A return to “Ulysses”

After my rather damning post about James Joyce’s Ulysses a little while ago, I decided I needed to make a more determined effort to sample more of it so that I knew whereof I spoke. I would make a serious attempt upon its slopes.

A couple of people suggested that it is better to listen to it being read by a good Irish actor than to read it yourself, and that made sense to me. Many people prefer Shakespeare when acted… but of course Shakespeare was meant to be acted. It’s also written in the language of four centuries ago. Ulysses is modern and was meant to be read, but it helps if a good actor interprets it for you because Joyce was either too lazy or too pretentious to make it easy for you with things like normal punctuation, or, in many cases, identifying who is actually speaking.  

I thought Hilary Mantel’s use of the third person present tense in the Wolf Hall trilogy was also a somewhat foolish affectation, but it turns out to work exceedingly well in audiobook form, giving it the immediacy of a screenplay. It’s a much more enjoyable read than Ulysses, but, again, it helps to have somebody interpret simple things like who the author actually means by ‘he’ in this sentence! It’s not that readers can’t work it out, it’s just that the need to do so imposes friction which is unnecessary and doesn’t, to my mind, add anything. Mantel was a good writer and didn’t need to resort to such novelties to get attention.

Anyway, I love audiobooks, and spent my one Audible credit on this reading of Ulysses by Tadhg Hynes. It runs to nearly 32 hours — almost a French working week — and both he, and Kayleigh Payne, who reads the part of Molly, do a really terrific job. So with their aid, I have now ‘read’ the majority of Ulysses; at least, I got well past the 50% mark, and then skipped to the last chapter. But even having read about two-thirds of it gives me a sense of achievement rather like having finished an exam or run a marathon. I achieved something, but I don’t have any desire to do it again.  Perhaps, since I skipped ahead when the tedium became too much, I can at least say I managed a half-marathon!

I was trying to work out, as I wandered the country lanes listening to it, what attracted people to Ulysses. It has originality, certainly, on various fronts. Few novelists spend as much time discussing defecation, masturbation and menstruation, for example, and one could argue that they therefore miss out on key parts of the human experience! So it’s certainly memorable in places.

But overall, here’s my Ulysses FAQ:

  • Is it compelling? No, it’s a long slog, requiring serious stamina.

  • Is it entertaining? Only rarely. I would chuckle lightly once every few hours.

  • Does it have a good plot? No. It has no discernible plot.

  • Are the characters interesting? No.

  • Is it edifying? No.

  • Is it educational? No.

  • Is it beautiful? No.

  • Is it clever?

Ah, well, there you have me. Yes, I have to admit that it is often very clever. And there’s the rub. I imagine that the more you study it, the more you see in it, and the more you appreciate the cleverness. People with lots of time on their hands — those taking Arts degrees, for example — can probably unwrap many more layers than I did, and so are more likely to think it great.  If you’re an English Lit. student and can set aside a week to listen to it while also reading it, and pause periodically to consult study notes explaining it, then the book would, I’m sure, yield a lot more.  Joyce’s intention was to make it obscure, saying that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality”. In that, he succeeded! I’m sure it’s great material for literary PhD theses.  

But here’s the thing… Is it actually worth that effort? It seems strange that an author should go to so much trouble just to be clever.  I spent about 20 hours in the company of the main characters, for example, without developing the slightest interest in them or any desire to go any further in their company. It’s almost as if the book deliberately has no story, no purpose, except to be clever. And that, I think, is its chief failing.

Now, there is some undeniably great poetry in there. Occasionally Joyce would capture in four words what might have taken others twenty-four, and I would tingle with appreciation. But there were far more occurrences of using twenty-four words for what could have been said in four, or probably eliminated completely, if he’d had a better editor.  (The fact that I felt able to skip the equivalent of about 200 pages without much risk of missing anything important will give you the idea.)

To return to my marathon analogy, it’s as if you’ve been condemned to run for hours through dull industrial estates and suburbs, so when you see the occasional cherry blossom you gasp, “Oh, how beautiful!”.  The real question is “Why didn’t the organisers pick a route through beautiful countryside in the first place?” The book has interesting aspects, but it could have been so, so much better if it had had a plot, interesting characters, less pretentious forms of originality, less unnecessary friction. A writer with the capabilities that Joyce very clearly has could have chosen to overlay his brilliance on a much better landscape, and then he would have written a truly great book.

So I think my conclusion is this: Ulysses has the lowest signal-to-noise ratio of anything I’ve ever read or listened to. It’s like straining hard to detect the snatches of music through a radio with too much static, and discovering in the end that the tune just wasn’t very good.

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I think it’s reasonable to say that pure entertainment isn’t the only reason for literature to exist, but I wonder if “literary” books gain anything by being difficult to read. For example, I found the Name of the Rose interesting and thought-provoking, so I don’t regret the time spent reading it. At the same time, there are stretches where it felt like a bit of a slog. If it had been trimmed down to make it more entertaining, would it have become less thought-provoking? It’s hard to give a definite answer, but I think the first Hunger Games book managed to do both. It’s exciting to read (in my opinion) while also making you think about politics and celebrity culture.

I think it’s also important to distinguish modern literature from texts that are just difficult to read because they are old. It’s not Shakespeare’s fault that his language is sometimes difficult for twenty-first century readers.

Artistic judgements tend to be subjective, which is fine, but it does leave them open to cognitive biases like social proof. For example, does Dickens waste time on unnecessary physical descriptions? No one talks about it, because it’s assumed that Dickens is a great author who wouldn’t make a mistake like that. At the same time, that writing style was common in the nineteenth century before largely disappearing in more recent times, so that suggests that authors and editors do think it was a mistake—on some level.

    Interesting thoughts, Pete.

    It’s also widely said that Tolkien would never get ‘Lord of the Rings’ published today, and, from my limited experience with the publishing of Rose’s novels, I’m sure that’s right; he would have been required to do some serious trimming of ‘The Two Towers’, at least.

    I’ve always taken that as a criticism of modern publishers, but perhaps it just shows my own particular biases and preferences!

      I think with Tolkien, it would have depended how well the Fellowship of the Ring had sold, and how well known he was as an author at the time. 😊 The Game of Thrones books got published fairly recently, after all.

      For new authors, yes I agree, definitely. They would have made Tolkien and George R. R. Martin cut a lot of material. (Reading the first Game of Thrones book, I thought it was quite self-contained. I did wonder if Martin had written it that way on purpose, so if it was popular he could carry on with the series, but otherwise he could bail out without leaving people too dissatisfied.)

      Stories with multiple points of view are difficult to handle, I think. I always find some of the threads more interesting than others, so want to skip ahead. I’m guessing that was your point about the Two Towers—an editor might have suggested focusing much more on Frodo and Sam, and cutting much of the rest. I had the same problem, though, with Game of Thrones, as Arya was by far the most interesting character for me. I also had it with Bleak House, so I don’t only fall in this hole with modern writers!

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