It's ironic that one of the most important and influential authors of the 20th century is also one of the least read.
I suppose this isn't completely true. James Joyce is read in high schools and academic institutions, or at least read in snippets. There's been a question circling in English circles for years as to whether it's necessary to actually read Ulysses, one of the pinnacle achievements of Modern literature, if you already know what it's about and why it matters. Outside of academia and the homes of hard core literary fans, I’d say there aren’t many readers likely to pick up some Joyce simply 'for fun'.
However, much of this is based on a misconception that all of Joyce's books are equally complex and impenetrable. This is altogether untrue. A simple of rule of thumb is that Joyce's books grow increasingly experimental over time. It's logical: as Joyce himself was growing as an artist and writer his skillset was also undergoing profound changes.
And so, in order to guide readers gently into the world of Joyce, I thought it might be beneficial to touch on his four major works in the order I would recommend reading them. This is also the order in which they were written.
Dubliners is Joyce's first published book. Not a novel, it is actually a collection of 15 short stories that can be divided into four parts: the opening stories on childhood, the stories on adolescence, the stories on maturity and the concluding stories on public life. If you've been interested in reading Joyce for a while but don't know where to start, these short stories are the perfect place.
Published in 1914, Dubliners contains none of the disorienting stream of consciousness you'll find in his later works. Instead, it focusses on the city of Dublin itself: the specific geography of the streets and storefronts, the search for a national identity and the culture of alcoholism mixed with religion.
One of the central themes of the stories is that of paralysis: an inability to escape from this endless cycle of repetition, whether it be physical, emotional, moral, spiritual, intellectual or artistic. Despite this paralysis, each story leads to a climactic moment of epiphany where a character has a stunning moment of revelation and self-awareness.
While I would encourage reading the entire book, the best known stories are 'The Sisters', 'Araby', 'Two Gallants', 'A Little Cloud' and of course, the collections final story, 'The Dead'.
2) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The first of Joyce's novels, Portrait was published in 1916, only a couple of years after Dubliners. This being said it was a long time coming. Joyce first began working on an article about aesthetics that he titled 'A Portrait of the Artist' in 1904. When it was rejected, the article was revised into a novel titled Stephen Hero that Joyce then grew frustrated with and cast off. Although Stephen Hero was finally published in its original form after Joyce's death, Joyce went on to heavily revise the manuscript again years later. It was then famously published as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
In my eyes, Portrait is the perfect gateway to Ulysses. An autobiographical, coming of age novel, it follows Stephan Dedalus from his early childhood in Ireland through his adolescence as he's educated at a Jesuit school to his renouncement of Catholicism. The themes and central topics found in Dubliners are all here: the negotiation of religion, the pervading Irish nationalism, the sense of paralysis and the heightened moments of epiphany. As you might expect from the title, it also focusses on Dedalus' development of an artistic consciousness.
While the novel does incorporate stream of consciousness, it is much more accessible than Ulysses and more limited. Joyce also chooses to focus here exclusively on ones e interiority, that of Dedalus, unlike in Ulysses where we encounter Dedalus again, but who is joined by a cast of others.
I won't lie, Ulysses is not easy. I'm currently in the process of (slowly) making my way through it and it's rather disorienting. This being said, I think it's very beneficial that I've previously read Dubliners and Portrait: I know what Joyce tends to focus on thematically, I've encountered Stephen Dedalus before and I'm somewhat primed on Dublin life.
If Portrait was a warm up, Ulysses is the real deal. There is heavy use of stream of consciousness and various other literary techniques including parody and allusion. Joyce constructed the novel from the action of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey and set the events of the poem in modern day Dublin over the course of only one day, June 16, 1904. Each of the novel's 18 chapters correspond to a segment in Homer's work and the three central characters represent those found in The Odyssey: Leopold Bloom as Odysseus (Ulysses), Stephen Dedalus as Telemachus and Molly Bloom as Penelope.
There's no getting around the complexity of Joyce's great novel, but I've found it helpful to have a copy of Joyce's schema lying around. The schema neatly notes for each chapter the mythological episode, colour, art or science and literary style it is meant to reference. Having this framework at least makes it a bit more decipherable.
4) Finnegans Wake
If you made it through Ulysses and are onto Finnegans Wake I applaud you. You've made if further than I will likely ever get.
Jokes aside, I think it's unlikely I'll ever read Finnegans Wake in full. Joyce's final novel, it pushes stream of consciousness, literary allusions and free dream associations to the limit. Any of the plot and character conventions you typically find in a novel are gone and, instead, it is written in obscure English heavily based on puns and wordplay. The book is also heavily influenced by the philosopher Giambattista Vico, and is meant to be circular in origin: as in you could finish the final sentence and it would take you back to the opening lines.
I don't know if I've met anyone who's actually read Finnegans Wake and the thought of being that one person to make it through is fun to think about. But realistically, I think Ulysses might be a great finale to Joyce's canon.
At least for the time being.