James Joyce’s experimental and ambitious novel may be hard to read but it holds immeasurable rewards for those who embrace it.
Weighing in an over 700 pages, Irish writer James Joyce’s modernist novel Ulysses has never been for the faint of heart. The retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, set over the course of a single day – June 16, 1904 – in Dublin has consistently made it to the top of “most difficult novels” lists. Virginia Woolf famously struggled to finish it and angry at the pressure to do so, called it “an illiterate, underbred book”. But Joyce’s novel about a day in the life of Leopold Bloom has just as vehemently been called one of the greatest novels in the English language, with admirers ranging from TS Eliot to Ernest Hemingway.
Ulysses draws themes from the Odyssey and correspondences between its characters – Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom and Stephen Dedalus – and those of Homer’s Greek epic. Chock-a-block with puns, allusions, imitation of varied periods in literature and a breathless stream-of-consciousness writing technique, Joyce’s magnum opus is a masterpiece of experimentation and linguistic style. It was embroiled in a obscenity trial in America in 1921 as well as in England and did not shy away from scandal, adultery or sheer ambition. Joyce once famously said that he “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant”.
Almost a century after it was published, Joyce seems to have achieved the immortality he was seeking. June 16, the day on which the events of Ulysses unfold, is celebrated every year in Dublin and across the world as Bloomsday, dedicated to celebrating the life and work of the Irish author.
Published in 1922.