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New edition of 'Ulysses' illumines Joyce's methods; Ulysses by James Joyce: A Critical and Synoptic Edition, prepared by Hans Walter Gabler, with Wolfhard Steppe and Klaus Melchior. New York: Garland Publishers. 3 vols. 1,919 pp. $200.

The history of the text of ''Ulysses'' is a bit like the wanderings of Ulysses himself. Written in four cities (Locarno, Zurich, Trieste, and Paris), produced from scraps of paper, manuscript notebooks, typescripts (there were three typists involved at one point, each doing sections of sections using different-colored ribbons), and page proofs - all bearing witness to Joyce's mania for adding, for copia.

Published in serial form in The Little Review from 1918 until censored in 1920, then published in book form in 1921, ''Ulysses'' has for years been read in the Random House edition, which, as this critical edition so amply demonstrates, will have to be redone. What we have been reading and rereading all these years is not what we thought it was. The irony of Odysseus and of ''Ulysses'' is complete.

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Joyce, of course, named his epic novel (which traces the wandering through a Dublin day by Leopold Bloom, his wife, Molly, and Stephen Daedalus) after Homer's mythic hero Odysseus - ''Ulysses'' in English. Being assigned reading in most college English courses, it forms part of the rite of passage through which liberal education presumes to march poor, unexpecting students before they go out and get jobs.

And it may be that without the system of computer programs for text processing developed at the University of Tubingen, we would never have uncovered the real thing - ''Ulysses'' as Joyce wrote it, free of the tamperings of copyists. Editor Gabler warns, however, that even his edition isn't perfect. It must come very close. On the left side is a critical text of sometimes perplexing ingenuity employing more than 50 symbols indicating the source of the words in question. On the right is the new ''definitive'' text of ''Ulysses.''

By studying a given passage, one begins to appreciate both the precarious genesis of the novel and its rich design. The two - history and artifact - need to be understood reciprocally. Take for example the following quotation. It is from the section called ''Ithaca,'' which Joyce cast in a strangely moving Q&A form he probably derived from the questioning of Telemachus in the Odyssey. The nature of Joyce's comic genius may be grasped by using Gabler's presentation to trace the path of composition.

Here is the text: ''What in water did Bloom, carrying water, returning to the range, admire.'' At least this is what Joyce got back from the printer. Then he set to work proofreading it; he began to get ideas. First he deleted the participial ''carrying water.'' More accurately, he metamorphosed it into a facetious Homeric epithet (like ''swift-footed Achilleus''): He changed ''carrying water'' to ''watercarrier.''

Then he added two more epithets in a kind of lyric parody and philosophical pattern: ''What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?'' The question has become a little ontological prism, not unlike the curious knots of design - animal, vegetable, mineral, spiritual - that one finds in the Irish manuscript tradition. Bloom is first a waterlover, then a drawer of water, then a watercarrier: each in order. Order begins in love and ends in action. Bloom is making coffee for Stephen, his young acquaintance.

Critics have made a big deal over one new patch of text that appears in Gabler's ''Ulysses'' for the first time. In it, a question, in the form of an exhortation, is put by Stephen to the ghost of his mother. (''Hamlet,'' along with the ''Odyssey'' and myriad other books, form the warp and woof of ''Ulysses.'') The question is this: ''Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men.''

Until this critical edition of Ulysses, the question seemed to go unanswered. And yet the ''answer,'' now that we have it, is the only one appropriate to a work so deeply rooted in the classical and Christian intellectual tradition. It echoes, in a roundabout way, the Gospel of John. The restored passage is this: ''Do you know what you are talking about? Love, yes. Word known to all men.''

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Gabler's edition will not win new readers for ''Ulysses.'' It is a critical, a scholarly, edition. Not only does it prepare the way for a new reader's edition, it produces a virtually complete record of the composition of a book that has proved problematic for its myriad readers. The day of Dublin life invented and recorded in it is perhaps known more intimately than any other day in history, real or imaginary. It is a day celebrated in Dublin, on many campuses, and in public libraries. Now that the mysteries of the text have been exposed to the dry light of textual criticism, aided by the Tubingen computers, the book will no doubt continue to provoke, dismay, and entertain.

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