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A Century Old Masterpiece

Once, a person had reportedly asked the author: “Where were you during the First World War?” The author replied: “I was busy with my Ulysses, and you?

It is one of the most popular folktales related to the novel. It should not be one’s prerogative to verify the authenticity of this story. In those five years that shook Europe, the Global Community witnessed the fall of four empires: the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, the Romanov and the German. The total number of casualties (military, as well as civilian) in the First World War was about 40 million, as it destroyed nearly 1,500-year-old culture of Christian Europe.

However, none of these is the subject of Ulysses. In his Odyssey, Homer had described the perilous decade-long journey of Odysseus back to Ithaca after the Battle of Troy, the difficulties he faced in those 10 years, massacres, and Penelope‘s long wait for her husband in Ithaca. Although Homer’s epic highly influenced James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (February 2, 1882 – January 13, 1941), the Irish novelist did not narrate war, epidemics, plague and destruction in his novel. The background of Ulysses became the streets of Dublin, and not the Aegean Sea; while a 38-year-old whimsical Hungarian Jew (instead of a Greek middle-aged hero) emerged as the main character of this 1922 novel. His job was to collect advertisements for a low-profile newspaper.

James Joyce

Joyce portrayed the character of advertising agent Leopold Bloom as a tiny element of modern civilisation. Ulysses narrates the return of a common man to his ordinary home in Dublin on June 16, 1904. The 730-page first standard edition of the novel, published by Paris-based Shakespeare and Company, made Bloom unforgettable. Dublin became the epitome of a 20th Century city with the publication of Ulysses, as the author successfully changed the age-old style of story-telling. A Modern Novel was born in the early 1920s. Through Ulysses, Joyce disrupted the relations between art and civilisation, and also between novels and life. With his mature and subtle analysis of life, the Irish author changed the pattern of life as seen by literature. Joyce’s style of story-telling can be called a critique of realism. However, he was not the only person who narrated the relations between art and civilisation in a different manner. After the French Revolution, industrial revolution, technological development and colonialism had led to a series of landmark changes in major European countries throughout the 19th Century. The development not only rocked the centuries-old public life, but also influenced the relation between men and objects.

From Baudelaire (April 9, 1821 – August 31, 1867) to Rilke (December 4, 1875 – December 29, 1926), from Pessoa (June 13, 1888 – November 30, 1935) to Andrea Belli or Mayakovsky (July 19, 1893 – April 14, 1930) and even the Italian Fascists made a serious attempt to find an Odyssey of their own, especially in literature, in order to interpret the changing socio-political landscape of Europe. Yates and Eliot were already there… and later, Proust, Kafka and Joyce helped the Odyssey find the path to Ithaca. And then, Robert Musil (November 6, 1880 – April 15, 1942), Hermann Broch (November 1, 1886 – May 30, 1951) and Witold Marian Gombrowicz (August 4, 1904 – July 24, 1969) joined the party, triggering the fall of the dominance of the traditional Dickensian novels in Western literature.

Ulysses cannot be understood as an epic of contemporary life that simply criticises realism. Apart from making some changes in the language of story-telling, Joyce influenced the narrative with the essence of subconscious mind. In his novel, it is not clear where consciousness ends, and the sub-conscious begins. He gave another dimension to the relations between life and reality, or to the relation between thought process and the subconscious mind.

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by Joyce

Interestingly, Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879 – April 18, 1955), too, influenced Joyce. Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (1905) and General Theory of Relativity (1916) are commonly known as revolutionary ideas, as far as cosmology, astrophysics and space science are concerned. Joyce had created Ulysses at that period of time. Hence, readers could easily find the relativity of existence of common man in the cosmos, and also of the daily atrophy of human beings (like molecules and atoms) in this novel. It returned again and again, as this relativity did not bring any revolutionary change. Instead, it clarified the relativity of modern times… small demands, momentary pleasure, etc. For Joyce, Heroism means a few moments of daydreaming… or a substance of the entire epic.

Joyce did not look at the detailed history of literature before incorporating all these into the narrative. Instead, he studied films, which was still not a popular form of art. He was of the opinion that only cinema could free time from the chain of hierarchy, speed from the tradition, reality from the statistics, and could also absorb the agility of modernity and its fragile relativity. So, the narrative of Ulysses is the narrative of cinema or narratives of many relative forms of existence at the same time.

Joyce’s crayon covered manuscript pages of Ulysses

This is why the contemporary novel of the First World War chooses joy and sorrow of physical relationship, and not war; daily life, and not the fall of an empire; the basic desire to survive, and not destruction. All these make this century-old novel unique.

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