On the list of long, difficult books, Ulysses by James Joyce is easily in the top five. It’s one of those books everyone generally feels should be read, but may also be too intimidating to actually read. But it’s not as hard to read as its reputation might imply—deeply compelling, even amusing, from chapter to chapter. It’s also a source of some incredible trivia and surprising facts that might make it a little easier to contemplate. Without further ado, here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about Ulysses.
By the time he wrote it, Joyce hadn’t lived in Dublin for years
Ulysses famously takes place over the course of a single day—June 16th, 1904—in Dublin, Ireland. Much of Joyce’s energy is expended on recreating Dublin, from the smells and sights to the layout of the streets. To this day, you can walk the city, following in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom, and see much of what he would have seen. Yet when he wrote the book, Joyce hadn’t lived in Dublin for years—working almost completely from memory in the days before Google Street View.
Joyce’s wife is at its core
The date covered in the book, June 16, 1904, is today known as Bloomsday (after the main character), and is celebrated in literary circles the world over. It wasn’t chosen randomly—that was the date of Joyce’s first official encounter with his future wife, Nora, who also serves as the template for Leopold’s wife Molly. Nora and Joyce had an, um, erotic encounter on a park bench on their first date, and as their love letters, attest their ardor for one another never waned—thus explaining why the date remained important to Joyce.
Its last line is a climax
There are various schools of thought on the “best” way to read the book, but one thing is for sure: you won’t take it all in on your first go-round. One thing that’s easy to miss the first time is that the final lines of the book are culmination of a lengthy stream-of-consciousness peek into Molly Bloom’s mind as she pleasures herself (composed of eight of the longest sentences in history), making that last line a literal climax. Which partially explains why …
It was banned in the U.S. for 12 years
Ulysses was initially serialized between 1918 and 1920, and published as a novel in 1922. But it was labeled pornographic and banned in the United States until 1934. Which, okay, there’s a lot of sex in it, and Joyce does celebrate the smuttier side. Which makes sense, because …
It’s a comedy
Much is made of the literary allusions, the structural basis in Homer’s The Odyssey, and other erudite aspects of Ulysses. That makes it easy to forget that Joyce is sending up many of those stuffy conventions. His big joke was to use Homer’s structure to tell a story filled with masturbation and scatological jokes, even while littering the work with obscure references to keep critics jumping through hoops. In other words, when you study Ulysses, Joyce is laughing at you.
There’s an app for that
Adapting this novel into any medium is going to be a challenge, but trying to cram it into a graphic novel seems particularly insane. Artist Robert Berry has decided to try, and he’s doing so through the modern-day media of the app, posting each page as he finishes. He estimate it will take about a decade to get through the whole book.
You can read just three chapters and grasp the narrative
As we mentioned, people have been arguing about the “best” way to read Ulysses more or less since it was published. Critics disagree about whether every chapter is necessary; even the book’s most ardent defenders will admit some of the chapters are a bit more obtuse than others. (A few even argue you can get away with reading just one chapter!) There are more than a few defenders of the notion that you can get the TL;DR version of Ulysses by reading the following chapters, and nothing else: “Telemachus,” “Calypso,” and “Penelope.” You’ll be missing out on a lot of great stuff, but you’ll also be able to fake your way through a conversation about Joyce’s masterpiece.
You can’t read it “cold”
Many folks have made the mistake of trying to read Ulysses like it’s any old ordinary novel. It isn’t. Joyce said, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” In other words, the allusions and references are the point. No matter who you are, you’re going to have to do a little research.
It has somehow been filmed twice
Surprisingly for one of the most interior, detailed stories of all time—a story seemingly impossible to adapt—Ulysses has been made into a movie twice. A 1967 version attempts to follow the story, and uses many lines straight from the page. In 2003, Bloom, starring Stephen Rae, took a looser approach in an attempt to approximate the novel’s “stream of consciousness” style. How successful either is at recreating Joyce’s masterpiece is definitely up for debate.
Have you braved the journey of Ulysses?