Often started, seldom finished. That’s the knock on James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Everyone knows Buck Mulligan is “stately” and “plump,” but by the time Stephen Dedalus’ allusive stream of consciousness gives way to Leopold Bloom’s humanist point of view in the fourth chapter, many readers have given up. Too long. Too wordy. Too confusing.
However, for those who have tried to read “Ulysses” but were unable to finish (or thought about it and said they did), two new books offer something of a corrective.
In “The House of Ulysses,” translated by Nick Caistor (Dalkey Archive: 280 pp., $14.95 paper), Spanish novelist Julián Ríos offers a guide that endeavors to entertain rather than educate. In an interview published in the literary magazine Context, he describes “The House of Ulysses” as “a fiction-essay or kind of meta-novel.”
Ríos’ main character, referred to as the Cicerone, a guide, leads a group of visitors through the book’s 18 chambers, one for each chapter of “Ulysses.” Dressed “in rigorous black with a purple polka-dot bow-tie, long-legged and pallid, white streaks in chestnut hair smoothed back with brilliantine, a blind man’s glasses, a straggly mustache,” the Cicerone is a stand-in for Joyce himself: part carnival barker, part scholar.
Other characters include the portly professor Ludwig Jones, an “Orsonwellian Falstaff about to burst the seams of his lizard-green tweed suit” and a man with a Macintosh computer, a play on one of “Ulysses’ ” most enduring mysteries — a character who shows up in various scenes and is identified only as “the man in the Macintosh.” The group is rounded out by a trio of readers: a mature fellow named Ananias, a young woman named Babel or Belle with “laughing black eyes” who affects a “Ulysses Museum” T-shirt, and a fusty old Critic. Ríos’ readers may recognize these characters from his postmodernist mega-work, “Larva: A Mid-Summer Night’s Babel.” But in “The House of Ulysses,” the readers are addressed simply as A, B and C.
A typical “room” includes a brief summary of the corresponding chapter in “Ulysses” by the Cicerone, some scholarship from the Professor, the schema that Joyce provided early critics courtesy of the man with the Macintosh, and some playful punning from the troika of readers. Then the Cicerone proceeds through “passageways” that consist of short, discursive reflections on various aspects of the novel.
“The House of Ulysses,” though rigidly structured, has no plot. The characters, such as they are, serve as devices to animate an extended conversation about the book in a way that captures the spirit of Joyce’s jouissance, introduces the reader to rudimentary background information necessary for deciphering the novel (Homer’s “Odyssey,” for instance, or Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”) and engages in considerable wordplay. Here’s an early exchange regarding Stephen Dedalus in Chapter 3, the point where many readers move on:
Professor Jones was close to roaring. What’s in a name? LEOpold is feline, just as Stephen is canine. “Dogsbody,” Mulligan calls him.
It also means servile, said C.
A vile sir? asked B.
Vile is evil as dog is God. The body of God: Godsbody? asked A.
The result is a work of criticism, albeit in disguise, that succeeds in making “Ulysses” immediate to readers familiar with the book and accessible to those reading it for the first time. “It is an easy house to run,” Ríos writes, and a fun house too, and I strongly recommend it to those unable to finish “Ulysses.”
If Ulysses is a house, claims Declan Kiberd, it’s one that’s been overrun by academics of a highly specialized nature, analyzing every word until they’ve lost sight of the big picture. In other words, the critics have overstayed their welcome, a point Kiberd makes again and again in “‘Ulysses’ and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece” (W.W. Norton: 416 pp., $17.95 paper).
As a professor of Anglo-Irish literature at University College, Dublin, the question of accessibility is of tantamount importance to Kiberd. He aims to demystify the aura of impenetrability surrounding the novel by demonstrating how “Joyce’s project was indeed to rejoin the sacred to the everyday.”
According to Kiberd, Stephen Dedalus is an example of how not to live: a petty, unwashed narcissist who looks down at others even while he gets drunk and starts a brouhaha in a brothel. Bloom, though Jewish, “is more Christlike than any of his fellow citizens, being constantly willing to put himself in the other fellow’s position.” He, not Stephen, provides an example of how to live in a world whose inhabitants are continually at war with one another.
If Ríos adopts the tone of a gaggle of over-caffeinated graduate students, Kiberd’s book reads like a series of lectures from a wise and learned professor. Though the authors are very different, the books have much in common. Ultimately they share the same goal: to include more readers in the conversation about one of the most rewarding novels ever written.
Perhaps William Faulkner’s counsel is best: “You should approach Joyce as a preacher approaches the Old Testament — with faith.”
Ruland is the author of the short-story collection “Big Lonesome.”