Let me just state at the beginning of this review that I read books, I do not study them. If a book chooses to make oblique reference to things outside the text, to other literary works, to symbolism, then it has to expect many readers not to understand them. I have been against obscurantism in literature for as long as I remember: for the simple reason that the author has the choice to be clear, and he chooses not to be. Any claim he makes that he must be unclear (and perhaps in general this tends to apply more to philosophy) I take to be a lie, whether to us the reader and by the writer to himself.
I didn’t enjoy much of Ulysses. I didn’t experience much pleasure in reading it. I didn’t turn to it again at any time with an anticipatory sense of joy. Since each chapter is written in a different style, I often found myself hoping the next chapter would prove more appealing, and being disappointed when it wasn’t. Joyce’s main method in this work, it seems to me, is to labour the point.
I will take the penultimate section as an example. In this section, Joyce indulges in a question and answer style, in which a sort of secondary narrator asks questions of a primary narrator, in order to elicit the narrative. Here is a quote: this is where Stephen Dedalus is just leaving Bloom’s house and Bloom has just opened the door for him:
For what creature was the door of egress a door of ingress?
For a cat.
What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.
With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?
Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lowerend of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Maior) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000, miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threscore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.
Were there obverse meditations of involution increasingly less vast?
Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by coheson of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, ts universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible components, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.
and so on, for 4 or 5 pages. You see, the style of this chapter is the scientific, everything is described in a scientific manner, which is fine perhaps for a few pages, but really I feel begins to drag when it’s 80 pages of the same; the first two answers here quoted showing by contrast elements overwhelmed throughout the book in the general tedium: a) humour; and b) the beauty of language. And this is what I found most disappoining about Ulysses, that it doesn’t in the least, say, like Moby Dick, even begin to allay the dullness of its content by its literary style. Oh, Joyce displays a virtuosity of styles – in that he employs many different ones – but none of them I found interesting or in any way enlivening the text; it is his choice – his will, unlike say Shakespeare or Beckett, not to find any particular beauty in words themselves.
I find myself re-assessing Joyce. His books, I must admit, don’t stay in my memory. I’ve read Dubliners twice and can barely recall any of the stories; they seemed well enough written, but never overly impressed me. Again, I’ve read Portrait of the Artist twice. I could remember nothing, the second time I read it, of my first reading; and in my second reading was thoroughly bored by the whole second half of it.