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Ulysses: Good or Bad?

21 Famous Writers and One Famous Psychoanalyst Weigh In

By Emily Temple, in, February 2, 2018

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of James Joyce’s Ulysses—it was first serialized in The Little Review between March 1918 and December 1920—and today is the 96th anniversary of its very first publication in book form, by Sylvia Beach. It’s also Joyce’s birthday, by the way, and no—that isn’t a coincidence. Ulysses is constantly named by writers and readers as a life- and mind-changing novel, and frequently tops lists of best-ever books. But it’s not as universally loved as it seems. In fact, many readers—and even many big-name writers—dislike or even loathe Joyce’s masterpiece. How would I know this, you ask? Well, they said so. In the final tally of opinions, we’ve come up with a tie—11 for and 11 against—so you will have to decide for yourself how you feel. Whether or not you look at these one star Amazon reviews of the novel first is entirely your business.

FOR: Ulysses, of course, is a divine work of art and will live on despite the academic nonentities who turn it into a collection of symbols or Greek myths. I once gave a student a C-minus, or perhaps a D-plus, just for applying to its chapters the titles borrowed from Homer while not even noticing the comings and goings of the man in the brown mackintosh. He didn’t even know who the man in the brown mackintosh was. Oh, yes, let people compare me to Joyce by all means, but my English is pat ball to Joyce’s champion game.

Vladimir Nabokov, in a 1965 interview

AGAINST: Ulysses could have done with a good editor. . . .People are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written, but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it. . . . If you’re a writer in Dublin and you write a snatch of dialogue, everyone thinks you lifted it from Joyce. The whole idea that he owns language as it is spoken in Dublin is a nonsense. He didn’t invent the Dublin accent. It’s as if you’re encroaching on his area or it’s a given that he’s on your shoulder. It gets on my nerves.

Roddy Doyle, at a James Joyce birthday celebration in 2004

FOR: I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape. These are postulates for anything that I have to say about it, and I have no wish to waste the reader’s time by elaborating my eulogies; it has given me all the surprise, delight, and terror that I can require, and I will leave it at that.

T. S. Eliot, in his 1923 essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth

AGAINST: Today writers want to impress other writers . . . One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.

Paulo Coelho, to a Brazilian newspaper in 2012

FOR: Joyce has a most goddamn wonderful book. It’ll probably reach you in time. Meantime the report is that he and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week.

Gertrude Stein says Joyce reminds her of an old woman out in San Francisco. The woman’s son struck it rich in the Klondyke and the old woman went around writing her hands and saying ‘Oh my poor Joey! My poor Joey! He’s got so much money!’ The damned Irish, they have to moan about something or other, but you never heard of an Irishman starving.

Ernest Hemingway, in a 1922 letter to Sherwood Anderson

AGAINST: I don’t like Hemingway. And I know I don’t love Ulysses as much as I am supposed to—but then again, I never cared even one-tenth so much for the Odyssey as I do for the Iliad.

Donna Tartt in the New York Times

FOR: I managed to get my copy of Ulysses through safely this time. I rather wish I had never read it. It gives me an inferiority complex. When I read a book like that and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production and can pass himself off fairly well as a bass or a baritone, but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever.

George Orwell, in a 1934 letter to Brenda Salkeld

AGAINST: [I couldn’t finish] Ulysses. I needed a graduate thesis adviser to crack a whip over my head, and didn’t have one.

Jonathan Franzen, in an interview with the Guardian

FOR: Ulysses is certainly the greatest novel in the English language, and one might argue for its being the greatest single work of art in our tradition. How significant, then, and how teasing, that this masterwork should be a comedy and that its creator should have explicitly valued the comic “vision” over the tragic—how disturbing to our predilection for order that, with an homage paid to classical antiquity so meticulous that it is surely a burlesque, Joyce’s exhibitionististicicity is never so serious as when it is most outrageously comic. Joyce might have been addressing his readers when he wrote to Nora in 1909: “Now … I want you to read over and over all I have written to you. Some of it is ugly, obscene, and bestial, some of it is pure and holy and spiritual: all of it is myself.”

