Ever-mindful of the gender imbalance on my reading list, I decided it was high time for a feminist writer to teach me some shit. My next selection was Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
The first edition of Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 by Hogarth Press… which was (coincidentally, ha!) founded, owned and operated by Virginia Woolf and her husband. That’s one way to get published, fuck the haters!
Woolf was reportedly inspired by reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, though she wasn’t a fan. Writing Mrs Dalloway was really Woolf’s way of saying “Look, mate, here’s how you do it right!”. She mirrors the format of Ulysses, with both books taking place over the course of a single day, but in this case it’s a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an aging Pommy socialite.
Having read the two introductions to Mrs Dalloway (two! plus a foreword!), going in I knew I could safely assume that (1) Virginia Woolf was brilliant, (2) Virginia Woolf was bonkers, and (3) this was going to be a really heavy read.
And holy smokes – “heavy” might not have been the right word, but it sure was something. I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing around the inside of Woolf’s skull. It’s a “stream of consciousness” suitable for white water rafting. Woolf has us saying hello to a childhood frien-NOPE, we’re admiring a tree-NO WAIT, we’re reminiscing about a past lov-HANG ON, we’re buying flowers… on and on it goes.
I had no idea what the fuck was happening, not for a single moment. I re-read every sentence three times, and still couldn’t follow it at all. What I did manage to absorb I can summarise here in the form of a few Mrs Dalloway Fast Facts:
Mrs D is throwing a party
She feels old
She likes reading memoirs
She’s maybe a little bit queer…
There’s some peripheral guy she walks by in the park, Septimus. He’s shell shocked out the wazoo and it’s making his foreign wife miserable. He decides he loves life but hates doctors, so he throws himself out the window. Not a great end, all told. Septimus and Mrs D are the two primary characters, but they never actually meet – his suicide just features in the party gossip she hears later.
Yeah, it’s that kind of book – the kind that makes me feel extremely stupid. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was Missing The Point the whole time I was reading it. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like watching an episode of Seinfeld, but harder: you keep waiting for there to be a point or a plot, but none materialises. There’s no literal interpretation, it’s just layer upon layer of metaphor until you’re buried so deep you can’t breathe. And the best part is: according to the critiques I read online afterwards, Mrs Dalloway is a “much more accessible” version of Ulysses. So that’s the story of how Ulysses got demoted to the very bottom of my to-be-read list 😉
If I had to say what I got out Mrs Dalloway, it would probably boil down to the following: everyone is bonkers. You shouldn’t get married out of obligation. London is pretty. Women are brave to write letters without the help of a man. Teenaged daughters are annoying. Young women who wear party dresses that stop above the ankle will get called slutty behind their backs. Hosting a party is hard, especially when your girl crush shows up unexpectedly and the talk of the night is the shell-shocked veteran who topped himself. So, I guess, do with all of that what you will…
I would recommend Mrs Dalloway, wholeheartedly, to anyone who is far, far smarter than me.
“This book was drier than a popcorn fart. What happened in it? It’s hard to say. A veteran killed himself and a bunch of stuffy old English people had a party. That’s the whole story in a nutshell…” – Harmony
“Self loathing non sense.” – Richard Gianelli
“Catcher In The Rye… as told by middle-aged English farts. The party! The party! Let us listen to an old farty woman stream her consciousness to us to hear, pointless thoughts that go nowhere. That’s pretty much this book in a nutshell. Very boring. Mrs Dalloway whines about not marrying Peter Clark, but Pete’s been in India for five years. I’m sure she would have been unhappy either way, marrying him or not, him leaving or not; all she does is party, chill with friends, and rinse & repeat. Ughhh.” – Allen
One of the things that’s been bringing me joy during, y’know, all of this is The To-Read List podcast. Today, I’m drawing inspiration from one of their episodes (which, in turn, was inspired by a Tweet from LitHub). The idea is to come up with a list of authors you’d want to be in lock-down with, or in quarantine with. You might love Virginia Woolf’s writing, but could you really stand living with her 24 hours-a-day for weeks on end? Ernest Hemingway might be brilliant, but what would it be like to share a bathroom with him? I put my thinking cap on and came up with my very own list (technically two, one for living authors a la The To Read List and one for dead authors a la LitHub): my ultimate lock-down author share-house.
Important note: this isn’t about the authors whose work I love the most. I had to scratch a whole bunch of brilliant writers for various reasons: I’d be too nervous to talk in front of Helen Garner, I’d be too intimidated by Sally Rooney (and only a little bit sour that we’re the same age), I figured I’d be cheating if I chose Elena Ferrante so that I could be one of the select few who know her secret identity, and I’d be scared of distracting Carmen Maria Machado or Roxane Gay from writing their next book. This is about the authors I reckon I could live with for an extended period under share-house circumstances.
Living Author Lock-Down Share-House
First thing’s first: I’m going to want someone around who can make me laugh. Someone who can find the funny in the mundane, someone who can make fun without being cruel, someone who will regale me with entertaining anecdotes when the days get too long. I can’t think of anyone who fits the bill better than David Sedaris. Read my full review of his essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day.
