All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: James Joyce's Ulysses By Gavin Griffiths
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The Independent Culture
Plot: Leopold Bloom, an advertising-space salesman, wanders around Dublin on 16 June, 1904. Eventually he encounters and befriends Stephen Dedalus, a young artist, who has been doing much the same. During the course of the novel they come across a funeral (DEATH), a library (ART), a maternity hospital (BIRTH) and a brothel (SEX). Most of life's Big Issues are given an airing and eventually summarised in Molly Bloom's affirmatively raunchy closing monologue. The final word of the novel is her "Yes".

Themes: The Universe and all that therein is. The loneliness of exile (Bloom is a cuckolded Jew). The awkwardness of being a very, very clever Irish lapsed Catholic (Dedalus is Joyce's self-portrait). The redemptive power of the ordinary.

Style: Bewilderingly comprehensive. The book romps through parody, fantasy, realism, as well as stream-of-consciousness, employing a huge chunk of the Oxford English Dictionary.

What they thought of it then: Nobody could publish it because the characters thought about sex and went to the lavatory. TS Eliot thought it a work of genius; Virginia Woolf felt that reading it was too much like squeezing blackheads; ironically, Arnold Bennett, the least intellectual and most patronised of writers, enjoyed it.

What we think of it now: Eliot and Bennett were right.

Chief strengths: The humdrum becomes gripping. Scratching, eating and farting are draped in dignity and seem no less important than speculating about the nature of Shakespeare's love life. You get to understand more aspects of the central characters than would seem imaginable; and you come to care for them. You begin to grasp some idea of the things that the English language can do when manipulated by a literary genius. The novel is also often funny, but ...

Chief weakness: Joyce never tires of a joke and goes on with the relentless energy of the pub bore who has had one Guinness more than absolutely necessary. The rather odd joke that women are too richly earth-motherish and fecund - or is it stupid? - to understand or use punctuation rather drags on in the last 50 or so pages.

Chief puzzle: The title. The Joyce novitiate will hunt in vain for a character, a place, an animal, a piece of furniture or a pot-plant called Ulysses anywhere in the novel. The sleek initiate will know that the action of the book parallels the action of Homer's epic, the Odyssey. Bloom (Odysseus/Ulysses) is in search of his lost "son", Stephen (Telemachus), and wishes to return to his wife, Molly (Penelope) ...

Responsible for: A lot of novels that take place in a single day. A lot of happily busy, long-tenured American academics. The prose style of JP Donleavy.

Typical quote: "Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely he mutely craved to adore" (ie Bloom fancies some lunch).

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