Ulysses at 100: James Joyce's iconic novel is still a captivating paradox

"On one level, Ulysses is very encyclopaedic"

james-joyce A statue of James Joyce in The Temple Bar in Dublin, Ireland | Shutterstock

For Jibu Mathew George, professor at English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), a stray remark by his student summed up the experience of reading James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses. "It is like taking a child to a mall or department store. There are so many things he/she could buy there," recounts George, who has been teaching the doorstopper of a novel for over 12 years now. He says there couldn't be a better analogy for a literary masterpiece which has so much to offer even if it is predicated on the events of a single day. The modernist classic, dense and intoxicating, parallels Homer's Odyssey in its design, as it follows the encounters and engagements of an advertising canvasser Leopold Bloom over the course of one ordinary day in Dublin on 16 June 1904, its dizzying narrative arc stretching over 700 pages. 

The Irish writer Joyce is de rigueur reading in English literature departments all over the world. And much has been written about Ulysses in its 100th year of publication: Its pathbreaking reinvention of language duly acknowledged, its place as a milestone in western intellectual history fully cemented in the way it remains a "monument to the human condition". But, how has it aged in India? What are the challenges of teaching a seemingly intimidating classic which requires much patience, at least to get past the first hundred pages. When few "Eng Hons" students dare to tread beyond Joyce's more accessible, early works like Dubliners and A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man? "On one level, Ulysses is very encyclopaedic. It contains a lot of miscellaneous data which would otherwise be excluded from a realistic narrative. So, in that sense students are expected to have some cultural repertoire at their disposal, some prior exposure to reading texts on different levels. Like Homer, of course, the way language is used, a bit of European literature, some understanding of Dickens and Walter Pater, the Anglo-Saxon chronicles and the Latinate prose. On the other hand, the book is also very relatable," says George, highlighting the captivating paradox that is at the heart of reading Ulysses. He points our attention to a particularly tricky chapter/episode in the book called 'The Oxen of the Sun', which a magazine editor once described thus: “I think this episode might also have been called Hades for the reading of it is like being taken the rounds of hell.” It takes place in a maternity hospital in Dublin and the phrase refers to a pastiche of styles as it traces the growth of English as a language. In turn, it is made to parallel the growth of the fetus in the womb. "In India, early Joyce is read at the undergraduate level, while later Joyce like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, which is even more unique and esoteric, is recommended for Master's and later," adds George who completed his doctoral dissertation on Ulysses. Over the years, he's written a number of academic papers on it, apart from a book called Ulysses Quotīdiānus: James Joyce’s Inverse Histories of the Everyday

While a serious examination of Ulysses can be more appropriately undertaken at the Master's level, there will always be early readers who will experience the complete "newness" of the text with reckonings like "I have never been more intrigued". For Prisha Rewar, now in her third year of BA (Hons) in English at Jesus and Mary College, Ulysses happened sometime between school and college.  For her, it was a "joyous" read, and was never seen through a "literary-critical lens." She was constantly reminded of Mrs Dalloway, a 1925 novel by Virginia Woolf about a day in the life of a high-society woman in post-World War I England. Woolf had famously considered Ulysses with scorn in her early letters when she read it first. "I kept on going back and forth between the two texts. But, the timeline traced in the book was very new to me. It was a very different classic in a good way. But I must say I was quite lost in the end. I couldn't figure it out. I kept thinking but what did the end want you to know? What was the output I was supposed to get from the book?," admits Rewar. 

Rimli Bhattacharya, professor in the arts faculty of Delhi university, teaches Joyce's short stories. Even though she hasn't taught Ulysses in her MA class, she does recognise the importance it has come to assume. She avers that without the breakthrough that Joyce achieved with his writing style and the image play in Ulysses, other experiments later in the 20th century wouldn't have happened, including perhaps by Salman Rushdie himself. "Students do get overwhelmed by Ulysses, but if they have a good navigator who need not always be a teacher, someone who has delved into the book and enjoyed it, then it can be rewarding," says Bhattacharya. She did study Ulysses as a text while pursuing her PhD at Brown University in the 1980s, along with Marcel Proust and William Faulkner. "That was my first serious engagement with Joyce. I remember feeling very lost. I asked one of my teachers that it's so rich and sensuous, but what can I write about it? I felt very powerless to write about it. I think it is a book that if one surrenders to, they enjoy it a lot more."

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