So I wrote a book called Witz. It’s capacious (800 pages). It’s complex (puns in a dozen languages: fun in a daze of longuages). And it’s about a Wandering Jew—the Last Jew in the world.
A friend of my father called after having tried a page to say, “It’s like the Jewish Ulysses.”
That wasn’t a compliment.
Problem is, James Joyce’s Ulysses is already the Jewish Ulysses; featuring, as it does, Leopold Bloom—that Dubliner born Jewish, raised Protestant, converted to Catholicism to marry Marion “Molly” née Tweedy, who at the end of the novel says “Yes” a lot.
That’s what I said to my father’s friend.
“Yes,” I said, “yes.”
That wasn’t a compliment either: I knew he wouldn’t get the reference.
I began wondering. If Ulysses was the Jewish Ulysses—and the Irish Ulysses, too, one would think—shouldn’t other cultures have Ulyssi of their own? Having worked as a weekly book reviewer, I came across marketese like this all the time: “Known in its nation of origin as the Icelandic Ulysses”—publicity talk for “a difficult but ultimately rewarding novel by a dead man from Reykjavik.”
In other words, the summa of a culture.
So I’ve decided to make a survey of the summa them.
In honor of the 106th anniversary of “Bloomsday”—June 16, 1904—the day that Joyce had Bloom and Stephen Dedalus wander Dublin, here are 12 novels that have been described, whether by critics or the authors themselves, as the Ulyssi of their respective cultures. “The original” Ulysses was published in 1922; the other Ulyssi are listed here in order of publication. At over 6000 pages of suggested reading below, you’d need Irish luck to be finished by Bloomsday next year.
By Andrei Bely
Bely’s novel is a time-bomb featuring a time-bomb. A young revolutionary, Nikolai Apollonovich, is ordered to assassinate his father, Apollon Apollonovich, an important Tsarist official, by smuggling an explosive into his study. The time ticks down on this 24-hour plot as Bely—master of Russian Symbolism—makes Petersburg talk: through its peasant prattle and nattering intelligentsia.
By Virginia Woolf
The British feminine response to Irish masculinity. Woolf’s narrative follows one June day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares to host an evening party. What was externalized in Joyce—physical details, action—is internalized in Woolf—mental details, psychology. Her book is a triumph of the inmost voice.
By Alfred Döblin
An epically unrelenting account of Berlin’s demimonde. Replete with murder, whores, a murdered whore. Dimwitted Franz Biberkopf is released from prison into the prison that was Weimar. Döblin, a journalist, psychiatrist, and veteran of World War I, Germanized Joyce’s panoramic city eye and ear for common slang, and in doing so fashioned one of the century’s finest novels of decadence.
The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa
By Yasunari Kawabata
This lurid novel, teeming with teen prostitutes and slumming littérateurs, earned its author the prize that eluded Joyce, the Nobel. Originally published in a daily newspaper—surely one of the strangest serializations ever—Kawabata’s monster is a manic crawl through the dingy Asakusa: Tokyo’s red-light district.
By Miklós Szentkuthy
Szentkuthy, whose own outsized book has never been translated into English, has a unique connection to Ulysses: He translated it into Hungarian. His novel Prae—the title is a Latin preposition, meaning “before”—features characters who become ciphers as they exchange ages and sexes (shades of Woolf’s Orlando). A brash intellectual novel, occupied with phenomenology and other turn-of-the-century attempts at objective thought, it makes its connections not through plot but through argument and metaphor.
All About H. Hatterr
By G.V. Desani
Born in Kenya, raised in what today is Pakistan, a resident of the United Kingdom during World War II, Desani settled in India to create one of the most original novels of Empire’s decline. A mannered crazed contortion of various idioms of South-Asian-English, All About H. Hatterr follows the titular character—half-Malay, half-Anglo, all about exclamatories!—in his consultations of seven sages in seven cities, trying to determine what life, and this tale, too, is all about.
By Leopoldo Marechal
Marechal’s novel—whose strangely spelled title can be translated only as Adam Buenosayres—follows a fraternity of adventurers based on the author’s friends, among them Jorge Luis Borges. In seven sections centered on the aesthetic formation of Adam, an aspiring poet, Homeric homage gives way to a rewriting of Dante as Argentine Spanish is played with, perverted, and reinvented.
A Mind at Peace
By Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar
Tanpinar’s great novel also unfolds over 24-hours, but in Istanbul on the eve of World War II. Turkey is torn between East and West just as Mümtaz, an orphan and aspiring writer of historical fiction, is torn between a decaying tradition and his love for the older, divorced Nuran, whose failings and attractions are entirely modern.
Under Milk Wood
By Dylan Thomas
Also the dramatic Ulysses. Under Milk Wood began as a radio play and was later adapted for stage. Mysterious voices invite the audience to eavesdrop on the dream-lives and interior monologues of the inhabitants of a Welsh village, Llareggub (“bugger all,” backwards). After this introduction the Llarreggubians awake and the audience, knowing all of their motivations and hopes, follows them through their lives. Under Milk Wood is one of the most comprehensive attempts to dramatize the mindlife of a provincial locale.
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands
By João Guimarães Rosa
The intricate hypnotic story of Riobaldo, an elderly farmer living in the Brazilian interior. Rosa’s evocation of speech rhythms, speech repetitions, and shifting registers make The Devil to Pay in the Backlands a leading example of Latin American Modernism. It is also one of the few epics of Modernity—a movement birthed in the city—to concern the outer reaches, the wilds.
By Yaakov Shabtai
Written in a single paragraph Shabtai’s only completed novel is an involved chronicle of Israeli life in the mid-1970s. Endless sentences lay out the entanglements of a group of friends and relatives gathered together in the streets and parlors of Tel Aviv after the death of a protagonist’s father. Socialism and religiosity are debated, sex is had, the folkways of European Jewry are mourned as irrelevant, but it’s Shabtai’s stunning control of the casually inflected long sentence, with its nested clauses and conversational asides, that marks this novel as a breakthrough for Hebrew literature.
Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel
By Julián Ríos
Perhaps more accurately the Finnegans Wake of Spain, Ríos’ rewriting of the Don Juan legend romances language above all. Milalias, dressed as the Don, searches for Babelle, costumed as Sleeping Beauty, through a masquerade party in a ramshackle mansion in London. Commentary on the identities of the masked celebrants gives way to criticism of the masking power of words—how they obfuscate olden meanings behind quotidian usage. Ríos’ achievement is matched only by that of his co-translators: Suzanne Levine and Richard Francis—proving once again that a novel’s true state is prior to its writing, as an ideal form willing to wander through all the languages of the world.
Joshua Cohen is the author of three novels, including, most recently, WITZ.