Just as May 25th is Towel Day, the high holy day for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans to honor their beloved Douglas Adams, June 16th is a day sacred unto enthusiasts of James Joyce: it is on this day, June 16th, in 1904 that all 783 glorious pages of Ulysses take place, a day that is known affectionately by Joyce-ites everywhere as Bloomsday.
Although Bloomsday celebrations are held all across the globe in whatever clime Ulysses has managed to take root, no one celebrates it with more panache and a higher blood alcohol level than the Irish, particularly in Dublin, the location of all the events in the novel. Dubliners (and those Joyce-ites lucky enough to be there anywhere around Bloomsday) dress up in frock coats and top hats (and drink), visit locations around town mentioned in the book and partake in reenactments (and drink), and sit about the streets of Dublin reading and reciting the sacred text (and drinking). They might then round out the experience with a visit to one, or perhaps more, of the Joyce-ite friendly pubs around town for a bit of evening refreshment. For a literature and alcohol fiend, it’s like a dream come true.
This may sound all a bit earthy for a book that is considered to be too high-falutin’ for common consumption; however, in that assessment, you would be incorrect — Mr. Joyce never intended for Ulysses to become the private domain of pointy-headed hoity toities. His dream was that, one day, every ordinary citizen would read, love, and ponder Ulysses.
In Declan Kiberd’s book, Ulysses and Us, he relates a telling incident:
When a painter visited James Joyce in his Parisian apartment, the famous author pointed out the window to the son of the concierge playing on the steps. “One day,” he said, “that boy will be a reader of Ulysses.” Already the book had a reputation for obscurity as well as obscenity, but Joyce remained confident that it would reach and move many ordinary readers.
Later, Mr. Kiberd goes on to say that Mr. Joyce
preferred not to discuss literature with experts or writers, but “loved to carry on a dialogue about Dickens with some unknown attendant at the post office window or to discuss the meaning and structure of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino with the person at the box office.”
According to Mr. Kiberd, Mr. Joyce wrote Ulysses as a way of elevating and celebrating the daily round of the common man and engaging all readers in a common culture and intellectual endeavor. Admirable sentiments, indeed.
I adore Ulysses. It’s funny, it’s intelligent, it’s sad, it’s thoughtprovoking, it’s witty, and I find parts of it (especially that last chapter, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy) oddly romantic. I didn’t read Ulysses until my final year at college, when my instructor, the venerable Professor Alan Williamson, assigned the book near the close of the semester, innocently remarking that it wouldn’t be covered in the course final. I began the first chapter with no intention of ever finishing the book (why the hell bother reading it if it wouldn’t contribute to my grade?) and quickly descended into obsession. When I was supposed to be writing essays about Paradise Lost and memorizing organic chemistry formulas, I was sitting around following the exploits of Stephen Dedalus. Class discussions, where the highly optimistic Professor Williamson tried to engage we students in debates about the text, eventually turned into duets between him and me. At one point he asked in exasperation, “Has anyone other than this young lady read the book?” Silence. He turned and looked at me as if I were his long-lost love. He knew then, as I did, that I had been well and truly bitten by the Ulysses bug and that I would be blissfully, gleefully, gladly infected for the rest of my life. Thank you, Professor Williamson.
Now, I realize that there are a lot of you out there who firmly believe you would rather have your eye bored out than be forced to read through Ulysses. I promise you, you don’t know what you are missing. I am aware, however, that vaulting over that this-is-an-impenetrable-hoity-toity-tome barrier that has been in place so long between the Common Reader and Ulysses can be daunting; therefore, I’ve devised a three step plan for turning any anti-Joyce-ite into a ravening Ulysses addict. Take the challenge, if you dare.
The Book Examiner’s three step program to falling in love with Ulysses
1. Read any version of the Odyssey.
I will wait for the eye-rolling, retching, and convulsions to pass. Are you done now? While a knowledge of the basic story of Homer’s Odyssey is not strictly essential to understanding and liking Ulysses, you are simply not going to grasp the full genius of Mr. Joyce unless you know the story and can identify how the basic elements of Ulysses are based on Odysseus’ tale. And I guarantee you, if you can’t remember a thing about the Odyssey, you are in for a treat — there’s a reason why it has been a classic adventure yarn since the Greeks were prancing about in robes.
While any old version will work, there are two I’d highly recommend. The first is Odds Bodkin’s audio performance of the story. Recorded live, with no script, this performance is the stuff that lit dreams are made of — it is truly one of the most astonishingly great things I’ve ever heard in my life. And kids love it, too. Incredible. The second is Geraldine McCaughrean’s adaptation of The Odyssey. This book covers all the main points in straightforward, pleasant writing. It’s a quick read, too, so you can get on to Ulysses all the quicker.
2. Begin reading Ulysses with one (or both) schemas of the novel in hand.
In 1920, Mr. Joyce gave his friend, Carlo Linati, a sort of table, or “schema,” for better understanding the structure and underlying themes of Ulysses; in 1921, he provided another friend, Stuart Gilbert, with another, supplementary version of the schema. I cannot begin to tell you how useful these are in uncovering Mr. Joyce’s genius in Ulysses. They help orient the reader as to what part of the original Odyssey story is being re-envisioned and which symbols, themes, and writing styles are dominant in which chapter. Don’t read Ulysses without these. Take a look at the Linati shema here and the Gilbert schema here.
3. Don’t think of Ulysses as a weekend read. Or even a week-long read.
Reading and loving Ulysses isn’t a one night stand: it’s a lifetime commitment. You are not going to able to slam through this book like a $2.95 paperback and get a lot out of it. Like a marriage, or becoming a musician, or an obsession with gin, this is no fly-by-night relationship — this is a lifelong endeavor. And, like every meaningful commitment, the more you put into it, the more you’re going to get out of it. There are precious few books that fall into this category: Ulysses is one of them. Give it some time and give it some effort. It will pay off, book fiends, I promise.
I hope all of you uninitiated Ulysses readers find it within yourselves to take a stab at Mr. Joyce’s masterpiece this year. Before you know it, you’ll be wearing a top-hat, prancing about the streets of Dublin quoting Stephen Dedalus.
Either way, happy Bloomsday, Joyce-ites! May your cats always mrkgnao.
Guess which famous authors thought Ulysses was a vulgar waste of time? Find out here: 50 best author vs. author putdowns of all time