I’d also want someone around who can teach me some stuff, and I reckon Colson Whitehead fits the bill. The guy didn’t get the MacArthur Genius Grant for nothing! He’s written about everything from history to Harlem to politics to poker. If we were in lock-down together, I’d struggle not to constantly pepper him with questions…
It can’t all be work and no play, though. We’d need someone with some aesthetic sensibilities to brighten up the place – and maybe draw us, just for lols. That’s why I’d call Mira Jacob up to the plate. I never thought of myself as a graphic novel reader until I read Good Talk. I’d happily take all of her dish-washing and laundry duties if she captured our lock-down conversations in return. Read my full review of Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir, Good Talk, here.
Dead Author Lock-Down Share-House
Whenever something crappy happens in my life (and I reckon getting locked down in a share-house during a global pandemic would count), I hear Nora Ephron‘s voice in my head, saying: “Everything’s copy”. I reckon she’d be the queen of making the best of a bad situation, and she’d get us all working on collaborative creative projects to release once regular business resumed.
And, it’s a combo deal: I’d love to have Anita Loos (sans her shit-head husband) in my author lock-down share-house, because I’m sure she and Nora would get along. Sure, I’d probably end up the odd-one-out, watching them write brilliant screenplays while I sipped my wine in the corner, but it’d be worth it to get them in the same room and watch the magic happen. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
Speaking of entertainment: I reckon Anaïs Nin would be captivating. She was adventurous, generous, and by all accounts, fun! I mean, anyone willing to write gloriously literary smut on commission has got to be worth talking to. And, if we didn’t get along, I’d feel less guilty about sneaking into her room and reading her diary… (I mean, I’d never do that. Ahem. Probably.)
And, finally, I’d want George Eliot in the share-house, and I’d want to ask all manner of questions, about writing and politics and life… but the one that’s front-and-center in my mind at the moment is: have we been mis-gendering George all this time? This has come up as a result of the “Reclaim Her Name” project, for which Baileys (the major sponsors of the Women’s Prize) is re-publishing a collection of works they’ve determined were written by women under masculine pseudonyms, including Middlemarch. In the (inevitable) backlash that ensued, I came across a couple of accounts that suggest George might have adopted the name that more accurately reflected their identity, rather than purely bowing to the patriarchal constraints of the time for publishing writers. Essentially, I’d want George to have the opportunity to decide for themselves, with today’s sensibilities and understanding, how they wish to identify. And then I’d start digging for dirt, like the gossip-hound I am deep down, on all their high-falootin’ Victorian friends…
Who would you want in your lock-down author share-house? Living or dead, dream big! Let me know in the comments below.
Sometimes, I think we throw around the words “life changing” with regards to books a bit too casually. A book can be brilliant, challenging, wonderful, and enjoyable without necessarily actually changing your life. When I took a look back over all the books I’ve read (as best I can recall), there are only a handful that I can pinpoint as having materially affected the direction of my life, and the choices that I subsequently made. So, today I bring you an honest-to-goodness list of books that changed my life.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the first book my (now) husband ever loaned me. That sounds trite and cliche (almost as trite and cliche as calling Nietzche life-changing), but I promised you honesty and that’s what you’re getting. On the face of it, we didn’t have a lot in common in those early days: he was a bartender, I was working for a bank, he was chronically late, I was always early, he rarely left his neighbourhood, I flew back and forth across the country every couple of weeks for work… and yet, what we always shared was a love of books, and an inclination to talk about them in depth. It all began with his loaning me this tattered copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Sometimes, I wonder whether things might’ve worked out differently if he’d handed me another book – The Road, perhaps, or his beloved John Berryman collection. But this was the one he pressed into my hands, and so it went. To this day, we still share book recommendations and argue happily for hours about the merits of a given work of literature – I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In My Skin by Kate Holden
Looking further back in my reading archive, there’s this memoir: In My Skin by Kate Holden. I must’ve read and re-read and re-read this book dozens of times in my late teens. I remember sprawling out across the foam mattress on my rickety bed in my teeny-tiny dorm room in my final year of boarding school, and devouring it cover to cover. Holden wrote of a world that was recognisable, but still so completely foreign to my own that it fascinated me: she was a heroin addict, a sex worker, and lived a life of instability and risk that I could hardly fathom. And yet, she and I shared so much in common: moodiness, determination, a love of literature… I credit this book, and Holden’s incredible evocative writing, with my emotional development and my capacity to feel deep empathy for people who live lives different to my own. I think it also helped form my interest in activism, particularly in areas of feminism and sex work.
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
Okay, technically Hills Like White Elephants isn’t a book, it’s a short story (ironically, I didn’t really like Hemingway’s novel-length work and it made zero impression on me, but that’s for another time). Still, its impact on me was so significant that I include it here. I read Hills Like White Elephants in an elective course in the first year of my undergraduate degree. We read dozens of short stories for that class – Gogol’s The Overcoat, of course, and Virginia Woolf’s The Mark On The Wall – but none moved, challenged, or changed me more than this one. It’s tough to pinpoint why. Perhaps it’s because it’s the first time I recall realising the levels and layers that can exist in literature, how stories change upon close inspection, how intimation and veiled subtext can tell us more than the words on the page. Perhaps it’s the loaded subject matter, the kaleidescope of perspectives offered on the topic of abortion (and, by extension, the agency of women) in so few words. It introduced me to the idea of writing as a craft, like carpentry or mosaic tiling. I don’t think I’d ever been particularly interested in short stories before reading this one – I figured they were like teething husks for writers before they started on the “real” work of novels – but all that changed with this gem from Hemingway. That bastard.
Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
I’ll try not to harp on about this one too much, because long-time Keeper Upperers have heard me talk about it a lot, but no list of books that changed my life would be complete without Nineteen Eighty Four. My father handed me a copy when I was about thirteen (it’s hard to remember exactly), and I think I’ve read it about twenty times over since. This book changed everything for me: without it, I might never have developed an interest in politics, a passion for advocacy, a dedication to active resistance. Every time I show up to a protest, or write to a Member for Parliament, or sign a petition, I’m doing so because this book so affected me and changed my understanding of the world. I’m forever grateful to my father for sensing the right moment in my life to hand it to me; the gift wasn’t the book, it was the opening of my eyes to the realities of oppression and power.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
All of the other books that changed my life I’ve listed here so far are ones I read before I started Keeping Up With The Penguins. So, here’s one that I’ve actually read and reviewed for the purposes of this blog: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Like the Hemingway story, it’s hard for me to pin down exactly why or how it changed me. I think, perhaps, it’s the way it challenged me to question my own assumptions. The plot twist of this book (about seventy pages in) pulled the rug out from underneath me like no book ever had before. So, it’s set the bar for all future plot twists pretty damn high! But above and beyond the masterful writing, this story poked some serious holes in everything I thought I understood about personhood, humanity, and the lines that demarcate us. I’ve made it my life’s mission to thrust this book into the hands of every reader I can (and so far, I’m doing pretty good, I think!). Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.
The Islanders by F J Campbell
Of all the books that changed my life on this list, this one is probably the most self-indulgent, so I hope you’ll forgive me – but I can’t deny that it was life-changing in the most wonderful way. The Islanders is the first book that an author ever sent to me, in the hopes that I would review it and share my thoughts with Keeper Upperers. Until Fiona reached out to me, I had no idea that there would be writers out there who would think that my opinions on their books were worth having (indeed, most of the authors I’d reviewed up until that point were long dead!). It was reading The Islanders, and Fiona’s very kind encouragement, that opened up a door to a whole new world for me: “real” book reviewing, where I could say what I thought about books on a public platform and people would care (and sometimes even pay me for my efforts!). It’s now my life’s work, and I’ve reviewed hundreds of books since, but I’ll never forget this one (you know what they say…).
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
How weird is it that one of the books that changed my life is one that I didn’t even like that much? Moby Dick was a real slog to read, I’m not going to lie. I would drift off in the middle of endless chapters about whale sperm and oil paintings, wondering what the heck Melville was getting at. But this was the book I was reading when I decided to quit my job at the bank, to pursue a life of writing and reading and creativity. This was the book that inspired me to make a “proper go” of Keeping Up With The Penguins, and various other projects. This was the book that made me realise a classic need not be “readable” in order to be extraordinarily important and beneficial to have read. My tattered copy of Moby Dick (another one “borrowed” from my now-husband’s collection actually, ha! We’ve come full circle!) is talismanic, now, and it’s probably the first thing I would grab in the event of a fire. Read my full review of Moby Dick here.
So, there you have it: the seven books that changed my life, and how! I can only imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t read any one of them… What about you? What books have changed your life? Let me know in the comments!
Every booklover I know has some secret shame. Whether it’s a classic they’ve never read, or a “bad” book they love, there’s something that they hope their fellow booklovers never discover. Well, no more! Inspired by the radical vulnerability exhibited by the My Favorite Murder gals in their memoir Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, I’m going to put a bookish twist on a game from another one of my most-beloved podcasts, The Guilty Feminist. The host, Deborah Frances-White, starts every show with what she calls “exfoliation of shame”, declaring “I’m a feminist, but…” and confessing her sins. Here are my ten bookish confessions…
I’m a booklover, but… I hated The Great Gatsby
I’m starting off with an easy one, one I feel very little shame about at all, really: I really hated The Great Gatsby. I know, I know, it’s a “beautiful” story of the destructive power of the American dream… but it stank. The supposed quality of the writing (which, yeah, was okay) didn’t make up for the nonsense story. I suppose I might’ve liked it more if it hadn’t always been lauded as the “great American novel” or the “definitive story of the Jazz Age”. It is neither. It’s the story of a wealthy guy exploiting his privilege to stalk his married neighbour, and the narrator thinks he’s the first person to discover that it’s fun to drink and party with pretty girls. Pffft! Hate it. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.
I’m a booklover, but… Mr Rochester is one of my problematic faves.