Joyce Carol Oates, in a 1976 essay, “Jocoserious Joyce

AGAINST: In spite of its very numerous qualities—it is, among other things, a kind of technical handbook, in which the young novelist can study all the possible and many of the quite impossible ways of telling a story—Ulysses is one of the dullest books ever written, and one of the least significant. This is due to the total absence from the book of any sort of conflict.

Aldous Huxleywriting in 1925

FOR: Joyce really set my universe on its end. Reading Ulysses changed everything I thought about language, and everything I understood about what a book could do. I was on a train on the way to a boring temp job when I was about 25; I got on at Tottenham, north London, and opened the first page of Ulysses. When I got off at Liverpool Street in central London, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say the entire course of my life had changed. Although he is viewed as terribly serious and cerebral, so much of the pleasure of reading Joyce is the fun he has and the risks he takes with language; there is nothing quite so enjoyable as the much-maligned Joycean pun.

Eimear McBride, in the Guardian

AGAINST: Overrated . . . Joyce’s Ulysses. Hands down. A professor’s book. Though I guess if you’re Irish it all makes sense. I put down most books, unfinished. Most books aren’t very good, and there’s no reason they should be. Whatever “talent” may be, it isn’t apportioned democratically.

Richard Ford in the New York Times

FOR: I can think of books that made little explosions in my mind, showing me literary possibilities I hadn’t dreamed of until I read them. James Joyce’s Ulysseswas one such book.

Salman Rushdie, in a recent interview with the Guardian 

AGAINST: Ulysses is a book which pours along for seven hundred and thirty-five pages, a stream of time of seven hundred and thirty-five days which all consist in one single and senseless every day of Everyman, the completely irrelevant 16th day of June 1904, in Dublin—a day on which, in all truth, nothing happens. The stream beings in the void and ends in the void. Is all of this perhaps one single, immensely long and excessively complicated Strindbergian pronouncement upon the essence of human life, and one which, to the reader’s dismay, is never finished? Perhaps it does touch upon the essence of life; but quite certainly it touches upon life’s ten thousand surfaces and their hundred thousand color gradations. As far as my glance reaches, there are in those seven hundred and thirty-five pages no obvious repetitions and not a single hallowed island where the long-suffering reader may come to rest. There is not a single place where he can seat himself, drunk with memories, and from which he can happily consider the stretch of the road he has covered, be it one hundred pages or even less. If he could only recognize some little commonplace which had slipped in where it was not expected. But no! The pitiless and uninterrupted stream rolls by, and its velocity or precipitation grows in the last forty pages till it sweeps away even the marks of punctuation. It thus gives cruelest expressions to that emptiness which is both breath taking and stifling, which is under such tension, or is so filled to bursting, as to grow unbearable. This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory.

. . .

The seven hundred and thirty-five pages that contain nothing by no means consist of blank paper but are closely printed. You read and read and read and you pretend to understand what you read. Occasionally you drop through ann air pocket into another sentence, but when once the proper degree of resignation has been reached you accustom yourself to anything. So I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way.

Carl Jung, in a 1932 review

FOR: To live with the work and the letters of James Joyce was an enormous privilege and a daunting education. Yes, I came to admire Joyce even more because he never ceased working, those words and the transubstantiation of words obsessed him. He was a broken man at the end of his life, unaware that Ulysseswould be the number one book of the twentieth century and, for that matter, the twenty-first.

Edna O’Brien, in The Atlantic

AGAINST: I have read 200 pages [of Ulysses] so far—not a third; and have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested, by the first 2 or 3 chapters—to the end of the cemetery scene; and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom, great Tom, thinks this is on par with War and Peace! An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me; the book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw? But I think if you are anaemic, as Tom is, there is a glory in blood. Being fairly normal myself I am soon ready for the classics again.

