Next Wednesday will mark 100 years since the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, on February 2nd, 1922. It was also Joyce’s 40th birthday.
Ulysses, or "Useless" as Brendan Behan referred to it, was published in Paris by Sylvia Beach and her Shakespeare and Company but had already been serialised in US publication The Little Review between March 1918 and December 1920.
It is probably the most famous unread book in history. And few are reserved about saying so. It is set in Dublin, on June 16th, 1904, allegedly the day Joyce had his first date with Nora Barnacle, future mother of his children and later his wife. "She'll stick to him," Joyce's father allegedly said on hearing her name. (Cork men never resist a pun!)
In 2004 there were a series of events planned in Dublin to mark the fictional centenary and the organiser, with startling candour, told a BBC interviewer: “I have to confesses that I’ve never waded my way through Ulysses, but I’m hugely proud that we have produced a writer who is esteemed internationally.”
And, yes, dear reader I have read Ulysses. And the Portrait, Dubliners etc, but I baulked at Finnegans Wake
Warming to the subject, said organiser (who shall remain anonymous) continued: “We are the first to acknowledge that many people go out and buy the book, they get to page three, and they quit – and page three is the first page of text. And we understand that.” However, this didn’t prevent said organiser from venturing to pronounce Joyce as “really the quintessential international writer”.
Interviewed at the same time, writer Roddy Doyle was not as enthusiastic. He is described as being "particularly scathing about Ulysses, saying, the book "could have done with a good editor". Then, as 18th century Englishman Dr Samuel Johnson said, "the Irish are a fair people; they never speak well of one another".
Despite which, in 1998, Ulysses went on to be selected by a panel of scholars and writers as the best English-language novel of the 20th century. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was second, and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, third.
And, yes, dear reader I have read Ulysses. And the Portrait, Dubliners etc, but I baulked at Finnegans Wake, all while going through a prolonged Joyce phase some years ago in my early Dublin days. I’m older than that now.
Ulysses: Latin for (Greek) Odysseus, king of Ithaca at the time of the Trojan War