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Issue 18 – Assumption 2023

The Jungle

This Side Idolatry

On a reading of Ulysses.


I am not one for marathon readings, and I can recall only two books that I have blown through in one sitting. The first is a detective novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. I picked it up at a shop in Rome after a terrific fight with my wife (shouting, slammed doors, fists pounded on the wall) and devoured it in the basement of the McDonald’s behind the Vatican. The second I actually read twice in one sitting. I was in the last row on a long-haul flight from Amsterdam to Washington, and had nothing on me but Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus. When I reached that heavy final phrase—“the great gasp of hull and ocean as a ship goes down”—I remembered the appraisal of Hazzard’s husband, Francis Steegmuller: “No one should have to read it for the first time.” So I did my due diligence and found, as I re-examined that crystalline tragedy, that a third read would likely be required as well.

This diagnosis, that some novels only become intelligible after a few tries, is most often given to Joyce’s Ulysses. (Hardly anyone claims that Finnegans Wake ever becomes legible.) On first read—if there is a first read—Ulysses is said to wash over the reader like a seaborne summer shower. It is only on second, third, and fourth reads that Leopold Bloom’s beachside indiscretions and Molly Bloom’s twenty-four-thousand-word, punctuationless Yes monologue finally become recognizable as towering achievements in English prose. Or so I was told in college. My own opinion is that it is unfair to point to any particular passage in Ulysses for praise or disparagement. It is the ultimate realist novel, in that it attempts to present a day of life—and all of life itself—as it is actually lived; and for that reason, it can only be enjoyed in one long shot.

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About the author

Nic Rowan

Nic Rowan is managing editor of The Lamp.