Ulysses, written by James Joyce – one of Ireland’s most cantankerous exiles – is very funny, organic, lively and grows on rereading. The more snobbish among us will concede it has enormous credibility, everywhere; this is a novel that really can change you life – well, perhaps not change it, but it should improve it.
How to read it? Gleefully. It offers a panoramic excursion into the life of normal humans – not warriors, not leaders. For anyone who has not yet read it, today, Bloomsday, is the day to experience a day as captured in prose. There are 18 dazzling episodes. Homer is indeed a guiding structural influence; his presence is unobtrusive.
Here are five good reasons out of 18 exciting possibilities guaranteed to encourage an engagement with the entire novel.
1. Episode 6: Hades
Probably one of the finest sequences in literature – a group of decent Dubliners set off to pay their respects to Paddy Dignam who has gone and died. There is a great deal of banter as the mourners make their way. One of them, Leopold Bloom, whom we have already met, is thinking about his dead son, his late father, his late father’s dog ...
2. Episode 12: Cyclops
An unnamed narrator acting as a compere reports on events in the pub culminating in The Citizen’s demented rant to which Bloom offers a spirited counterattack.
3. Episode 4: Calypso
Turn back to the early pages and watch Bloom preparing breakfast, feeding the cat, visiting the privy and all the while his thoughts ramble randomly. At about the same time, in Sandycove, another part of Dublin, Stephen Dedalus is beginning his day, badly; it’s not easy being an artist.
4. Episode 10: Wandering Rocks
Virtuoso free-fall as 19 random characters move through the city and the day.
5. Episode 17: Ithaca
One of the major themes – the search for a son – the search for a father culminates in the sharing of coca – Joyce’s response to Homer’s nectar – at Bloom’s house where he plays host to the weary Stephen; both are exhausted. It is late and upstairs Molly is in bed.
Joyce was the consummate self-exile and although he took himself very seriously, Ulysses does not. What it does do is explode all notions of traditional fiction while also being playful, earthy and rampagingly human. It is an urban anti-epic. Now this is the good bit, it continues to torment textual scholars. So read on.
Allusive in its classical, literary, historical, political and popular culture cross-references, as well as Joyce’s personal jokes, Ulysses uses interior monologue as a way of juxtaposing the richness of the imaginative life with the meanness of social intercourse. Yet for all the dynamic linguistic and stylistic showmanship, Ulysses triumphs through Joyce’s majestic and endearing exploration of inner thought. Set aside the burlesque and the comedic, and the theatrical encounters, and accept that this big, noisy novel is essentially concerned with replicating the silent scramble of the at times scheming, at times vulnerable thoughts racing through a human mind. Ulysses is about many things, everything, life and death, but it is essentially about thinking.
Set in an uncommonly warm Dublin, on June 16th, 1904, it is an odyssey of the ordinary. Joyce created a world by capturing the body and soul of a colonial city he mapped with all the precision of a military surveyor. Ulysses also debunks the myth of the heroic by taking as its central figure a mild, if opinionated, pacifist – the enduringly sympathetic Leopold Bloom, advertising canvasser, cuckolded husband and definitive Everyman. He is an outsider, a Dublin Jew relegated to the margins by the culturally racist nationalism that Joyce was determined to expose. He waged war on preening national vanity. Ulysses is comic, often cynical, at times vicious and occasionally moving. Above all, it is candid. Joyce detested complacency.
It is easy to laugh along with Bloom, yet he is a man possessed of a sense of justice. Though living in a misogynistic society and given to lascivious musings, he is sympathetic to women. Here is an Edwardian male who, having done the shopping, serves his wife breakfast in bed and laments the lack of public toilets available to ladies “caught short”. Opposed to war and all forms of violence, for Bloom true heroism is the act of childbirth. His sexual life is confined to fantasy and speculative glances, reaching true pathos as he masturbates while watching young Gerty MacDowell’s flirtatious performance, an interlude based on her doubts, fantasies and frustrations.
The 18 chapters, arranged in three movements, the Telemachia, the Odyssey and the Nostos (or homecoming), and traversing a sequence of city locations, each (except for the Wandering Rocks) reflect the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey, from which Joyce has taken themes as well as a structure.
Ulysses has been described as being both plotless and over-plotted. In either case, a central theme prevails – that of wandering. Bloom – Odysseus or Ulysses – wanders through a day during which he at all times is moving closer and closer to an encounter with Stephen Dedalus, the self-absorbed artist and Telemachus figure, and also unwittingly, a symbolic son to Bloom, bereaved father of little Rudy. And then there is Molly – both Calypso and Penelope – a fading popular soprano who lingers in bed, pondering her confused thoughts. She is sexually involved with her blackguard manager, Blazes Boylan.
As Bloom at home in Eccles Street prepares the breakfast and chats to the cat, across the city, in a tower by the sea, the disgruntled Stephen has been party to Buck Mulligan’s ceremonial shaving, a task that parodies church ritual.
Stephen sets off to his lowly teaching job. Having dealt with his pupils, he then collects his earnings from Mr Deasy who lectures him on the virtue of saving.
Their conversation ends with Deasy, who requests some help in having a letter published, remarking to Stephen: “You were not born to be a teacher, I think. Perhaps I am wrong.” Stephen’s reply is interesting; instead of proclaiming himself an “artist” as would be expected for all his obvious conceit and intellectual pretensions, he says: “a learner rather”.
Joyce makes it clear that Stephen also has doubts. It is an important exchange because it reveals a rare instance of humility from Stephen Dedalus, not the most appealing of heroes and one who is invariably overshadowed by the likeable Bloom.
Each time he enters centre stage, the novel acquires heightened conviction and empathy: Bloom checks for the post he receives under the name of Henry Flower, Esq at the post office in Westland Row. A letter is waiting and it gives him a boost. When purchasing Molly’s beauty aids at the chemist, he also buys himself a cake of lemon soap. Unintentionally, a hot outside tip for the Ascot Gold Cup is mentioned, Joyce invariably capitalises on the randomness of the everyday. Throwaway, the five-year-old horse that won the Ascot Gold Cup that year would finish 3rd the next year.
From horse racing to another matter of life and death, the main event itself, and thus he eases his characters into possibly the finest – well my favourite – of many immortal set pieces: the carriage trip to poor Paddy Dignam’s funeral during which quick-fire comic dialogue is bantered between the mourners. Vivid characterisation, images, headlines, gossip and heated arguments are tossed about, apparently casually but so deadly deliberate as to be conscientiously retrieved. Joyce remembers every detail. The hours pass; Bloom and Stephen gravitate closer and closer. The narrative moves from realism to fantasy. Nighttown explodes into surreal virtuosity, before yielding to the domestic; shared coco, sleep and the restless thoughts of Molly Bloom engaged in a whistle stop review of the life she once knew, the girl she used to be.
Is it the greatest novel of the 20th century? Maybe. Perhaps. Not quite. Does it share the honours with William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum? Yes. Maybe. Perhaps. Even so, Ulysses with its cynicism, wordplay, invention, wit and humanity lives and breathes; scratches, sings and sighs through Joyce’s singular, eloquent celebration of the ordinary. Were it to be written today, as the New York Times declared this week, Dalkey Archive Press would be its most receptive publisher. And today, Bloomsday, it is time to yet again celebrate Joyce’s transfiguration of the commonplace into art.