I loved Jane Eyre. Charlotte is definitely my favourite of the Brontës. The only thing is, her romantic lead – Mr Rochester – is problematic, to say the least. He exploits his position of power over his young governess in ways that would definitely see him called out on social media in a post-#metoo world. He’s a racist git who locks his Creole wife in the attic, because she had the audacity to get a bit cranky with him. I know all of this. And, yet, I can’t help but feel my heart go all aflutter when he and Jane get their happy ending. I’m not even a romantic, I swear! There’s just something about the two of them, and seeing such an earnest heroine finally get the love she’s been hoping for… I try to comfort myself with the fact that at least his wife extracted her revenge, setting a fire that left him severely wounded. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.
I’m a booklover, but… I almost never listen to audiobooks.
I’m constantly espousing the benefits of audiobooks. I will shout down anyone who tries to say that listening to an audiobook isn’t “really” reading. I think that they’re an incredible, accessible resource, especially for folks with low vision or other disabilities that make traditional reading formats difficult. You could say I’m a strong advocate, to put it mildly. And yet, I never seem to actually get around to reading them myself! I have the app on my phone, I’m all set up, but there are just SO MANY GREAT PODCASTS to keep up with, all my listening time is used up on them. I know I’m only hurting myself, in the long run, and missing out on some great reading experiences. I’m actually thinking of joining one of those audiobook challenges, to give me the boot up the bum I clearly need… (if there’s one you can recommend, please drop it in the comments below!)
I’m a booklover, but… I’m really skeptical about self-published books.
Okay, now we’re getting into the real stuff. One of the perks of being a book reviewer is that I get sent all types of books from all types of authors, including self-published ones. I’m lucky in that most of the self-published books I’ve been sent have been great! But *deep breath* I’ve also been sent some shockers, and I’ve encountered some self-published authors who are real dickheads. I don’t want to let a few bad apples spoil the barrel, but unfortunately they’ve made me super-skeptical, and I rarely pursue self-published books because of it. I know there are plenty of booklovers who love (even prefer) self-published books, and would say that I’m a snob or an elitist for being so selective with them – I promise, I’m not. I’ve just been burned before, and I can’t help that it makes me a little skittish.
I’m a booklover, but… I own books I’ll probably never read.
First, this is a simple matter of quantity: at last count, there were well over three hundred unread books on my shelves, I acquire at least a few more each week, and I very rarely part with books. Even if I read a book a day for years (which, given how chunky some of them are, seems like a pipe dream), I still wouldn’t get through them all. Then, there’s the matter of mood and taste. Keeping Up With The Penguins has really opened up my world when it comes to reading, and I’m far more game to try something new than I would have been before I started… but there are still some books I doubt I’ll ever be in the mood to pluck from my shelves. Many of them were gifts, or unsolicited review copies, or books I bought without really thinking it through. Why keep them, then? All kinds of reasons, but mostly “just in case”.
I’m a booklover, but… sometimes I recommend books I don’t like, or have never read.
HOLD YOUR ROTTEN TOMATOES! I know this is pretty much the cardinal sin for a book blogger, but hear me out. I would never “fake” recommend a book in a review here on the blog. When I call a book Recommended on Keeping Up With The Penguins, you can be damn sure that I’ve read it, loved it, and want to press it into your hands. I’m talking about those personal one-on-one recommendations, where a friend says “Hey, can you recommend a book for me/my lover/my cat-sitter?”. I always ask what they have in mind, or if they can tell me some books they’ve loved in the past, and use that to guide my recommendation. Sometimes – I stress, only sometimes – their answers lead me to think of books that, even though I didn’t love them personally, would probably really suit them. Or, I think of a book I’ve heard a lot about that sounds like the kind of thing they’d enjoy, even though I’ve not yet read it yet. So, really, it’s a good thing, right? Instead of forcing on them only books that I really love for myself, I’m taking their tastes and preferences into account. Right? Right?
I’m a booklover, but… I just didn’t “get” Mrs Dalloway.
I’m pretty sure this one makes me both a bad booklover and a bad feminist. I really tried with Mrs Dalloway, I did. I’ve loved some of Virginia Woolf’s other writing, and I really thought I’d get a lot out of her (arguably) most famous novel. But I just didn’t “get” it! It was so hard to follow! I had to re-read every sentence three times, and even then, it all just leaked through, like the book turned my brain into a sieve. I think I actually *gulp* preferred Ulysses, the notoriously unreadable book to which Woolf was responding. I’m open to trying Mrs D again in the future, maybe I’ll get more out of it the second time round, but for now, I’d rather just re-watch The Hours. Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.
I’m a booklover, but… I find it really hard to DNF a book (any book, even one I hate).
For the uninitiated, to “DNF” means to abandon a book without finishing it – it’s a “did not finish”. I feel like every other booklover in the world has told me that it’s great to DNF a book, that it frees you up to read something you enjoy, that life’s too short to waste on books that won’t fulfill you. The thing is, I’m a dirty completionist at heart; when I start something, I feel compelled to finish it. That’s why I suffered through to the end of those dreadful self-published efforts I mentioned earlier, and books like The Great Gatsby, American Sniper, and others I really didn’t like. Maybe it’s foolishly optimistic of me, like there’s a small part of me that hopes it’ll turn around or magically get better… but, whatever the case, at least you can be confident that every book I review here, I have read from cover to cover.
I’m a booklover, but… sometimes I like the movie better than the book.
