Friday, 15 June 2012

Does Bloomsday Matter?

1992 Penguin edition, with embarrassing annotations...
This morning, for the first time since we moved here 7 and a half years ago, I took my old copy of 'Ulysses' down from the shelf. It's a 1992 Penguin edition designed for students, and I bought it a year after publication. Not because I wanted to, particularly, but because I was about to study the book for an MA in Modernism. I read it through at least twice and filled the margins with earnest pencilled notes about 'discourse', 'narrative disjunction' and, though I'm loath to admit it, 'phallocentrism'.

It seems impossible now either that I devoted so much time and energy to one book or that I swallowed all the critical hokum I was fed by my professor, an ardent post-structuralist with a reputation for seducing female students. But I was bright and directionless, and Joyce's mad book spoke to me. So I read, annotated and wrote about 'Ulysses' and then put it on the shelf, and have since moved it in and out of different houses without opening it again until this morning.

Flicking through the dusty pages the first thing that struck me was not the length of the book but the extraordinary power of Joyce's voice. From the first sentence to the last 'Ulysses' is one long bravura performance, a fantastically long and complex song. Think of the book as a novel and you're doomed to boredom by the end of the first page; there is no recognisable plot, and the characters are not driven by a novelist's sure hand. Instead they come and go like snatches of melody as the song rolls on.

This song is a hymn to Dublin, 'the second city of the Empire' as Joyce described it hopefully to London publishers (who took no notice), and to the Edwardian age. Did you see the films of Mitchell and Kenyon which were unearthed and shown on TV a few years ago? Made around the same time, though in England, they show city streets teeming with life, and it is this kind of human metropolis that Joyce presents in 'Ulysses'. If you want to know how many characters appear in the book, what their names are and who they are modelled on, you can easily find out, as 'Ulysses' has been picked apart and examined in every possible way by thousands of highly-trained academics. But you probably don't.

Instead, you may be wondering whether you should give 'Ulysses' a go. After all the book does have a day named after its main character, Leopold Bloom, which must give Joyce's ghost (who I'm sure wanders Dublin's streets alongside Molly Malone and her barrow of cockles) great pleasure. June 16 is, as you may know, the single day over which the action of the book takes place, and each year there seems to be a bit more fuss made over it. But does this make the book itself worth reading? Is this the sort of book that will change your life, as 'The Remembrance of Things Past' is supposed to? I struggled through the first volume of Proust, incidentally, but only just...

The trouble is that it's very difficult to sit down and read this book (I was going to say 'a book like this' but there aren't any others). Like many people I got to grips with it because I was told to, and I had time to read a difficult chapter over and over until it made sense. Even so, there are large chunks of the text that never did, particularly the sections where Joyce was sending up a now-defunct literary genre. There are passages written in the tawdry prose of Edwardian romance novels, for example, and I can't see any reason why reading those would change anyone's life.

But there are several reasons why I think 'Ulysses' is worth trying - and persevering with. If you can make sense of the writing it offers a wonderful picture of Edwardian Dublin, one brimming with life and music and character, and if you're interested in the poetic use of language you will find untold riches here. If you're sensitive to the power of words there are phrases and sentences in this book that will bring tears to your eyes, passages equal to anything in 'The Wasteland' (to take one example).

And then, above all, there's the voice within a voice, the quiet, wry counterpoint to Joyce's loud and insistent song. Though in some ways the most elusive of literary heroes, Leopold Bloom is a constant presence as you journey through the book. Sly, observant, packed full of strange and wonderful thoughts, Bloom makes his way around the streets of Dublin on an everyday journey made extraordinary by his intelligence.

For me, the book really gets going in Chapter Two (p65 of my edition) when we first meet Mr Bloom preparing breakfast for his wife Molly:

     Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod's roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
     Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.

It's that last sentence which is the killer, and it's the constant, earthy, human presence of Bloom which makes 'Ulysses' such a glorious, life-affirming book. Joyce invented him and wrote the book between 1914 and 1921, when Europe was in the process of tearing itself apart, and both book and protagonist stand as a defiant monument to civilisation writ small, the civilisation of ordinary men and women living ordinary lives. In that sense, 'Ulysses' is a life-changer; it can make you appreciate just how wonderful something as mundane as breakfast can be! You can always skip the hard bits.

Happy Bloomsday!


  1. So many times this book has appeared in my life, and until now been unread. On at least two occasions I found it lying with very early bookmarks on girlfriends' tables, and when asking about it they just stared out of the window and said nothing. But having read your post I think it's time to get to grips with it. After all, I enjoyed the snippets on Radio 4 this weekend, and that seems to be the way to approach it. Thankyou for the impetus, I hope my bookmark moves through it to the end.

  2. Thanks Peter... I would stick the bookmark somewhere near the end and work towards it, skipping the incomprehensible bits and enjoying Bloom humour... I enjoyed bits of the R4 dramatisation but I'm afraid I wasn't keen on their Bloom. Didn't sound like the Bloom in my head At All.

  3. Tom Raworth21 June, 2012

    A cheering and enthusiastic piece to have read as we pass Midsummer and slide towards winter. Thank you.

  4. Thanks Tom - I hadn't noticed that it was the solstice today. I suppose I'd better go out and stand in the rain at some point...

  5. Oh bother, now i WILL have to read it. I have never attempted any Joyce, there is only so much reading time in a lifetime and there are many great writers in other languages I have yet to get to grips with. If you can be bothered, I have just posted about a group of well educated people, some of them Eng. Lit. grads, who have not managed to get to the end of Ulysses.

  6. Anonymous21 June, 2012

    i tried to read this three times as a teenager and gave up after the first chapter on each attempt. I then avoided all university courses that covered Ulysses like the plague because I hated the thought of having to wade through it. I think you're the first person who's actually convinced me that it might just be worth the effort. One day I will read it. That's a promise!

  7. Thanks for your comments!

    Friko - I enjoyed your post. No reason why anyone should read Joyce, although 'A Portrait of the Artist' is rather beautiful.

    bookssnob - Don't try to wade, just dip your toe in here and there!

  8. It is a great book, though you are right that Portrait of the Artist, and short stories such as The Dead, are more forgiving of the reader. The last chapter is the best - so maybe one should read that first; Joyce got round that problem by making Finnegans Wake a circular narrative that starts when it leaves off.