notoriety soon collapsed into a publishing debacle: One thousand expensive, error-strewn copies of the novel were published out of a Paris bookshop that spring and mailed, nervously, to subscribers in various countries. Although some prominent early readers recognized its importance, others remained fixated on the dirty bits.
In fall 1922, Ulysses was declared “filthy” by a UK official, and all copies were confiscated and burned. The novel was banned in the United States until 1933, and not properly published in England until 1936.
Joyce himself moved on to complete Finnegans Wake, a still more extravagant and phantasmagorical dreamscape fiction whose readership, outside of scholars and visionaries, has perhaps yet to be born. He died in 1941, in voluntary exile from Ireland.
Even Irish readers couldn’t easily access “their” master work until years later. Only once a paperback edition appeared in the late 1960s did Ulysses become widely available and, in effect, rinsed clean of scandal. As a graduate student in Dublin almost a generation later again, I was part of a cohort presented with the novel as both the apogee of literary modernism and a testament to the raucous glories of the English language, as vivified by the Irish.
I read every one of those 900 pages with awe, admiration, exasperation and open-mouthed delight – less at the scatological and sexual frankness than the innate defiance of convention and expectation. Also, Ulysses was funny. Rereading it for the centenary, I feel the same.
A century into its afterlife as a classic, albeit a daunting one, the novel may be poised to be helpfully reframed. Intimidated readers often miss that Ulysses is a portrait of ordinary people living ordinary lives, written out of deep solidarity with their challenges and sorrows.
Recasting the book in this light may stymie scholars, who have long counted Ulysses as their own exclusive playground, a perfect setting for internecine academic battles known as “Joyce wars.” But it should encourage more general readers to take heart and soldier on.
Joyce certainly wanted the story to be about regular folk. He gave copies of it to waiters and hotel workers, whom he hoped would recognize and appreciate the humour and earthiness. He wrote the novel out of love for the people, and the city, he had come from, regardless of whether he felt those feelings to be reciprocated.
Ulysses has no real plot. Instead, it follows a seemingly random day in the existence of several Dubliners going about their business. Eighteen “scenes,” modelled on Homer’s Odyssey, track these people moving around the Irish capital on June 16, 1904. That is all.
At the centre is Leopold Bloom, a seller of street advertising. Bloom, who is of Jewish ancestry, is watchful, sensitive and driven equally by his appetites and intellect: a decent man, in short, navigating treacherous waters as an outsider. “What is a nation?” he is asked in a pub full of unfriendly sorts. It is “the same people living in the same place.”
Stephen Dedalus, a hold over from Joyce’s previous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is a disaffected scholar. He dominates the early chapters of Ulysses, and as its author’s alter ego he gets some of the best lines. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Stephen broods. Also, “I fear those big words that make us unhappy.”
Then there is Molly Bloom, Leopold’s unfaithful wife. Although she only holds centre stage at the very end, her monologue is justifiably famous – or infamous. “The dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written,” according to D.H. Lawrence. He was one to know.
More importantly, Molly’s soliloquy is pioneering in its exploration of a female consciousness without filters or self-censure. If Molly’s run-on thoughts still startle – and feel authentic and fresh – in 2022, imagine how they read in 1922.
Ulysses is often compared to another modernist classic, T.S. Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land, published that same year. But Joyce’s closest literary traveller is Virginia Woolf, whose major novels, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, followed later in the decade. And no, Woolf didn’t like Ulysses, or its author, much either.
Both these artists were preoccupied with a then radical new project: how to capture the grinding interiority of the human mind. Humans have always been aware that we spend most of our time, and live most of our lives, inside our own heads – talking, arguing, disagreeing and commiserating with ourselves. Until Joyce and Woolf, writers hadn’t figured how to render that incessant, often unflattering chatter on the page.
No surprise, then, that Samuel Beckett worked as Joyce’s secretary in the 1920s, decades before his trilogy of novels capped the modernist project of the interior monologue. Or even, perhaps, that Lucy Ellmann, of Ducks, Newburyport, is the daughter of the great Joyce scholar Richard Ellmann. His biography remains the benchmark.
So, in the spirit of literary continuity, who begat Ulysses? With hindsight, possibly Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, published way back in 1759. And while bruising, repressive Ireland certainly “made” Joyce, as every nation shapes its artists, it cannot be quite fully sourced for his brilliance. Genius is like that: It comes out of nowhere, and you almost never see it coming.
And yet. Hiberno-English, the dry moniker assigned to the dialect of English spoken in Ireland, has long been celebrated for its wildness and mischief. Emerging from the Irish language and in defiance of eight centuries of English colonialism, Hiberno-English is subversive and instinctively disruptive.
Ulysses is immersed in this orality, which may underpin everything that is glorious and over-the-top about an otherwise almost too literary work. Regular folk talking and thinking and walking around a city, not doing much – what a trigger for a sprawling book of, and for, the ages.
Charles Foran is the author of 11 books. He is executive director of the Writers’ Trust of Canada.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included incorrect information about some details of Ulysses, including the date on which the story takes place, Leopold Bloom’s ancestry and the role of Molly Bloom. This version has been corrected.
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