A part of Joyce's greatness lies in the fact that, paradoxical as it may seem, he did not have a fertile literary imagination, as he recognized and frequently acknowledged. He was an Aristotelian to the tips of his writing fingers, and based all his art in actuality. Can there ever have been an author who incorporated so many real, living people into his fiction? He famously told Frank Budgen that he “wanted to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”
Joyce the hard-headed novelist loved the world as it is, not as Joyce the swooning versifier would have wished it to be. The general reader treasures Ulysses not as a modernist experiment, but for the luminous moments of ordinariness that it so vividly and movingly captures, those epiphanies of the actual: the young men at their edgy breakfast in the Martello Tower, Stephen teaching in the classroom, Bloom on his perambulations, above all the loving evocation of Poldy’s and Molly’s morning rituals. Of course Joyce was a master of language; of course he was a great manipulator of forms—“I am really one of the greatest engineers, if not the greatest, in the world”; of course he transformed the modern novel, if indeed he did not kill it stone dead. But surely it is when he is at his simplest and most lucid that we love him best.