Classic Thoughts: A genius and a bore: Jan Morris considers her own uncertain and double-edged relationship with James Joyce's Ulysses
Saturday 31 July 1993
Scholars, of course, constantly analyse it. Students are obliged to study bits of it. But I long ago learnt to disbelieve people who say they have read every word of it with pleasure, with sufficient understanding, and without a crib. Unless they happen to be Anthony Burgesses, they are almost certainly lying.
Virginia Woolf turned down Ulysses for the Hogarth Press - she recognised its genius, but thought '300 pages of it might be boring'. And that indeed is the trouble. After 40-odd years of trying I was converted to the magic of Ulysses by the use of Harry Blamires' splendid commentary The New Bloomsday Book, but even such a cicerone could not dissuade me from the opinion that a large part of the masterpiece is a bore.
Of course the language is infinitely fascinating and often very beautiful. Unfortunately much of it is more or less incomprehensible. It might be argued that the music of Stravinsky, say, seemed equally obscure when it was first heard: but while we long ago learned to understand the disharmonies of The Rite of Spring, Ulysses is no more accessible today than it was in 1918 - and moreover, has had remarkably little influence, so far as I can see, upon literature in English as a whole.
Then its allusions and references strike me all too often as wilfully difficult - sometimes so recondite that one suspects Joyce was deliberately setting out to epater les professeurs. In particular, the whole business of the correspondence between this book and its Homeric originals seems to me an irrelevant nuisance, impossible to follow without a guide and adding nothing to the impact of the work.
I have learnt to be ruthlessly selective with Ulysses. There is so much delight in this tremendous novel, so much warmth, poetry and pathos, that failure to read it is a genuine literary deprival. I have been blessing Mr Blamires for years, and with his unwitting help (he would violently disapprove) I have learnt to skip my way shamelessly through its chapters indulging myself in the parts I like.
Not long ago, in my Philistine way, I suggested to one of the most enlightened publishers in London that he put out an edition of Ulysses containing only those sections that nobody but a dolt could fail to enjoy. He thought not, and I did not have the nerve to ask him if he had ever read the book right through . . .
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