Virginia Woolf, in a 1922 diary entry

FOR: [F]or all its appalling longueurs, Ulysses is a work of high genius. Its importance seems to me to lie, not so much in its opening new doors to knowledge—unless in setting an example to Anglo-Saxon writers of putting down everything without compunction—or in inventing new literary forms—Joyce’s formula is really, as I have indicated, nearly seventy-five years old—as in its once more setting the standard of the novel so high that it need not be ashamed to take its place beside poetry and drama. Ulysses has the effect at once of making everything else look brassy. Since I have read it, the texture of other novelists seems intolerably loose and careless; when I come suddenly unawares upon a page that I have written myself I quake like a guilty thing surprised. The only question now is whether Joyce will ever write a tragic masterpiece to set beside this comic one.

Edmund Wilson, in a 1922 review for the New Republic

AGAINST: Take this Irishman Joyce, a sort of Zola gone to seed. Someone recently sent me a copy of Ulysses. I was told I must read it, but how can one plow through such stuff? I read a little here and there, but, oh my God! How bored I got! Probably Joyce thinks that because he prints all the dirty little words he is a great novelist. You know, of course, he got his ideas from Dujardin? . . . Ulysses is hopeless, it is absurd to imagine that any good end can be served by trying to record every single thought and sensation of any human being. That’s not art, that’s attempting to copy the London Directory.”

George Moore in conversation with a friend, as reported in Constellation of Genius: 1922

FOR: I don’t want to get away from him. It’s male writers who have a problem with Joyce; they’re all “in the long shadow of Joyce, and who can step into his shoes?” I don’t want any shoes, thank you very much. Joyce made everything possible; he opened all the doors and windows. Also, I have a very strong theory that he was actually a woman. He wrote endlessly introspective and domestic things, which is the accusation made about women writers—there’s no action and nothing happens. Then you look at Ulysses and say, well, he was a girl, that was his secret.

Anne Enright in a 2008 interview with the Boston Globe

AGAINST: I am sorry, but I am one of the people who can’t read Ulysses. Only bits. But I am glad I have seen the book, since in Europe they usually mention us together—James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence—and I feel I ought to know in what company I creep to immortality. I guess Joyce would look as much askance on me as I on him. We make a choice of Paola and Francesca floating down the winds of hell.

D. H. Lawrence, in a 1922 letter to S.S. Koteliansky.

FOR: The fact is that every book changes our lives. But Kerouac kicked me around when I was 13. I was a suburban kid living in Dublin, and he peeled me open with On the Road. Several years later, when I was 21, I took a bicycle across the United States. I was looking for the ghost of Dean Moriarty. After that it was all Ferlinghetti, Brautigan, Kesey. And then I discovered who I should have known all along—Joyce. Fancy that, I had to go to America to find an Irish writer. I’ve been discovering and rediscovering him ever since. Ulysses is the most complete literary compendium of human experience. Every time I read it, it leaves me alert and raw. I recently had a chance to look at a rare first edition. When I cracked open the spine, a tiny piece of the page dropped out, no bigger than a tab of acid. Nobody was looking, not even Kerouac. So I put it on my finger and did what anyone else would do: I ate it.

Colum McCann in GQ

AGAINST: There are two colossal fingerprints left by literary incompetence on Ulysses which show that a pedantic accuracy about the letter and an insensitivity about the spirit can lead him wildly astray even while he is still loyal to the classicism. It was M. Veléry Larbaud who first detected that the title of that great work was not just put in to make it more difficult, but that there exists a close parallelism between the incidents of the Odyssey and Ulysses: that Leopold Bloom is Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus is Telemachus, Marion Bloom is Penelope, the newspaper office is the Cave of the Winds, the brother is the Place fo the Dead, and so on. This recognition plunges Mr. Joyce’s devotees into profound ecstasies from which they never recover sufficiently to ask what the devil is the purpose that is served by these analogies.

. . .

Incoherence, that is to say the presentation of words in other than the order appointed by any logic of wrods not in sentence formation, is at least a real device and not just a condition, and while it also is suitable for the handling only of a special case, that special case is certainly contained in Ulysses. But unfortunately Mr. Joyce applies it to many things in Ulysses as well as that special case.

Rebecca West, “The Strange Case of James Joyce,” Bookman,1928

Emily Temple is a senior editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, will be published by William Morrow in 2020.

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