James Joyce's reputation for inaccessibility is greatly exaggerated. Like Shakespeare, who could please royalty and hoi polloi, Joyce is a high intellectual for the erudite, a teller of filthy jokes to rival Chaucer, and simply a plain good story-teller. Granted, Finnegans Wake (1939) is formidable, but once you realize that it's permissible to browse, grazing playfully and expecting nothing more from it than diversion, even this opens up to an unexpected degree. But don't start here. Begin with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914–15), Joyce's first published novel, in which he presents himself in the guise of its hero, Stephen Dedalus. Stephen, as the title implies, is a portrait rather than the complete Joyce, but the events of his life are essentially those of his creator. The book tells in vivid poetic prose of his earliest childhood memories, his Jesuit education, the family's move to Dublin, and Stephen's subsequent progression through adolescence, university, and finally self-imposed exile. Intense, full of brilliant set pieces and detailed observation, Portrait remains one of the classics of adolescence, along with The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774).
Next read Dubliners (1914), a collection of stories about Dublin life. Along with Chekhov, Joyce perfected the art of capturing the essence of a seemingly trivial incident. He called these moments epiphanies, when a look, a movement, a passing encounter becomes charged with a kind of momentous significance. Often very little actually happens, but these are tremendously powerful stories, full of insight and sensitive observation. The collection culminates in ‘The Dead’, a wonderfully subtle piece in which a song overheard after a party leads to a revelation of lost love and youthful death.
Many of the characters in Dubliners reappear in Ulysses (1922), as does Stephen Dedalus, but the principal character is a Dublin Jew, Leopold Bloom. Following his wanderings around the city in the course of one single day, this vast book mirrors the journeyings of the Greek hero through the ordinary actions of an ordinary man. Reading Ulysses is an effort but an exhilarating one; it is a dazzling feat of creation performed in a variety of styles from the rompingly readable to the dense and impenetrable. Joyce perfected the stream-of-consciousness technique in the final soliloquy of Bloom's wife, Molly, and the influence of Ulysses on modern literature is so pervasive that it is now taken for granted. He wrote frankly and graphically about the sex act and bodily functions, delved into the wilder reaches of sexual fantasy, and imbued his fictional Everyman with an interior life so complete it mirrors the universal. It is perhaps hard now for the modern reader to comprehend the impact of this in 1922. Damned as obscene, banned for years in Ireland, Ulysses is now widely regarded as one of the most important books of the twentieth or any other century.