James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) may be more talked about than read. It occupies an intimidating position within the literary canon as a byword for experimental modernism. Joyce helped to forge its reputation, mischievously claiming ‘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’. Even Virginia Woolf, reading shortly after publication, found Ulysses a struggle, dismissing it as ‘diffuse’, ‘brackish’ and ‘pretentious’. Prestige is evident in its perennial placing in lists of ‘Great Books’, and echoed in its value to collectors.
In 2009, a first edition sold at auction for £275,000, the highest sum ever achieved for a 20th-century novel. Yet its reputation for difficulty masks the extent to which Ulysses is warm, welcoming and witty, granting a uniquely intimate perspective on what it is to be human.
Her antiquity in preceding and surviving succeeding tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.—James Joyce, Ulysses