It’s rare that I watch film or TV adaptations of books. In fact, I don’t really watch all that many films or TV shows at all, so if I do happen to watch one based on a book, it’s usually just a happy coincidence. That said, sometimes I actually prefer the movie to the book (and yes, I heard you gasp out loud just now). I certainly enjoyed the HBO series of Game Of Thrones way more than I enjoyed the book version. Same goes for the HBO take on Fahrenheit 451 (which I actually reviewed here on the blog, by the way). I love the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s so much that I’ve sworn to myself I’ll never read the original Capote novella on which it is based, just in case it ruins it for me. I know the general wisdom is “don’t judge a book by its movie”, and normally the screen versions fall short, but there are exceptions.
I’m a booklover, but… I really judge people who don’t use bookmarks, or otherwise damage their books.
Look, I’m not saying they’re going to hell or anything, but seriously! I think the world would be a better place if no one ever dog-eared a book or cracked a spine ever again. And I don’t judge them that harshly (I mean, I married one such monster – and I only occasionally shame him by sharing photos of books he’s destroyed on my Instagram). I’m more open to the idea of marginalia, where the defacement of a book actually serves the purpose of engaging with the text, or writing inscriptions in gifts to loved ones (always fun and heartwarming to find those in a secondhand book), but otherwise just… don’t. Get a bookmark, and/or a book sleeve, and show your books some goddamn respect. Sheesh!
Now come on, don’t leave me hanging, here! Share your bookish confessions in the comments below, and we can all exfoliate our shame together…
If you’d asked me a couple of years ago whether I thought I’d ever read 109 well-known books and publish a review of each and every one on a blog of my own creation, I would’ve said I seriously doubted it. If you’d told me the hundred-and-ninth book would be James Joyce’s Ulysses, I would’ve straight-up laughed in your face. This is the book that has scared and intimidated me more than any other, on any shelf in all the world. I’d heard that it was practically unreadable for the recreational bookworm, best left to the ivory-tower types, so I figured it was Not For Me. That’s why I left it ’til last. It sat on my to-be-read shelf for so long that the pages literally gathered cobwebs. But guess what, Keeper Upperers? “Last” finally came. It’s time to review Ulysses.
I want to say a couple of things right at the outset: firstly, thank you for all of your encouragement and tips on my Bloomsday Instagram post last year. I referred back to it before I began, and your support made all the difference! I also got lots of background information and guidance as I read from the Ulysses Guide. Unfortunately, it was still a work in progress at the time, so I could only follow it up to about the half-way point, then I had to switch to another online guide that wasn’t quite as good. Still, it served me well, and I highly recommend it!
Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, one of “a large family described by his father as ‘sixteen or seventeen children'”, according to the author bio. It should come as no surprise, then, that Joyce was deeply Irish, and his books are steeped in that literary tradition. Reading some Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and John McGahern first was a good idea, a way of easing myself into this way of seeing the world and writing about it.
Joyce started writing Ulysses in 1914, and had the early chapters ready to go by the end of 1917 (yes, he was a slow writer, among other things). He offered them to Harriet Shaw Weaver, then editor of The Egotist, thinking that she might want to serialise them as she had done with A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. She was happy to do so, but she couldn’t find a printer willing to do the job. Ulysses, by the standards of the day, was so smutty that any printer or publisher who touched it risked imprisonment.
Joyce convinced an American paper to print the chapters in 1918, but he was immediately subjected to extensive legal action for doing so. The US publishers were fined, and further installments were suppressed for a long time. It was a long row to hoe, but eventually Ulysses was published in full by Sylvia Beach, of the ever-popular Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co, in 1922. There have been at least eighteen editions published since then, and each one has introduced new errors and variations. The first alone was said to contain up to two thousand errors, but it is still widely considered to be the “most accurate” to Joyce’s authorial intent. The publication history of Ulysses is long and complex, but for the most salient parts, I highly recommend this episode of the podcast Annotated from Book Riot.
Ulysses is now generally considered to be one of the (if not, the) most important works of modernist literature. (For beginners: “modernism” was a post-WWI literary movement that tried to rebel against traditional forms of creative expression and representation – I’m sorry, I can’t be any more specific than that, because academics are still arguing over what constitutes a “modernist” book). When readers call it one of the greatest books in history, they usually refer to a few key things: Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique, the structure, the experimental prose, the puns and parodies, the allusions, and the rich characterisation. Yes, Ulysses is a hot mix of very literary stuff.
One thing I wish I’d known before I started is that most editions don’t mark the sections or “episodes” clearly. I don’t quite understand why, and it means it’s a little tricky to read Ulysses alongside an external guide, given that there are no markers to make sure you start/stop in the equivalent spots. So, if you’re going to pick up a copy, make sure you’ve got one that’s marked up clearly, if you need it, or an annotated edition with the reference text built-in.
Being able to follow the structure matters. Joyce very deliberately split the book into eighteen episodes, across three “books” or sections, in a way that roughly corresponds with the 24 episodes of Homer’s Odyssey. And that’s just the start of the parallels with the classic poem: Ulysses is, among other things, pretty much a direct adaptation, mapping the journey of Odysseus onto a day in the life of a man living in Dublin.
