Today is Bloomsday. The day when James Joyce fans insist on re-reading an unreadable book, eating fried kidney for breakfast and walking around Dublin in Edwardian costumes following the steps of literature’s most unlikely hero, Leopold Bloom.
I don’t do most of those myself, but it’s not out of a lack of desire. I do pick the book off my shelf and read it again, and maybe watch one of the dramatisations, and always find myself saying ‘next year in Dublin’.
I first discovered James Joyce’s Ulysses on a student exchange in Hungary in 1993. About fifteen students turned up for the first class. By week four it was just three of us. We stuck it out and sailed through it, encountering adventures with cyclopes and sirens and almost foundering on the wandering rocks. It is a book that sucks you in, makes you laugh, and cry, and scratch your head. It’s a book that stays with you for life and always gives you something new every time you open its pages.
It’s a simple story told in epic and increasingly experimental styles. It’s based, of course on Homer’s Odyssey, and the wanderings of Ulysses, trying to get home from the Trojan War, back to his wife and son, and delayed for years by adventures.
Joyce’s hero, though, is a normal man: a Jewish advertising salesman in Dublin in 1904, who leaves his house in the morning knowing his wife is going to commit adultery, and stays out of the way, wandering the city and only returning late at night to reclaim his throne.
He is complicit in his own cuckoldry because he hasn’t had sex with his wife for 11 years, since their son died, and has decided to let her have what he can no longer give her. It’s a monumental act of pity, self-sacrifice and forgiveness, and it is almost lost in the reams of detail about his life on this day. But Bloom is a modern hero whose adventures may seem less epic than his Greek counterpart’s, but who remains, in a much more subtle way, truly heroic. And his victory is in being the man his wife Molly’s thoughts return to at the end of the day in her famous monologue.
But it is not so much the story that is told that has made Ulysses the major prose work of the 20th century. It’s the way it is told. It is the novel that defines the novel. It’s not only the masterpiece of Modernism, but contains almost every literary innovation of postmodernism as well.
It is dazzling in its array of styles and techniques: there’s a play in it, a chapter divided by newspaper headlines, Q&A sessions, romantic pulp, sports reports, society gossip, legal jargon, Celtic saga, fantasy, a chapter written as music, a chapter that mimics the entire history of English literature, from medieval to late nineteenth century and collapsing into a bewildering chaos of slangs and dialects at the end.
All of this makes it a difficult read, and it’s almost impossible to read without the help of numerous guides, but that’s part of the fun and possibly what makes it such a rewarding novel.
English critics routinely scoff at Ulysses. No one’s ever actually read it, they laugh. Why would anyone even bother? they crow. There is a disturbing lack of embarrassment in this. An arrogance with a racist edge. A middlebrow smugness that is safe, superior, conservative. Here is the English literary establishment’s complacent pride in all its glory. The problem with books like Ulysses is that they’re just not the same as all our well-wrought nineteenth century English fiction. And it’s written by an Irishman after all.
But you have to ignore the little Englanders and prepare for an adventure when you read this book. And it’s just not true that no one’s read it. When I lived and worked in Hungary, I found myself teaching the very same course that had first introduced me to it, and it’s a great source of pride to me that I took thirty Hungarian natives through its pages, in English.
I love Ulysses so much that I wrote a novel based on it. Train Can’t Bring Me Home was inspired by my student exchange in Hungary reading the book, and its structure follows Joyce’s closely, not to mention the myriad quotes and references to it.
I say I first discovered Ulysses on that student exchcange in Hungary in 1993, but that’s not entirely true. That was when I first started reading it, page by page. But I first truly discovered it, realised how brilliant it was, a year or two earlier, with a Channel 4 drama documentary.
There are, of course, two feature film adaptations of Ulysses, which you’d think would be good places to start, but the first (Joseph Strick’s from 1967) is too dour and omits all of the book’s humour, whereas the more recent film (Bloom in 2003) gives you no sense of the book’s dazzling experimentation.
The Channel 4 documentary gets it exactly right, and its dramatised excerpts are brilliantly done. If you want to find out why there’s so much fuss about this ‘unreadable’ book, this is the best place to start…