Since I can't come up with anything immediately, I'll let some important people have their say first:
"It's a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel; & until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation & though can make a work of art without the cook's intervening...the same applies to Eliot." - Edith Wharton
"Never did I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th - merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges" - Virginia Woolf. She also wrote that Ulysses was "an illiterate, underbred book ... the book of a self taught working man." She later admitted that despite that, it is clearly important.
"He's is a good writer...People like him because he is incomprehensible and anybody can understand him" - Gertrude Stein, who did not have any love for Joyce. As Hemingway says in A Moveable Feast, if you mentioned his name twice at her house, you would not be invited back.
"A heap of dung, crawling with worms, photographed by a cinema apparatus through a microscope—such is Joyce's work." - Karl Radek. I don't know who he is, but I like what he said.
"Few other people have been interested in this book, where the reader, cutting through a boundless forest of words, would find nothing but worthless trifles and erratic images. Who but persons with an excess of fat would need such a book?" - Zhou Libo - I don't know who he is either...but in VH1-reality-show-train-wreck fashion, he roundabout-ly calls anyone who likes Ulysses fat. Yeah - take that!
Ok, ok...there were a lot people that said good things about it too, like Hemingway, Pound, Eliot, Carl Jung (though he became convinced that Joyce was schizophrenic after reading it), etc. There was this one guy named More who didn't like Ulysses. He was asked if he had read T.S. Eliot's defense of it. More said that he hadn't. When told that Eliot argued that Ulysses is a work of the highest importance, he responded: "That young man has a screw loose somewhere!" Even Joyce's wife called his writing "chop suey" and asked why he didn't write "sensible books that people can understand."
Here's the plot of Ulysses: Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom wander around Dublin, first separately, then together, on June 16, 1904. Yup - the greatest novel of the 20th century (my ass), almost 800 pages - and that's it. Ok, moving on...
Seriously, though, I could write here about what I didn't like about Ulysses, but most people who have read this novel have already done that for me. But to summarize: dense, confusing, obtuse, WTF?, cannot comprehend, must be too stupid, etc. etc. I don't feel there is any sense rehashing any of it. Probably even those of you who haven't read it know what I'm talking about.
Looking at Joyce the man and the history of Ulysses is (to me) much more interesting than discussing the bad points of the novel. Joyce was afraid of dogs and thunderstorms. He began Ulysses in 1914, 2 years after his last (and final) visit to Ireland...he created the whole thing from memory and by consulting with friends and directories. While Joyce was a teacher in Italy, one of his students was Italo Svevo, who would go on to write Zeno's Conscience. It is Ezra Pound who should be thanked (or stoned) for the publication of Ulysses. Joyce set Ulysses on 6/16/1904 to commemorate his first date with his wife, Norah. I've considered this a lot over the three months it took me to read this book...would I want someone to write a book like Ulysses to commemorate their first date with me (that turns out to be the "Greatest novel of the 20th century" even though nobody knows what the hell it means)? Or would I rather have some nice jewelry? I'm not really sure. I suppose if said book rakes in a lot of money, I could buy a lot more jewelry...but I digress...
But what is really interesting to me is the obscenity thing. My understanding of the situation: the novel was serialized in an American magazine. After the publication of a certain chapter, it was banned for obscenity. A few years later, with dollar signs in their eyes, Random House decided it wanted to publish Ulysses in America. So, they essentially staged the obscenity trial. They wanted it to go before a certain judge in NY, because they knew he would rule in favor of it. They also wanted to include the opinions of respected artists and writers about Ulysses...problem was, at that time you could only use what was in the book for evidence. So, they sent a guy to Europe to buy the book, paste the articles in it they wanted to include for evidence, and return to America. The day his ship arrived was blazing hot, and customs was letting everyone through, no questions asked. The guy with the book insisted that they open his luggage, and then insisted that it be seized. They got the judge they wanted, and he of course said it wasn't obscene because nowhere in it was the "leer of the sensualist" present...Joyce didn't include his rude schoolboy pornography (as per Wharton) to titillate, but to simply tell the story of what someone does in the course of a day.
Joyce has said that he wanted "the ideal reader with the ideal insomnia," and that his readers should "devote his whole life to reading [his] works." Well, I have insomnia sometimes, but I have come to terms with the fact that I'm not cut out to be Joyce's ideal reader. I can't/won't even devote my life to Kerouac's writing...and I cannot imagine doing so for anyone else - especially not if it included Ulysses. (Though I might be forced to take Joyce over Henry James.)
The jury is still out for me on my overall, final opinion on Ulysses. After finishing Don Quixote (the last BIG GREAT book I read) last year, I was ambivalent as well...a few months later I "got it." But there was a difference: I didn't have to force myself through DQ. Yeah, I get that Ulysses is important, if for nothing else it's ambition. Clearly Joyce was a very talented writer to be able to pull off something here...even if I'm not sure what it is that he pulled off. There were funny parts. There were lewd parts. There were even parts where I understood what was happening. But I could say that about a lot of books.I have a theory that you have to be Irish to appreciate Ulysses. Kind of like I really like Faust, sauerkraut, efficiency, and German beer because I'm German. Despite what my husband's last name (a McL-), and consequently mine, might lead you to believe, I'm German to the core - old, Protestant farmer German on pretty much every known branch. The obvious solution to this might be to have my husband read it and see if he likes it. But Shawn wouldn't get it either, though - I suspect his ancestors were Ulster Scots (aka Scotch-Irish)...not "Irish." (But don't remind him of that! He prefers green to tartan if you know what I mean.) If it's not an Irish thing, it must be what I have long suspected: that nobody really gets it...people just go on about how great it is because they didn't get it, so they are either stupid or it's a great book, so they choose the lesser of the evil. Or maybe I'm just too stupid to get it, so in order to still feel half-intelligent, I assume that everyone who says they like it must be pretending to get it...because these people can't be smarter than me. Maybe Joyce has played a grand joke on all of us for the last 90 years or so. After all, he did say, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." I don't know what to think. But then again, that's generally how Ulysses made me feel...confused.
It was a good feeling to be able to put that book back on my shelf. It went on the shelf instead of in the abandoned books pile because maybe someday, someone will walk into my 'library' and I can point at Ulysses and say, I read that, and that person will be impressed. I'm afraid, however, of its status there...I'm afraid that one day I might pick it up and think, "Maybe I'll try it again... they say the more you read it..." Listen, Readers of Kristin's Blog: I am holding you responsible. If I ever write on this blog, "I am going to read Ulysses again," please stop me.
Ulysses is important: for its influence, for its ambition, for setting the bar so high on what you can do in a novel. I will conceded that. Joyce is obviously talented...maybe a genius. But I didn't get it. Don't expect me to say this type of thing again: if you understand Ulysses, you're smarter than I am.
For (another) great review of Ulysses please check out Doug Shaw's page.