(I’ll try to keep this as brief as I can, but I won’t blame you if you skip. ahead to the end for my final verdict…)
The story begins at 8AM on 16 June 1904, when Stephen Dedalus wakes up (yes, we don’t begin with the protagonist, but if that’s enough to irk you, you’re in for a rough ride – strap in). Stephen’s come back to Ireland after some time abroad, to be with his mother when she passed away. He now lives in Martello Tower with Buck Mulligan (an ambitious, blasphemous medical student), and Haines (a well-meaning Brit). Mulligan has been talking shit about Stephen’s dead Mum, so things are a bit tense in the share-house. They all chat and snipe at one another over breakfast, and perform the morning ablutions. Mulligan hits Stephen up for a loan, causing Stephen to throw a tanty. He says he won’t come home tonight, as Mulligan – “the usurper” – has taken over the tower. He has a flair for the dramatic, ol’ Stephen, and he storms out.
He heads over to a school in Dalkey, where he teaches a class, but he doesn’t have a real good time doing it. When he goes to pick up his pay cheque, the headmaster lectures him about not pissing it all away. He then asks Stephen for a favour (seriously! these people!), to get a letter published in the local paper. Stephen’s all “yeah, okay”, and leaves to catch his tram.
Here’s where we first encounter some real Ulysses weirdness: Stephen starts monologuing about all kinds of weird shit, to no one in particular. He decides he can’t be bothered dropping by his aunt’s place like he’d planned, he picks his nose, he writes some poetry. In the end, he gives up, and finds a nice rock to sit on and has a good mope (he can’t go home, after his tantrum – besides, Mulligan has the keys).
These three episodes make up the first “section”. After reading them, I was thinking: hey, Ulysses doesn’t seem so bad! Even with some funky punctuation and grammatical choices, I could still follow the dialogue and the movements of the characters. The third episode, the monologue-y one, read more like poetry than prose, but it wasn’t as impenetrable as I was expecting. I managed to take in at least some of it (not the bits that were in French), so I was feeling confident. Full steam ahead!
In the fourth episode, the day starts again, at 8AM (yep, Ulysses is very non-linear, but at least we stay within a single day for the most part). This time, we see the story from Leopold Bloom’s perspective – finally, our protagonist emerges! He talks to his cat, buys a kidney from the butcher, fries it up and eats it for breakfast (the kidney, not the cat). He also makes tea and toast for his wife, all the while musing about how they’re both having affairs. Molly – the wife – gets a bad rap in a lot of the criticism of this book, but I’m going to say here and now that she’s my girl. I love her. She calls Leopold “Poldy”, which I thought was just fucking adorable (especially after I learned from the reading guide that this was Joyce’s way of showing us how she “delionises” her husband, reminding him who’s boss). I liked Poldy, too, even though he was a bit of a perv – his episodes were, generally speaking, a lot more readable than Stephen’s. Anyway, after a bit of a chat with the missus, Leopold gets dressed and heads off to a funeral.
The next thirty pages or so are very fragmentary and kind of disjointed. Each paragraph is preceded by a news headline, which my guide said “simultaneously interrupted and framed the prose”. Um, okay? I did manage to piece together that Leopold is 38 years old, works as a newspaper canvasser, and after the funeral he heads over to place an advertisement for the House Of Keys Tea Shop in the Evening Telegraph. There’s a bit of wheeling and dealing, then he’s sent off in search of an image to use for the ad. Throughout these professional and social encounters, people treat poor Leopold pretty badly – they’ll flat out ignore him, bully him, and speak carelessly in front of him. A lot of it seems to have to do with the fact that he’s Jewish (yikes).
Leopold goes from the newspaper office down to Grafton Street, the posh shopping district, and stops for a light lunch at Davy Byrne’s Pub. His mind wanders, so we wander with it: he goes from thinking about how much it stinks that Catholics can’t use contraception (forcing them to have large families, which keeps them in poverty), to thinking about how Molly’s probably going to be meeting her lover at 4PM. It’s only 1PM by this point, but Poldy’s trying not to watch the clock. He runs into an ex-girlfriend as he leaves the pub, and he muses on how smooth he is with women (told you he’s a perv!). Then, when he heads to the library to get the image for the ad logo, he spots Molly’s lover – Boylan, we’ll talk more about him soon – and looks the other way to avoid him.
Joyce then switches back to Stephen’s POV at this point: he’s delivering a lecture on Hamlet in the library, which was pretty much just an excuse for Joyce to show off how many Shakespeare references he could cram into every page. Leopold drops in briefly, looking for his logo thing. When all is said and doneth, Stephen and Buck Mulligan head down to the pub. The animosity from the morning show-down still simmers, but Buck knows Stephen has just been paid, so he’ll be good to shout a few beers.
The next episode is written as a series of vignettes and – if I understood them correctly – they all take place at the exact same time, in different parts of Dublin. Kind of like taking a panoramic photo, then looking at it inch by inch. The most notable ones include Leopold buying Molly. a book (a good, smutty one), and Boylan being infuriatingly charming, a real dapper rogue.
