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.


Getting Deeply Classical

Aphrodite in the Trojan War

When one thinks about the Classics, Homer is usually among the first names that comes up.  Sadly, of course, if you say “Homer” to most people, they will immediately think of a yellow cartoon character with an affinity for Duff Beer – but that’s fine, the original probably wouldn’t do much for them anyway.

Homer, as we know, it the name given to the person who compiled two of the great masterpieces of Classical Antiquity: The Iliad and The Odyssey.  There has been much speculation regarding whether he was a historical figure or not, but we won’t get into that, now, as there are much more interesting things to discuss, especially with regards to which version of Homer should be read by anyone with truly “Classically Educated” pretentions and also the question of if any other work has had such a direct-line, continuous descent to modern times.

The first point is extremely interesting.  Assuming one doesn’t read ancient Greek (and yes, we should all read ancient Greek or at least change the name of this blog, as it used to be one of the requirements), and that your language of preference is English, there are many options available to you.  The first is to go with a prose translation.  This is the quick, easy way of becoming immersed in the glorious tapestry that is the mythology of the Trojan war.  It is a much more accessible way to to get a clear grasp on events, and is the best option for casual readers.

And by casual readers, we mean wimps.

Greek Text Odyssey

A true Homeric enthusiast will insist on a verse translation, and there are many, many available – from great poets to men and women that no one has ever heard of.  Poetic translations are evaluated on a number of criteria, the most important of which is fidelity to the original – and the tradeoffs: is it more important to be faithful to the meter or the rhyme or the meaning?  Hard to do, I imagine – plus, you need to be able to read ancient Greek.  Here’s a decent primer, if you’re looking into one of these.  They are not for wimps…

But they’re not for the true, died-in-the-wool elitist, either.


For he who must have bragging rights, there is only one option.  Chapman’s Homer.  This 1000 page block of epic poetry in Elizabethan English is the true test of an advanced reader (OK, OK, we’ll get into Finnegan’s Wake at some other point) who is not content with reading The Odyssey and The Iliad, but needs to read it in the first English translation, the one that influenced many of the great writers in the English language.  The challenge here, especially in The Iliad, is to avoid being drawn into the language, rhythm and rhyme and losing track of what is actually going on.  The Odyssey is much easier to digest, for some reason – possibly because it has more action and less talking (despite the battlefield setting of The Iliad).

It is a long, difficult read, but it is worth it.  After reading it, you will not feel a need to read another translation (unless you are a scholar, of course), as you will have ultimate bragging rights among people who’ve read this (and what is academia other than knowing more than the guy sitting next to you?).

This one gets our vote.

But what to do next?  Homer’s odyssey didn’t end with Homer.  There are a few books that come after that are direct-line descendants of the ones he actually (or mythologically) wrote.  In chronological order, they are:

The Aenid.  This is the poem that made Virgil a household name (well, if your household is composed of literate individuals).  There are several editions available, and it’s a significant piece of Roman mythology.

The Divine Comedy.  Clearly, Dante’s household was a literate one, as he had not only heard of Virgil, but chose him as his muse.  Even the deeply classically educated among you won’t be able to decipher the sneaky attacks on Dante’s contemporaries and political enemies in this one, but just chuckle at the fact that they’re still being tormented centuries later.  Most people never get past Inferno, which is clearly the best bit, but to earn respect, you’d best go through the whole thing.  This edition is recommended because it is a) cheap, b) contains illustrations by Gustave Doré, c) looks great on a shelf and d) is translated by Longfellow.

Ulysses.  If you’ve read it, you will have nearly supreme street cred among people who hardly ever go out into a street.  The only ones who will be able to look down their noses at you are the ones who claim to have understood Finnegan’s Wake, and you really don’t need to worry about them as whatever drug they’re on that gave them that illusion will soon finish them off.

– No credit is given for knowing the name of Bart’s teacher.


Tough guys and gals, of course, don’t even need this post.  They pick up the original Greek, in manuscript form, and end up looking like the picture above.  We salute you.

Anyway, that is our Homeric lesson for the day.  We’d love to hear your experiences and recommendations.  We’d also love for you to tell us that we’re elitist jerks (this is a very validating thing to us).  Comments are all welcome!


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