The Ultimate Novel

Thomas Jones

In 1982, when James Joyce, had he lived, would have turned a hundred, William Empson wrote a piece for the London Review of Books on ‘the ultimate novel’, which begins with some backhanded praise for Hugh Kenner – ‘it is wonderful how Professor Kenner can keep on about Ulysses, always interesting and relevant and hardly repeating himself at all’ – and then almost immediately takes issue with a ‘new idea’ of Kenner’s that ‘urgently needs refuting’. According to Kenner, Stephen Dedalus ‘is practically blind all through the book’; Empson demonstrates not only how that can’t be true, but also how Kenner came to fall into error. ‘The explanation is simple,’ Empson writes. But ‘this is not quite the end of it …’

Ulysses was published on Joyce’s fortieth birthday, 2 February 1922; today it’s the novel’s turn to turn a hundred. Joyce impersonators in pebble glasses, neat moustaches and Latin quarter hats can be seen stalking the streets of Paris. And this evening at Shakespeare and Company, the bookshop named after the bookshop that published the first edition of Ulysses a hundred years ago, Tom McCarthy will be in conversation about the novel with Susan Philipsz. You can buy tickets here.


  • 3 February 2022 at 8:26am
    Donald Raeson says:
    Shame the event was so dull. We'd have been better off with a couple of Irish actors reading from the novel.

  • 4 February 2022 at 10:16pm
    bikethru says:
    Since Empson corrected Kenner, may I (40 years late) correct Empson? He writes that Stephen's glasses "were broken in a scuffle at Westland Road station". The station is in Westland Row. Renamed in 1966 after the leader of the 1916 rebellion, it is officially Pearse Station now, but Dubliners, who have a genius for getting placenames wrong in their own city, always call it "Pearse Street".