Once we slide back into a narrative (or what passes for a narrative in Joyce’s writing, anyway), things start to turn all musical and lyrical. There’s a lot of onomatopoeia, refrains, funny syntax. Leopold is back in the pub (he’s Irish!), flirting with some barmaids, when Boylan walks in. This causes Leopold to check the time, and he notices it’s 4PM – which means Boylan is late for his bonk appointment with Molly (awkward!). Bloom concludes: “Too late. She longed to go. That’s why. Woman. As easy stop the sea. Yes: all is lost.”
Next, we shift perspective (again!), this time to an anonymous working-class Dubliner who tells stories to “earn” his drinks. Sounds like a good gig if you can get it, sign me up! This episode bounces around a lot, and gets interrupted countless times – just like (you guessed it!) stories told in a pub. No shame in getting a bit lost in this part, I know I did! Basically, through this storyteller (drunk and unreliable as he may be), we see Leopold turn down the offer of a drink, because he knows he can’t afford to stand his round, and get into an argument with an Irish nationalist. It seems there’s a lot of rumours about Leopold around town, and he’s none too popular (which explains why everyone acts so shittily towards him). Unfortunately, this is where all the really dark anti-Semitism rears its head, and my heart really broke for the poor man. He leaves, under the guise of going to look for his friend, who (of course) shows up moments later, looking for Leopold in turn. Everyone talks shit about Leopold after he leaves. When he doubles back around, he and his mate finally get together and take off, just as another argument erupts.
Later, Leopold decides to have a bit of a sit-down at the beach, and just so happens to pick a spot near three teenage girls. Gerty is the “beautiful one”, and she is described in intimate detail. She has her eye on Leopold too, apparently (ugh). And here’s where our darling Poldy hits peak perv: he has a wank, right there on the beach, while everyone (including Gerty) watches some fireworks. Ick!
Let’s not linger on that nasty visual. Shortly thereafter, Leopold realises that his watch has stopped, and he starts to wonder whether Molly has finished bonking Boylan yet. He lays down to have a little nap before heading home.
Now, here’s where Joyce starts really showing off: the next episode is pretty much unintelligible. This was the first time while reading Ulysses that I truly had no idea what the fuck was going on, even with my trusty reading guide. If not for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and my dirty completionist heart, I would’ve given up right here. Example:
““For who is there who anything of some significance has apprehended but is conscious that that exterior splendour may be the surface of a downwardtrending lutulent reality or on the contrary anyone so is there illuminated as to not perceive that as no nature’s boon can contend against the bounty of increase so it behoves ever most just citizen to become the exhortatory and admonisher of his semblables and to tremble lest what had in the past been by the nation excellently commenced might be in the future not with similar excellence accomplished if an inverecund habit shall have gradually traduced the honourable by ancestors transmitted customs to that tither of profundity that that one was audacious excessively who would have the hardihood to rise affirming that no more odious offence can for anyone be than to oblivious neglect to consign that evangel simultaneously command and promise which on all mortals with prophecy of abundance or with diminution’s menace that exalted of reiteratedly procreating function ever irrevocably enjoined?”
Page 381 (I know they’re english words, but what the fuck does this “sentence” even mean???)
Apparently, throughout this episode, Joyce was trying to represent “the gestation of the English language”, by replicating and parodying the prose styles of different time periods in chronological order. Ugh, whatever.
Moving on: Leopold checks in on a woman who’s been in labour for a horrifyingly long time. He sits around and chats with a group of doctors and medical students, all of whom appear to be drinking on the job. Buck Mulligan and his mate show up looking for condoms. All these men get down to discussing birth and motherhood, every fathomable aspect of it (finally, a group of men offer their perspective! just what we’ve been missing!). Once the woman finally drops her shorty, they all head down to the pub to party on.
The next bit is written and formatted like a script, with stage directions, character labels on the dialogue, etc., but it depicts very little actual action. Most of it takes place in subconscious drunken hallucinations, and as far as trips go, this is a bad one. Leopold dreams of getting yelled at by his parents, interrogated by police, put on trial for being (among other things) a cuckold, leading his own country (Bloomusalem), being a woman, and giving birth to eight children. When he comes back to earth for a second, he follows Stephen and his mate into a brothel, then the hallucinations start a new, getting dirtier and more outlandish. Joyce deliberately blurs the lines between what is “really” happening and what is only happening in Pervy Poldy’s head, so – once again – no shame if you get a bit lost and confused. Oh, and Stephen has a few hallucinations of his own, and they all criss-cross over one another – it’s all very strange.
