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The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses and The Book About Everything: Joycean treats

These absorbing, accessible volumes can profitably be read by anyone with an interest in Joyce

The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses: The 1922 Text with Essays and Notes, edited by Catherine Flynn (Cambridge University Press, 988pp, £30); The Book About Everything: Eighteen Artists, Writers and Thinkers on James Joyce’s Ulysses, edited by Declan Kiberd, Enrico Terrinoni and Catherine Wilsdon (Head of Zeus, 432pp, £20)

Joyce centenaries always provide occasions to revisit his work and to recalibrate our thinking on it. Ulysses, on the evidence of the worldwide celebrations this year, is more enduringly iconic than ever. But it still raises largescale questions about the feasibility and purpose of reading a text of such staggering proportions.

These two collections of essays on Joyce’s revolutionary one-day novel, The Book of Everything, edited by Declan Kiberd, Enrico Terrinoni and Catherine Wilsdon and The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses, edited by Catherine Flynn, reveal it to be a text that is avidly but anxiously read by scholars and non-specialists alike. Ulysses demands fandom and forces us to take a stand on its celebrity status. But, above all, it challenges fixed ideas about what reading involves and raises questions about our ability to fathom its rich, demotic but often recondite content.

Academics and scholars have long been accused of destroying and commandeering the experience of reading Ulysses. Consequently, readers of Joyce are often seen as inveterately divided into specialists intolerant of errors and obsessed with minutiae and more open-minded generalists, happy to hang loose with his work. These two books, both of which showcase 18 fresh essays on the episodes of Ulysses, would at first glance appear to bear out this schismatic readership.


The contributors to the Cambridge University Press reissue of the 1922 text of Ulysses are all academics. By contrast, those who wrote for The Book of Everything are eclectically chosen, but not part of the ranks of signed-up Joyceans in the main. While the essays in the Cambridge volume interleave Joyce’s text and are prominently footnoted, those in the Head of Zeus gathering stand alone and have minimal references discreetly relegated to the end pages.

The Joyce scholars’ work, it is implied, is entrammelled and beholden to the text, while that of the non-aligned “artists, writers, and thinkers” is free-ranging, maverick, and independent. The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses is designed for academe (and possibly weight-lifters given its inordinate size and weight), while the Head of Zeus collection is pitched at a cultured audience with no specific credentials.

Yet, the forms of reading encouraged by Joyce are at stake in both these volumes. They are sometimes differently broached but also articulated in overlapping ways. The essayists in The Book about Everything give a distinctively personal spin to their interpretations of an episode of Ulysses, viewing it through the lens of their own professional and intellectual interests. Ronit Lentin in her reflections on Nestor makes a persuasive case for Ulysses as a text about racism and white domination as well as the possibility of a pluralist society. Rhona Mahony movingly contrasts Mina Purefoy’s three-day labour in Oxen of the Sun with the National Maternity Hospital’s success in pioneering treatments of the problem of prolonged labour in the later decades of the 20th century. Carlos Gamerro cross-links Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional reckonings with canonical artists such as Cervantes with Stephen Dedalus’s reinvention of the figure of Shakespeare in Scylla and Charybdis. Derek Hand astutely argues that Bloom’s infringement of pub decorum in Cyclops has more to do with his personalisation of political issues than his not buying a round, and Lara Marlowe draws on her experience as an Irish Times journalist to tease out the nuances and particularities of Aeolus.

Personal memories of Dublin and other cities are used by other commentators as the spine for their explorations. Shinjini Chattopadhyay interlinks journeys across Kolkata with the depiction of the colonial but transnational city in her skilfully outlined meditation on Wandering Rock. Joseph O’Connor in his brilliant explication of Sirens as a text to be listened to not understood profiles it in the context of his memory of visits to the playhouses of Dublin and knowledge of the current Irish music scene especially in Limerick, while Catriona Lally intrepidly explores the modern geography of Nighttown and pieces together the ways in which the streets in the area have constantly shifted name. Jhumpa Lahiri’s revealing exploration of Nausicaa, by contrast, hinges on a single image, the bats emerging from the belfry of the Star of the Sea church, and acutely parses the multiple symbolic meanings associated with them.

The mischievousness of Marina Carr’s interpretation of Penelope as an epistolary exchange in Hades between an incensed Molly Bloom and a rueful Joyce in which she trounces him for his portrayal of her that rounds out The Book of Eveything is unthinkable in the more straitlaced scholarly domain of The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses. Nonetheless, the highly readable and informative essays in this edition challenge orthodoxy after their own fashion and present synoptic readings of the episodes that are genuinely exploratory and open-ended. Catherine Flynn in her lucid introduction firmly scotches any false promise of mastery and sets the tone for a non-directive set of investigations by averring that Ulysses is taken up with the experience of “living in a world without answers”.

The 18 essays that follow preserve an interpretive openness and also are at pains to underscore the experience of discovering not foreclosing on the successive episodes. Strikingly too, the authors propound a variety of suggestive metaphors that encapsulate the many-sided process of reading Ulysses: Karen Lawrence in her account of Telemachus posits a reader acting as an anthropologist; Sam Slote in his essay on Proteus notes that we get trained in the art of re-vision by Joyce and encouraged to change and revise interpretations; Scarlett Baron observes that Wandering Rocks is a lesson in the negotiation of the space between reality and imagination; Vicki Mahaffey argues that the challenge of deciphering Nausicaa is to develop a meta-awareness that allows us to empathise with the double perspectives of opposing characters; while Tim Conley uncovers how Eumaeus attunes us to unguarded writing and epistemological wrinkles.

These two absorbing and accessible volumes can profitably be read by anyone with an interest in Joyce. Their mutually illuminating insights underscore that Ulysses will continue to be a touchstone into its second century because of the degree to which it speaks to diverse audiences and accommodates a broad variety of reading experiences.

Anne Fogarty is Professor of James Joyce Studies at University College Dublin