The Defining Moment of Modernist Literature

There are certain literary works about which it is universally agreed that everyone should read them once in their lives.  The traditional classics, of course: Homer, the other Greeks, Virgil and certain other Romans.  Dante and Beowulf.  Then there are the more modern works such as Cervantes and Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Voltaire.  There are books among the Romantics and Victorians that are considered mandatory: Austen, two of the Brontë sisters (probably the wrong ones, but that’s a post for another day), Dickens and Thackaray.  Melville.  After that, perhaps Hemingway and Fitzgerald, maybe interspersed with some Salinger and Woolf to keep people honest.  The list above does not attempt to be comprehensive, it’s just off the top of my head… but most people know which classics they should have read by now.

Ulysses by James Joyce - First edition

There are some gaps in my own reading, even of the limited list above.  I haven’t read enough of the non-Homer and Virgil classics.  And I’m missing a boatload of poets and dramatists, mainly because I prefer prose (which made reading Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Dante a chore).

But I can finally hold my head up high despite all of this.  You see, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses from cover to cover.  In fact, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Why, I can hear people asking as they scratch their heads, is Ulysses so significant?  It won’t change the fact that I’m woefully lacking in Yeats and Cicero, after all.

Well there are a couple of answers to that one.  The first is perhaps more banal: even among people who self-describe as extremely well-read, there are many who only pretend to have read the thing.  No one likes to admit that they haven’t cracked a significant volume open, but unless it was specifically mandated in college, most won’t have.  That, alone, makes me happy to have taken the effort.

The second reason is because Joyce was anointed as the absolute master of modernist literature and, since the Modernists (note capital M), like all -ists believed that their movement was the be-all and end-all of artistic relevance, he was therefore the greatest writer to ever live.

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but it’s fair to say that, by  adopting a number of then-revolutionary techniques, modernism (unlike its successor, post-modernism, which has contributed little to anything but irrelevant and impractical political stances) did help to mold what we consider contemporary prose.  If nothing else, stream-of-consciousness has become a perfectly valid modern-day tool.

And which book is the standard-bearer for stream-of-consciousness?  Well, it has to be Ulysses, doesn’t it?  An argument might be made for Woolf, but it would be a short one, mainly because most people agree that Joyce was the writer who epitomizes this technique, and Ulysses is the novel where he shows it off.

Joyce Ulysses Period REview Clipping

OK.  So the book is relevant.  But how is it to read?

That answer also has two facets.  The first is that of a reader approaching it for the first time.  The amount of ink dedicated to explaining how to go about that is astounding (it’s a good thing we don’t get our ink from squids, or mass extinctions would have ensued).  They tell you to first familiarize yourself with homer, then read the manuals and commentaries and then…


If you’re a reader of this blog, then you are likely to be pretty well-read and of above-average intelligence and culture.  In fact, the mere fact that you’ve heard of Ulysses and are thinking of picking it up probably means that you don’t need to do all that to read a mere novel.  No matter if that book is the vaunted champion of the modernist world.

Pick it up.  Turn to the first page.  Read to the end.  You will catch some of the allusions.  You will miss others.  But, crucially, you will have formed your own opinion about it.  The book will have a shape inside your head unaffected by what others have said or thought.  It will be your reading.  And that is priceless.

Only afterwards does the second facet of the answer come into play.  Only once read and digested should you go back through it and understand its relationship with the classic material and the underlying irony of the comparative faithfulness of the two Penelopes, as well as the differing attitudes of the parallel Odysseuses.  And all the rest of what is hidden below the surface.

But whether that effort is worth your time must come from your first reading.  Does your mind get pulled in by the dangerous undertows of the underlying narrative?  If so, it is a book worth studying.  If not, onto the next.  Ultimately, the book needs to stand on its own.

Does it?  Well, I’m not going to answer that.  If you want to find out, you’ll have to take join the honorable ranks of those who have finished Ulysses.

As for me, I’ve read the supposed bugaboo of the twentieth century.  But we all know that this one is just the famous sibling.  The true elephant in the room is Finnegan’s Wake.  Kind of like Ulysses, but at night, while in a fever dream.