I have tried to read some of the classics of English literature. In particular I attempted the works of James Joyce, including his most famous work Ulysses. I gave up early on in that book, deciding that what I was likely to get out of it was not worth the effort that I needed to put into it. It also made me wonder what purpose was served by the author burying the message under so many layers of metaphor, code, obscure allusions, and word play that it required years of study by professors of literature to explain it. This high level of difficulty has led to the suspicion that some of the people who claim to have read and enjoyed it have not really done so but are merely being pretentious.
Brianna Rennix loves the book but is well aware of all its problems and she writes an entertaining essay on the topic. She says that among politicians who have declared their fondness for the book are Pete Buttigieg, whom she describes as a “Liberal darling and overgrown Student Council President” and a Rhodes Scholar resume-padder, as well as the “rumpled, jumper-wearing leftist Jeremy Corbyn” who both claim that the book should be understandable by regular people if approached the proper way.
She says that part of the book’s reputation for pretentiousness and deliberate obscurity was caused by the way that Joyce himself talked about the book.
Even after the publication of Ulysses cemented Joyce’s public reputation as a literary giant, he often talked about the book as if it were a kind of long con. “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” Joyce told one reader, “and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” To another, he declared: “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.”
So: Ulysses isn’t meaningless, but its own author seems to acknowledge that it is, at least partly, a book designed to frustrate easy comprehension. So what about this other claim that Ulysses fans often make, that it’s really just a Normal Book anyone could read if they tried? This, I think, is also overstating the case a bit. Ulysses is an incredibly dense and bizarre book: Even the more “realist” opening chapters aren’t especially straightforward, as the characters’ minds jump fluidly from one topic to the next, sometimes lighting on fragments of memory whose full context won’t be revealed until later, sometimes on an obscure literary reference, sometimes on a popular ad jingle or long-gone Dublin landmark that no one outside turn-of-the-century Ireland could possibly be expected to recognize. This isn’t to say that you need some specific educational pedigree to understand Ulysses. Plenty of teenagers and adults without a college education have deeply loved the novel, and I’ve certainly met Ivy League types who didn’t understand or like it nearly as well as they pretended. But it’s really not for everyone. For some people, the amount of excruciating mental labor they have to put in to follow the story vastly outweighs any pleasure they might get from Joyce’s prose. I think about how furious I used to get at people who told me I would “enjoy” calculus once I understood it, when even the simplest calculus problem made me feel as if a small, angry rodent were shredding my brain-tissues from the inside. I imagine the experience of trying to read Ulysses feels this way to many people.
It is not that I am not willing to expend considerable effort in trying to understand something. But that is because those things are intrinsically difficult, not made deliberately and artificially so.
Rennix ends by giving some practical suggestions to how to read the book. She almost tempted me to take another go at it but I probably won’t. There are just too many other things that are of higher priority for me at this stage of my life.