Leopold eventually comes to and straightens himself up, but Stephen is still drunk as all heck (give-all-my-money-to-strangers-on-the-street drunk). Leopold hustles him away and tries to sober him up. Stephen can’t go home (he’s still got beef with Buck Mulligan, and no keys!), so they stop at a diner to get some coffee and food into him. They meet a chatty sailor, and try not to indulge in gossip about how the innkeeper was involved in a local murder. But then, somehow, the conversation shifts to England and Ireland and Christianity and Judaism – all very safe topics among drunk Irishmen, and it all goes super well! Leopold ends up having to literally drag Stephen out of the bar and half-carry him home. What a day, I tell ya…
But Joyce isn’t done! He switches things up again, this time narrating an entire episode in the form of a Q&A. There are 309 questions, all with detailed answers that depict the action. Stephen sobers up enough to carry on a conversation about music and politics, as he and Leopold walk the rest of the way home. Leopold has to break into his own house because he forgot to put his keys in his funeral pants. Inside, they find a bunch of Boylan’s stuff lying around (awkward!), and this makes Leopold understandably cranky. He and Stephen sit down, drink some cocoa, swap stories, and argue about religion. Leopold offers to let Stephen stay the night, but he politely declines. They do a wee together in the front yard, Stephen heads off, and Leopold climbs into bed with Molly. He gives her a kiss on the bum, and she starts thinking about the fact that they haven’t had sex in ten years (no wonder she’s taken a lover, get yours girl!).
Now, here we go, the big crescendo: Ulysses ends with an episode consisting of eight whopping great long un-punctuated sentences, all from Molly’s perspective. She thinks about their respective affairs, and their courtship. She worries about money, wishing she had more of it so she could buy pretty things. She reminisces about her youth in Gibraltar, old friends and so forth. She decides she likes love letters, and hates “silly” girl singers. She thinks about her daughter. She gets her period. She decides it’d be great if we overthrew the patriarchy and let women run things (preach!). All these thoughts lead her back to her memory of Leopold’s proposal, and her enthusiastic response – thus, the immortal closing line, “yes I said yes I will Yes”.
Ulysses was probably never going to be my favourite book of all time. I don’t think that’ll be any great shock to anyone. But, I must say… it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Like, nowhere near as bad. It’s got a hell of a reputation, and sure, some parts drove me up the wall, but I got so much more out of it than I would have dreamed possible.
Joyce’s writing doesn’t read like the writing that most contemporary recreational readers expect and enjoy, but don’t confuse unfamiliarity with dislike. I don’t think we talk enough about what Joyce was trying to do: represent the natural flow of human thought, feeling, mood, and memory. He did such a good job of it that the rhythm of Ulysses feels natural, like letting yourself drift along the currents of a river.
Even for all his faults, I really liked Leopold. He was relatable in a way that most writers hope their flawed protagonists will be. But the real star of the show, the one who won my heart, was Molly. I can’t think of any of Joyce’s contemporaries who crafted a female character as wonderfully nuanced and intriguing as she. Of course, her complexity and authenticity meant that most early (*cough*sexist*cough*) readers thought she was a “whore”. Their word, not mine. She was uneducated, opinionated, sexual – all things that women weren’t (and still aren’t) “allowed” to be. My favourite characters in literature are almost always women who do things they “shouldn’t”, so Molly had it in the bag.
What surprised me most of all was that I *whispers* liked it better than Mrs Dalloway. I’m deeply concerned that this makes me a bad feminist, but so be it. Virginia Woolf famously declined to publish Ulysses through her own Hogarth Press, saying that “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”, and Mrs Dalloway was written largely in an attempt to one-up Joyce and show him how it should be done. I’d really like to re-visit them both in a few years, and see if my opinion changes over time. But, for now, Joyce is the winner in my own personal Ulysses v Dalloway show-down.
I’m not going to call Ulysses a recommended read here on the blog. It’s not for everyone, and I respect that. I’m not even sure that I’d say I “liked” it. What I would say is that, once again, it proved to me that a book’s reputation means sweet fuck-all. Crime And Punishment was a pleasant surprise in much the same way. If you’ve decided not to try and read Ulysses on the basis that everyone says it’s unreadable, maybe you should reconsider. It might be better than you think, it might not, but the only way to know for sure is to give it a go. Be sure to hurry back here and tell me what you think… 😉
Keeper Upperers, you might be worried that finishing my original reading list with Ulysses means that this will be the end of my book reviews – it most certainly is not! I’ve cooked up a whole new reading list, and I’ll be reviewing them one-by-one each week as I have done for the last 109. Take a sneak peek at what’s to come here, and thank you for all of your continued support.
“Good condition except there was a bad smell to the book” – Tiffany Thai
“did not read bored in 10 sec” – David G Johnston
“This book does not need a review.” – KB
“For psychological masochists only.” – Robert Belilovsky
“the worst book you’ll ever read, if you ever finish it.” – Amazon Customer
“ulysses sucks. hence, this book sucks.” – Amaon Customer
“Nice guide to Dublin. A bit brief.” – Charmaine Babineau
“I enjoyed this. It’s long but if it starts to drag you can skip over parts and not lose much. It’s more a narrative of life than, say, a detective story where you can’t miss a trick. The best part is the ending soliloquy by the girl, ten pages without a punctuation mark. I’d buy the book for that. yes I will yes” – William J. Fallon
“Could not get through it. Forced myself to stay with it, but gave up after 50 pagers or so. I would rather read a tech manual, at least that has a purpose.” – Mags Dad
“Dear lord, this nonsense is supposed to be great literature? Simply horrid. A book should be able to communicate the clarity of its prose and not try to impress others by obscurity.
This sucker has no clothes. There, I said it.” – Kevin M. Fries
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