James Joyce – Ulysses

February 2 – Ulysses, by James Joyce, is published in Paris on his 40th birthday by Sylvia Beach

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks of mainly doing stuff in the garden, and I’ve taken the opportunity to finally tackle James Joyce’s second-most-daunting book, Ulysses. I’ve owned a copy for roughly half of my life now, and hadn’t even opened it, not exactly through feeling intimidated, more that it seemed like a huge project and there was a concern that I would find it disappointing.

If you don’t know about Ulysses, and am expecting me to give some sort of digested summary, then I’m afraid that’s probably beyond me. Here instead is the opening from Wikipedia

Ulysses is a modernist novel by Irish writer James Joyce. It was first serialised in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920 and then published in its entirety in Paris by Sylvia Beach on 2 February 1922, Joyce’s 40th birthday. It is considered one of the most important works of modernist literature and has been called “a demonstration and summation of the entire movement.” According to Declan Kiberd, “Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking”.

Ulysses chronicles the peripatetic appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin in the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Latinised name of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, and the novel establishes a series of parallels between the poem and the novel, with structural correspondences between the characters and experiences of Leopold Bloom and Odysseus, Molly Bloom and Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus and Telemachus, in addition to events and themes of the early 20th-century context of modernism, Dublin, and Ireland’s relationship to Britain. The novel is highly allusive and also imitates the styles of different periods of English literature.

Since its publication, the book has attracted controversy and scrutiny, ranging from an obscenity trial in the United States in 1921, to protracted textual “Joyce Wars”. The novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring, and experimental prose—replete with puns, parodies, and allusions—as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history; Joyce fans worldwide now celebrate 16 June as Bloomsday.

Or, as Stephen King put it the other day.

Here I should say that I cheated, sort of. The book was given a full dramatised reading from RTÉ Radio on Bloomsday 1982, and happily the whole thing is now available for download from archive.org here


It’s an excellent dramatisation, and much like the book itself it’s the kind of quality of work which you struggle to believe was actually put together by real humans with a limited amount of time in their day, and in their life.

And that’s my main takeaway from the book. Each of the 18 “episodes” contained within is an work on its own, each with what seems like an entirely different style, worth digging deeply into, if only there were time! It would be an ideal book to take to a desert island, less ideal to write a thesis about, and a brief blog post seems like an impossibility. So here instead are a few of my favourite episodes.

Episode 14, Oxen of the Sun

“the episode starts with latinate prose, Anglo-Saxon alliteration, and moves on through parodies of, among others, Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Pepys, Defoe, Sterne, Walpole, Gibbon, Dickens, and Carlyle, before concluding in a haze of nearly incomprehensible slang. The development of the English language in the episode is believed to be aligned with the nine-month gestation period of the foetus in the womb” – the alliterative passages in this chapter are a complete joy to listen to and make me think I may actually give Finnegan’s Wake a go one day. The audio version, I am not a complete lunatic.

Episode 15, Circe

“written as a play script, complete with stage directions. The plot is frequently interrupted by “hallucinations” experienced by Stephen and Bloom—fantastic manifestations of the fears and passions of the two characters” – this has a dream logic to it, shifting in and out of the concrete world in spectacular fashion. For a chapter in which most of the action takes place in a brothel, it is also surprisingly lacking in anything off-putting.

Episode 18, Penelope

“The final episode consists of Molly Bloom’s thoughts as she lies in bed next to her husband. The episode uses a stream-of-consciousness technique in eight paragraphs and lacks punctuation. Molly thinks about Boylan and Bloom, her past admirers, including Lieutenant Stanley G. Gardner, the events of the day, her childhood in Gibraltar, and her curtailed singing career.” Despite (due to?) this being a stream-of-consciousness it’s one of the most lucid and realistic of the episodes. Throughout the book, the female characters oddly enough seem to be better drawn and more lucid than the male characters, and this is the ultimate example of this.

The only part which was a real struggle to get through was episode 17, Ithaca, which is “written in the form of a rigidly organised and “mathematical” catechism of 309 questions and answers” and was apparently Joyce’s favourite. It felt like an accurate imitation of something I have no desire to read in the first place, though I have no doubt I would get something out of it given time.

To sum up, this was a good book and you should, uh, listen to it.

James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The first and easily the most accessible of Joyce’s three novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tells the story of the early life of Stephen Dedalus, a fictionalized version of Joyce who will later appear in Ulysses. Cut down from a gigantic experimental autobiography, the work took Joyce the best part of 15 years, so you may be surprised to find how readable it is, especially if you have previously attempted to read his other novels.

