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All Kinds of Words Changing Colour: A Review of James Joyce's Ulysses

July 19, 2015

 

It is the understood hallmark of a good book that when one reaches its end, one is sad that it cannot continue on. I don’t know if anyone ever felt this way at finishing Ulysses, I certainly did not. Indeed, from its very first pages, I felt that I would never be more relieved in all of my life than when I reached its last word. I knew this would be the case going in, but now that I am safely out of it, I am pleased to stand among the very small company of readers, living or dead, who have read James Joyce’s Ulysses start to finish. To anyone intent upon joining us, you must bear in mind the reality inherent in the endeavour. The worth of this book is not in its being an enjoyable read. Do not set your hope upon it serving as a bit of light, lunchtime reading. For the truth of the matter is that it is going to be very hard slogging – an absolute misery throughout much of its long, seemingly endless stretch of passages.  Those who wish to read this book must understand that its value to literature rests upon its profound quality as a cultural time capsule, on its breathtaking survey of the far reaches of language, and on the literary innovation that it represented when a publisher at last agreed to produce it for public consumption in 1922.

 

Because Ulysses is over 500 pages long, I chose a Kindle version over the print version, as I do not always carry a purse capacious enough for so large a book. Because Ulysses is in the public domain, this version is free ( You can find it here: http://amzn.to/1ISy6zf ). The most immediately striking aspect of Ulysses is that of its poetic rather than strictly prose form. For this reason, I cannot stress enough that Ulysses is more to be heard than to be read. Frankly, one must do both together. Joyce was a master of language, fluent in several, and exquisitely adept at capturing the highest reaches of educated tone, as well as the lowest forms of vernacular expressions. It is not enough to simply read his work because one cannot, by such means, hear what are the sounds of his writing. It is in the hearing of it that Ulysses glitters most strikingly. I chose the audio book version read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan to accompany my text. ( It is available at Amazon.com or Audible.com http://amzn.to/1IEACqV ). It is pricey, but because I am a member with Audible, I used my free book credit to obtain the masterful production for free as well. Their voices are superb. They sing where there is meant to be singing, and they masterfully execute the highly difficult structures and multiple languages woven throughout the book. 

 

When you are miles out in the sea of this work, floundering hopelessly about, seeking for some trace of plot to grab hold of, you will be glad of the voices guiding you towards the shoreline. It is enchanting to hear words make such sounds and rhythms as these words make, and this will be the wonderment that keeps you going when you are ready to toss the book up as impossible. It is of no use to read Ulysses if you are not also going to hear it.

 

In Ulysses, James Joyce captured a place, in a period of time as perhaps no other place and no other period of time has ever been so marvellously preserved for us. Ulysses shows us Dublin in 1904, shows us what the people looked like, who they were, how they spoke, how they dressed, what they thought. It was bawdy, lewd, and shocking then, and somehow manages to remain so today. Joyce sought to reveal beauty by telling the truth of life as he witnessed it and felt it around him. He did not place much stock in the ability of words to allow for genuine communication between people, but he mastered the beauty of words as they form a language, many languages. What James Joyce produced in Ulysses is often ugly, rather funny at a good many points, often jarring, many times wholly unintelligible, but consistently it works it way towards beauty.  

 

It is exceedingly important that as many people as are game set about to read this book. Ours is an era when the English language is collapsing amidst the folly of a general public that is encouraged to use only the flimsiest of words available in the dictionary. Its most profound, its most deeply expressive words are being cast into disuse, labeled as arcane, and woefully marked for extinction. Ulysses is one of those works which calls us back to our senses, urges us to admit the error of our attitude towards language, and asks us to fall in love, perhaps for the first time, with English as a rapturous landscape of meaning. - Yes, I will, yes. 

 

 

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