Monday, April 8, 2013

Hugh Kenner on Joyce's Strange Book

Hugh Kenner (1923-2003)

From literary scholar Hugh Kenner's book on Ulysses, a passage that may alleviate some anxiety for first-time readers of the novel as well as excite them about the novel's possibilities:

Joyce's strange book has no stranger aspect than this, that no one comprehensive reading is thinkable. A book—certainly, a novel—normally presupposes that ideal attention will reap it at one traverse; if we need, as we frequently do, repeated readings, that is because our attention is plagued by lapses, or perhaps because the writing is faulty. But Ulysses is so designed that new readers, given, even, what cannot be postulated, ideal immunity to attention overload, cannot possibly grasp certain elements because of a warp in the order of presentation, and veteran readers will perceive after twenty years new lights going on as a consequence of a question they have only just thought to ask....
Joyce's aesthetic of delay, producing the simplest facts by parallax, one element now, one later, and leaving large orders of fact to be assembled late or another time or never, in solving the problem of novels that go flat after we know "how it comes out" also provides what fiction has never before really provided, an experience comparable to that of experiencing the haphazardly evidential quality of life; and, moreover, what art is supposed to offer that life can not, a permanence to be revisited at will but not exhausted.

I'm glad that we'll all be reading and puzzling over this book together.


  1. I finished Chapter One and I must be missing something (or lots of things) because it doesn't seem particularly disorienting or written so that I "cannot possibly grasp certain elements because of a warp in the order of presentation." But perhaps Ch. 2 will bring the horrors.

  2. Just wait till you get to Proteus, or Aeolus, or the Sirens.

    But when you do get there, if you get disoriented I hope this quotation alleviates your feeling that you should be understanding everything. I liked Kenner's explanation of why the book is structured the way it is.

    Thanks for the comment, BabsfromOz!