Surrounding James Joyce and his novels is a conveyor belt of critical texts purporting to help the reader decode Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Some of these are both readable and rewarding. Of the shorter texts, Eliot’s Ulysses, Order, and Myth [PDF] is valuable. Stewart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses looks good, though I have yet to do more than scan its pages.
Frank Budgen’s James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses is a major critical reference, concentrating on the biographical and human details of the text. Budgen knew Joyce well whilst he was writing Ulysses, and he uses that personal knowledge to offer insight into Joyce’s creative practice. Its style is ponderous, and it is the off-hand biographical references that particularly reward the effort, one of which I partially record here:
Joyce was a great admirer of Defoe. He possessed his complete works, and read every line of them. Of only three writers, he said, could he make this claim: Flaubert, Ben Jonson and Ibsen. Robinson Crusoe he called the English Ulysses. Joyce read to me once the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, stopping often to repeat the lines and retaste the elegant humour of each one. “Of all English writers Chaucer is the clearest. He is as precise and slick as a Frenchman.”
The English Ulysses comment is fitting as in Ulysses, Joyce gives Leopold Bloom the line, “Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it.” Three sentences that remark on fiction, realism and plot.