The book of now

 

JOYCE STUDIES: CLAIRE KILROYreviews Ulysses and Us, The Art of Everday Living by Declan Kiberd

WE IRISH EACH have a Ulysses and Usstory, much as we have a The Day I Saw Bono one. My Ulysses and Us story takes place in my grandparents’ dining room in the early 1980s. My grandfather, Joseph Long, held court in his chair by the gas fire, denouncing Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and politicians who had moved UCD out of the city centre, or the shower who had built on Wood Quay, or whoever else was engaged in the destruction of his beloved native city, while my grandmother, Jane, or sometimes Jenny, a gentle Clare woman, stood by my ear chanting: “Don’t mind him, dear, don’t mind him, dear, for God’s sake, please don’t mind him”. The photo of James Joyce printed on the back of Joe’s edition of Ulysses presided over these orations, for Joyce was on our team, Joyce agreed with every word Joe was saying, Joyce was onto the feckers too.

Both grandparents are gone now, but the various elements contained in that room – the Jenny and Joe Show, the wheezing gas fire, Joyce’s face on the back of his “usylessly unreadable blue book of eccles” (which subsequently fell into my possession and is with me to this day), exist in a little pocket of memory which didn’t bubble up to the surface until reading Declan Kiberd’s immensely engaging new book, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living.

I went on to study English in Trinity College, Dublin, where Ulysses and Usbecame Ulysses and Them – them meaning the academics. Kiberd, a UCD Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature (that is, Irish Literature, written by Irish writers), has harsh words for the academic enterprise, considering he is part of it. He argues that “Ulysses was wrenched out of the hands of the common reader. Why? Because of the rise of specialists prepared to devote years to the study of its secret codes – parallax, indeterminacy, consciousness-time being among the buzz words”. With the result that “A book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them”.

The academic domain, it must be acknowledged, is responsible for copper-fastening the novel’s status as one of the greatest and most original texts of all time, securing its future survival by positioning it as a core component of any literature syllabus. The “pseudo-radical interpretations of Joyce produced over the past two decades of ‘critical theory’”, as Kiberd calls them, are in fact an exhilarating discipline in their own right, having been composed in the spirit and key of the novel, displaying an inventive and playful delight in language which is very much in keeping with the work of their progenitor. Kiberd concedes that he doesn’t wish to “preclude learned exegesis or belittle the contribution of those who perform it,” but to instead illustrate how “a great text always appeals on several levels”.

He advances an alternative, gentler, and more humane reading of the novel – the novel as “wisdom literature”, one which teaches us “how to live”, and is accessible to “ordinary readers” – a Ulysses and Us reading, if you will. Much has been made of the novel’s mythic structure – it is famously divided into sections relating to Homer’s Odyssey– Proteus, Circe, Sirens etc. Kiberd notes that “By offering different schemas to men like Carlo Linati and Stuart Gilbert, [Joyce] may unwittingly have impoverished future interpretations of his book. It became a ‘text to be deciphered, not read’”.

For the purposes of his reading of Ulysses, Kiberd renames the episodes in the novel after the lessons in the art of everyday living which they exemplify. “Proteus”, the third episode, in which Stephen Dedalus wanders along Sandymount Strand lost in furious introspection, is renamed “Thinking”, and not because Stephen’s interior monologue constitutes a guide on how to think, but rather, Kiberd asserts, because Joyce offers it as a lesson in how not to think: “Many readers drop Ulyssesat this point, finding themselves unable to keep up with Stephen’s remorseless and obscure pedantry: but the truth is that Joyce is laughing at the pitiful pretentiousness of the youth he once was . . . Stephen is himself submerged by all his learning”. Thus Stephen ceases to be a young man of such overpowering genius that readers are confounded by his brains, but is instead “a dire example of the intellectual who stands in need of practical wisdom from an older man who would prove both humble and authoritative”. Cue Leopold Bloom.

Both men spotted the same cloud that morning covering the sun, and in both it induced a feeling of depression. “The difference is that,” Kiberd writes, “Bloom knows how to combat the blues: ‘got up wrong side of the bed. Must begin again those Sandow’s exercises’.” Joyce then “depicts the inevitable uplift in Bloom’s emotion as he anticipates with keen desire his sizzling breakfast and the chance to be near Molly’s ample, bedwarmed flesh. Yes. Yes.’” Kiberd reminds us that though Ulysses was set in 1904, it was written between 1914 and 1921, in the context of the First World War. “The ordinary,” he writes, “in danger of being forgotten in the intensity of the Great War, is the middle range of experience vindicated here. By simple actions, such as careful tea-making, thoughtful meat-buying, or sensuous street-strolling, Bloom repossesses on a lazy Edwardian day the lost sacrament of everyday life.”

KIBERD OBSERVES that the novel has a pacifist rather than a militarist ethos – Bloom knows he is to be cuckolded that day by Blazes Boylan, yet he leaves his house, thereby facilitating the deed, as confrontation will solve nothing. His marriage problems go back over a decade to the death of his and Molly’s son, Rudy. Instead he takes a dignified walk through the streets of Dublin. Which is where he encounters Stephen, and solace.

Bloom notes that Simon Dedalus is a feckless father to Stephen, and wishes he himself had a healthy son. In the “Circe” episode – or “Dreaming” as Kiberd renames it, Bloom saves Stephen from arrest at a brothel, and is rewarded with a vision of his dead son, Rudy. The next episode, “Eumaeus”, in which Blooms leads Stephen out of the red light district, Nighttown, and sobers him up with bread and coffee, is appropriately renamed “Parenting”. Here, Stephen is depicted as “no longer posing for himself or others, but engaging honestly with one other person for the first time”. The pair go back to Bloom’s house on Eccles Street and urinate outside Molly’s window, looking at the stars.

Kiberd argues that the novel was written to be “an account of how the intellectual can return to the actual, an account of the complex path which such persons can take back to the ordinary”. Stephen and Bloom’s encounter ends there. Stephen goes home, Molly soliloquises. “In a truly radical sense,” Kiberd speculates, “[Stephen’s] depression will be finally lifted not just by Bloom’s kindness but by the flash of insight in which Stephen learns that he can immortalise his ordinary rescuer in a great book.”

This is a beautiful, joyful book about a beautiful, joyful book. As you progress through it, it becomes apparent that Kiberd is guiding his reader through the challenges presented by Ulysses with the same wisdom and kindness Bloom engaged to guide Stephen through the challenges of his long day and night all those years ago.

Claire Kilroy’s third novel , All Names Have Been Changed, was published by Faber earlier this month