The entire text is available here at Project Gutenberg
Here is a downloadable audiobook at Librivox
And here is the book for sale on Amazon

And here’s an episode of In Our Time on the book, if you can only spare half an hour

Kafka’s The Trial

I read The Trial and everything else I could find by Kafka while living a couple of tram stops away from his grave in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague in 2004. The New Jewish Cemetery was opened in 1891 as the Old Jewish Cemetery was full – the vast open space in the lower half of the grounds tells a story more grim than anything found in pre-war fiction. But anyway.

The Trial isn’t my favourite Kafka (that would be The Castle) – but it sums up a lot of what keeps me coming back to his books. What I love most of all is the complete repudiation of free will and meaningfulness in the universe. It’s something many writers play with, but I can think of nobody else who accepts it so completely, and without any sense of melodrama.

Recommended listening: this episode of the BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Franz Kafka’s novel of power and alienation ‘The Trial’, in which readers follow the protagonist Joseph K into a bizarre, nightmarish world in which he stands accused of an unknown crime; courts of interrogation convene in obscure tenement buildings; and there seems to be no escape from a crushing, oppressive bureaucracy.

Kafka was a German-speaking Jew who lived in the Czech city of Prague, during the turbulent years which followed the First World War. He spent his days working as a lawyer for an insurance company, but by night he wrote stories and novels considered some of the high points of twentieth century literature. His explorations of power and alienation have chimed with existentialists, Marxists, psychoanalysts, postmodernists – and Radio 4 listeners, who suggested this as our topic for listener week on In Our Time.

And you can buy The Trial here.

Robert Tressell – The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

1911 is an exciting time for literature, but I would venture that the most important event of the year was not Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s launch of the Futurist Manifestito, nor the publication of the first of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown novels, and not even Virginia Stephen, Leonard Woolf, Adrian Stephen, John Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant all moving into a house at 38 Brunswick Square to start The Bloomsbury Group.

Instead let’s turn our eyes towards the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, where itinerant painter & decorator Robert Noonan died from pulmonary tuberculosis on the third of February, aged 40. In a box, hidden under her bed, his daughter kept his sole novel, then titled ‘The Ragged Arsed Philanthropists’, a semi-autobiographical account of his time working in Hastings. It had been rejected by three publishers, and he had wanted it burned. By chance his daughter met poet Jessie Pope, best known for stirring patriotic motivational poems issued during the first world war. He took it to his publisher (extensively Bowdlerized) and had the thing published. It wasn’t until 1955 that the original was reassembled from notes and scraps of paper which could easily have been lost a dozen times.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthopists, then, is a seminal work of socialist literature, and inspiration to generations of politically active people of all varieties. As such, I expected it to be more moralistic and preachy than it is, and was pleasantly surprised to find it full of complex characters who are far from ideologically pure. Even in the first chapter there is a debate about whether immigrants are to blame for stagnant wages which works effectively as a demonstration of the kind of “false consiousness” later described by Theodor Adorno, while remaining entirely convincing as a depiction of life as he lived it (and, more importantly maybe, a scene which could play out exactly the same way in the england of 2019.) The nearest parallel I can think of is Emile Zola’s Germinal – but Tressell cares more about his characters, he is not willing to give any of them quite as terrible an ending as he himself suffered.

The book is widely available (here for example) and for people who don’t feel like reading right this moment, here is a very good BBC radio dramatization featuring Andrew Lincoln, Johnny Vegas, Timothy Spall, Paul Whitehouse, Bill Bailey, Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon and John Prescott MP(!?)

It also appears to be available to download here – https://archive.org/details/THERAGGEDTROUSEREDPHILANTROPISTS

Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows

An odd book, but not one I’m particularly fond of, The Wind in The Willows is a mix of Edwardian rapture at frolicking in the splendors of nature, the high-church volksgeist mysticism that was in vogue at the time and classic anthropomorphic children’s moral tales. It does sort of hang together, and there are many memorable quotes and characters, but reading it undigested makes me feel uneasy, like there’s an unpleasant aftertaste I can’t quite place.

The 1985 Cosgrove Hall adaptation is how I first knew the story, and it’s still easily my favourite version. It apparently features the work of a young John Squire as a background artist too, and is available on youtube in its entirety  (for now)


James Dalessandro – 1906

I don’t have my own phonograph, and it’s impossible to have physical representations of my collection of antique mp3s, but at least I now have a bookshelf full of books about years. Unbelievably, this is only the second or third* one I’ve come across so far (the number is due to go up quite a lot in the 1910s) except it isn’t about the year, it’s a novel set before, during and after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. So basically the kind of thing I’m not reading. But since I bought it, why not give it a go?

