Centenary of ‘Ulysses’: guide not to miss out on James Joyce’s masterpiece

James Joyce and his editor Sylvia Beach, who ran the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris and published ‘Ulysses’.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

The Ulises tells the story of a day in the life of Dublin, June 16, 1904, the date on which James Joyce took a memorable walk through the city, beginning his relationship with Nora Barnacle, with whom he would share the rest of his life. Joyce was a staunch enemy of marriage and could not bear the parochialism of Ireland or the influence of the Catholic Church.

He fled his native Dublin with Nora, taking refuge in various cities in Europe. He wrote the Ulises in Trieste, Zurich and Paris between 1914 and 1921. In his opinion, every writer harbors within himself a single novel that he publishes in successive installments throughout his life. Joyce’s unique novel consists of three perfectly differentiated parts, the Portrait of the adolescent artistthe Ulises Y Finnegan’s Wake. A firm line of continuity unites these works, showing the evolution of Joyce’s prose, ranging from the luminous precision of Portrait to the incandescent magma of Finnegan’s Wake, work to which he dedicated 17 years of his life.

James Joyce in 1930.
James Joyce in 1930. Getty

The structure of the Ulises originates from the imprint left on Joyce by reading The adventures of Ulysses, youth novel by Charles Lamb, which fell into his hands when he was 12 years old. After the novel was published, the author drew up a table of correspondences between the chapters of the Ulises and various episodes of Odyssey. Although he later minimized its importance, the references to the Homeric poem must be taken into account. There are three central characters, Leopold Bloom, 38, an advertising agent of Jewish origin; his wife, molly33-year-old opera singer, and Stephen Dedalus, 22-year-old artist and writer. Their mythical equivalents are Ulysses, Penelope, his wife, and Telemachus, his son.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first, or telemaquiadagives an account of the morning activities of Dedalus, protagonist of the Portrait of the adolescent artist. In the second, wanderings of odysseus, refer to the adventures of Leopold Bloom in Dublin. Third, ustos either The return to Ithacamarks Bloom’s return to Eccles Street, accompanied by Dedalus and culminates with Molly Bloom’s tremendous monologue.

This martello tower in Sandycove, Dublin, has been dubbed 'James Joyce Tower', as the beginning of 'Ulysses' takes place there.
This martello tower in Sandycove, Dublin, has been dubbed ‘James Joyce Tower’, as the beginning of ‘Ulysses’ takes place there.

More than the plot, we should talk about a multiplicity of actions that intersect and branch out throughout the 18 hours that the novel lasts. The number of secondary characters is delusional. The action begins at 8 in the morning in two different chapters of the novel, one in the Martello Tower, in Sandycove, on the outskirts of Dublin, and another in Bloom’s marital home. Joyce invented his own narrative technique for each chapter, so that it is possible to speak of eighteen different novelistic units. Only the first chapter of each section uses the technique conventionally known as narration. The two additional chapters in the novel’s opening and closing segments make use of techniques Joyce called catechism Y monologueboth amazing finds.

The technique called catechism It is a narrative mechanism that uses questions and answers that move the text with extraordinary agility. Regarding the call Interior monologue, This is Joyce’s greatest contribution to the art of storytelling. The author lets the characters’ thoughts flow without any external control. Molly Bloom’s monologue, which occupies the final chapter of the novel, consists of eight very long sentences that completely lack punctuation. Of sublime beauty, this segment is considered one of the pinnacles of universal literature. The central body of the novel consists of 12 chapters, each more daring.

Sylvia Beach with James Joyce.
Sylvia Beach with James Joyce.

The narrative that opens the first is followed by a delirious parade of styles, idiosyncratically designated by its author as narcissism, incubism, enthymemic, peristaltic, dialectical, labyrinth, fugue, gigantism, (de)tumescence, embryonic development, and hallucination. Behind each of them there is a universe of its own. Inside the labyrinth that is the Ulises Nine reference systems operate overlapping that refer respectively to an episode of the Odyssey, an artistic or scientific discipline, a symbol, an organ of the human body, a colour, a stylistic technique, a place in Dublin, and a time of day. For Joyce, her novel was an organism endowed with viscera, nerves, muscles, and fluids, which made him assign anatomical elements such as the uterus, skeleton, meat, blood, genital organs, and locomotor system to its fragments.

Infinitely elastic and protean text, in the Ulises, the river of the tongue reproduces the incessant flow of life, accounting for both the events of the outside world and the evolutions and fluctuations of the body and mind. Above all, the true protagonist of the Ulises it is language, which Joyce wields at her whim. There are sections that can be exhausting or impassable, but they are essential. Often the prose sparkles with breath-taking force, precision, beauty, and lyricism. The text gives great importance to matters of phonic order. We are before a novel whose language in many moments is, to use an expression of Ezra Pound, “poetry on the edge of music”. For edmund wilson the musical component of the novel had more weight than the narrative. Ernst Robert Curtius I advised to read the Ulises as if you had a score in front of you, which is perfectly suited to the experience of facing a text like this: you don’t need to know how to decipher it to feel the greatness of the music.

Five translations of ‘Ulysses’

There are five translations of ‘Ulysses’ into Spanish, carried out respectively by José Salas Subirat (Rueda, 1945 / recovered in 2022 by Galaxia Gutenberg with illustrations by Eduardo Arroyo), José María Valverde (Lumen, 1976 / revised by Andreu Jaume in 2022), Francisco García Tortosa and María Luisa Venegas (Chair, 1999), Marcelo Zabaloy (Silver Bowl, 2015) and Rolando Costa Picazo (Edhasa, 2015). All have been reviewed and updated for the centenary. They all have a high level of quality and solvency, so I do not favor any one over the others. There are three translations into Catalan. Joaquim Mallafré’s (Leteradura, 1982) has been very well received. The most recent is that of Carles Llorach-Freixes (Funambulista, 2018). In 1966 Joan Francesc Vidal completed one that remains unpublished.

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Centenary of ‘Ulysses’: guide not to miss out on James Joyce’s masterpiece


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