Ulysses isn't simple, but nor is it 'filthy' and 'unreadable'. On the 125th anniversary of Joyce's birth, Derek Attridge says any open-minded reader will revel in its audacity, invention, language and comedy.
When Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap started serialising the chapters of James Joyce's unpublished novel Ulysses in their magazine The Little Review in 1918, they received hundreds of complaints from readers.
The following is typical: "I think this is the most damnable slush and filth that ever polluted paper in print... There are no words I know to describe, even vaguely, how disgusted I am; not with the mire of his effusion, but with all those whose minds are so putrid that they dare allow such muck and sewage of the human mind to besmirch the world by repeating it."
The appearance of the complete work in 1922 - published by a small bookshop in Paris when no established publishing house would touch it - evoked similar responses. Sewers were often mentioned, mostly in reference to the last chapter, in which Joyce's leading lady, Molly Bloom, expresses her thoughts without censorship. "The whole thing is a hodgepodge of type," wrote one reviewer of this chapter, "closely run together, mostly without sense, difficult to read and flowing on to the end of the book like a sewer that had burst loose and overwhelmed a city with foul and pestilential vapours."
What is curious about the heated reaction to Ulysses on its publication is the way in which the anger, ostensibly directed at the book's obscenity, often seems to implicate another, apparently unrelated, target: its difficulty. Joyce developed a style to represent the fragmentariness of thoughts, shifting from one mode to another between chapters, casting one episode as a series of stylistic pastiches, another as an unperformable play, another as a bizarre catechism (to name just a few). Why should so many people have found Joyce's experiments with the language and structure of the traditional novel offensive rather than just peculiar?
The answer has to do with expectations. Just as readers in 1922 did not expect to encounter certain words and certain human experiences in print - or not in respectable publications, at any rate - they did not expect to find fictional events and characters presented to them in language that seemed to have a life of its own instead of serving the purposes of description and narrative. And it did not help that this challenging prose went on for more than 700 large-format pages. Shane Leslie, reviewing Ulysses on its publication, was not alone in believing that "a gigantic effort has been made to fool the world of readers".
Today, our expectations about what can or should be put in print are very different from those of 1922. The explicitness with which Joyce treated sex and bodily functions is no longer shocking. But Ulysses is still widely perceived as a difficult book, a book for academics or anoraks, one that requires too much hard work for too little payoff in enjoyment. As for Joyce's last book, Finnegans Wake - even the academics and anoraks tend to agree with the common reader that its demands are just too great for whatever pleasures it might hold in store.
Yet those early readers of Ulysses who, perhaps unconsciously, linked the book's frankness about sex and the body with its difficulty were not simply confusing two separate sources of irritation and bewilderment. Joyce wished to transcribe the mental and physical activities of his characters with unprecedented completeness, and this required a technique that challenged the orthodoxies of traditional prose. At the same time, he wanted to parody his predecessors, make fun of the conventions of the novel and do justice to the unconscious desires that manifest themselves in dreams and fantasies.
In other words, the difficulty of Joyce's last two books - which occupied the final 30 years of his life - is inseparable from their achievement in expanding the reach of the novel to explore hitherto untapped realms of human experience and cultural history. Joyce took the huge risk of asking his readers to follow him in testing language's ability to capture more of our daily existence than any other writer had attempted, doing so while engaged in a comic raid on his literary heritage. It was a venture that nearly failed as it ran up against the various economies and institutions that control the production and dissemination of books - including the market, the Church, the state, and the predilections and habits of readers. But after Ulysses , novelists found available to them the means to explore thoughts, feelings, impulses and actions that had until then been inaccessible, and the aftershocks of Joyce's breakthrough can be felt in many other media all around us today.
Joyce's notorious difficulty was not gratuitous, and there is a great deal of pleasure in store for the reader who is prepared to read his works with open-mindedness and alertness to detail. Joyce worked with scrupulous attention to sentences and words, even individual syllables, always with an extraordinary awareness of the potential of the English language and a fine sense of the comic.
He deployed his formidable skills not just in entertaining his readers but also in exposing the hypocrisy and expediency he saw around him in private and public life. "I am nauseated by their lying drivel about pure men and pure women and spiritual love for ever," he once said, and he was equally outspoken about the deceptions of politics and religion. However, it is only by learning to enjoy the comedy of Joyce's language as it unfolds phrase by phrase that one can appreciate the full force of his social and political critique, which is as relevant today as it was when the first readers of Ulysses vented their anger and dismay.
Derek Attridge is head of the department of English at York University and is on the editorial board of The James Joyce Quarterly and The Joyce Studies Annua . His book How to Read Joyce is published by Granta Books, Pounds 6.99.