Did I like it? Not really. it’s a perfectly serviceable, regular novel, with a standard storyline which doesn’t do much to surprise, though it does its best to mildly shock. The historical context has obviously been thoroughly-researched, but something just doesn’t ring true. The dialogue and inner monologues just don’t seem convincing, everything seems like the voice of the author with imitations of ethnic accents on top. It may just be that I’ve been listening to the cadences of progressive-era speech for too long, but I simply can’t suspend my disbelief.

Here is a scene where the protagonist describes listening to a phonograph recording of Caruso. It’s a good illustration of how factually right and how tonally wrong I found it.

So, yes, I didn’t really like it. But if that’s your sort of thing then you can apparently buy it at Amazon for 1p here.

*depending on whether we count ‘London, 1900’


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles

When I was four or five years old I somehow acquired a Ladybird Horror Classics edition of ‘The Hound of The Baskervilles’. This one in fact:

If that cover, or the equally terrifying illustrations within weren’t enough to scare a young child, the book also came with a cassette. The “horror” theme of this publication continued with the introductory music – Mussorsky’s ‘Night on a Bare Mountain’ – and the reading, which managed to emphasise the most horrific passages with its tone of blank dread. Look, some kind soul has uploaded it to youtube, so you can hear what I mean. The passage from 3:50 onwards is particularly gruesome.

Naturally this was immediately my favourite book, and I would insist on listening to it at bedtime every night. This possibly led to a lifelong interest in spoken word recordings, a mortal fear of large dogs and a feeling of lingering injustice to the noble-sounding name of Stapleton

I hadn’t read the real book until this year and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s just as good as I feared it wouldn’t be. It’s easily the best of the Sherlock Holmes novels, from the way it starts out as a standard Holmes short story (with a very sinister undertone) to the way Sherlock spends half the book as essentially a ghost (remember that he was supposed to be dead in 1902), to the fantastically dramatic ending out on the Grimpen Mire.

Unfortunately as far as I’m aware nobody has apparently made a decent film version of the story. From this list the Peter Cushing version is ok, but messes with the story too much, the Peter Cook / Kenneth Williams version is a silly mess, the 2002 BBC version is a complete misfire, and the episode of Sherlock from 2012 is perhaps the weakest in that whole series. Nobody seems to have recreated that atmosphere, and nobody has made a dog as terrifying as the one on that audiobook. But there are quite a few I haven’t seen, so please let me know if there is a good one out there.


Here is the book on Amazon, here is the public domain text, and here is a free audiobook version on LibriVox, though as always I recommend this version read by Derek Jacobi.

L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

I’ve somehow owned a copy of this book since childhood but hadn’t thought to read it until now. It’s weird, and not always in a fun way. I was reminded most of the Grimm fairly tales, with their meandering, unstructured, unresolved plots, confused morals and sudden lurches into violence. The prose itself is a disconcerting mix of the sentimental Victorian style and a sort of pompous late-Twain-esque highfalutin moral fable. Somehow this became one of the best-selling children’s book series of all time and I’m not sure how or why.

L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Full text at Project Gutenberg)
L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Dramatic reading at Librivox)


Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness

The British Empire was never the positive, civilizing force that it was sold as, but the Victorians seemed, as a whole, to either sweep any misgivings under the carpet or consider them less important than their blossoming sense of national pride. It’s only in the dying years of the era that cracks start to appear in the jolly facade, and none so vivid as Heart of Darkness.

Joseph Conrad is one of the most extraordinary writers I can think of – not only for the jarring modernity (coupled with undiluted 19th century prejudice) of his work, but the fact that he learned English as an adult, working for the merchant navy, yet has one of the most assured voices in literature, able to slip in and out of character like nobody else.

Heart of Darkness isn’t a fun book. A slim novella, it took me the best part of a month to get through it, but the relentless grimness of the trek through the horrors of the Belgian Congo never amounted to being bored. The “horror” here implicates not only the protagonist and narrator in these crimes, but also the reader and the culture they belong to.

A fascinating discussion about the book on the BBC’s In Our Time can be found here, the full text is here, a free audiobook is here, and you can buy the book here.

H. G. Wells – The War of the Worlds


Reading The Island of Doctor Moreau, I thought it must be the darkest of Wells’s science fiction stories, but The War of the Worlds represents some solid competition on that front. As stories of alien invasion go, it’s remarkably bleak and lacking in heroism. After the aliens land in the suburbs of London (the capital of a third of the world in 1898) every attempt to deal with them is doomed by naivety, arrogant folly and blind, incoherent panic. An attempt by one individual to survive and rebuild is a castigation of these faults, but is, as the narrator soon realizes, guilty of the same. Victory over the Martians only comes by chance, with the humans having nothing at all to do with it.

The War of the Worlds
The War of the Worlds (full text at Project Gutenberg)
The War of the Worlds (free audiobook at Librivox)

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