I read Ulysses recently for the second time, 45 years after reading it for the first time — because it’s the centenary year of its publication, and with the hope of enjoying it.
The first time I read Ulysses, my tutor, an enthusiastic Joycean (is there any other kind?), said Ulysses was the greatest novel ever written — and that’s precisely what I wrote in my final BA paper. Because this happened a long time ago, I can’t remember if I enjoyed reading Ulysses back then or even if I believed what I wrote.
In the intervening years, James Joyce has become an A list celebrity writer. He’s also become a national secular saint — appearing on our bank notes and having a bridge and a navy patrol boat named after him. Every year, thousands of students in his (and my) alma mater are handed their degrees under words from his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man emblazoned above their heads in UCD’s O’Reilly Hall. There’s even a large image of him playing acoustic guitar spray-painted on a derelict wall in Dolphin’s Barn; not even local celebrity Dean Swift has been given this honour.
In the pantheon of Irish books, Ulysses is a national treasure. Like the Book of Kells in Trinity College, a first edition of Ulysses sits proudly in its own display Cabinet in the Museum of Literature Ireland.
In its centenary year, the great and the good have also been tripping over each other to heap praises on a book that everyone-in-the-know says you could use to rebuild Dublin if it were wiped out in a nuclear attack.
Bloomsday has also undergone a radical image make-over since its fuddy duddy origins in 1954. The party of five men in dark suits on the beach in Sandycove have been replaced by revellers in vintage frills and straw boaters tucking into Gorgonzola sandwiches and quaffing burgundy and James Joyce cocktails in Temple Bar, Turin, Toronto.
Sadly, however, the second reading didn’t go as I hoped. Apart from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy and a few other passages, rereading Ulysses has been an underwhelming experience. The onomatopoeia of the Irish word for boring, “leadránach”, best conveys what it mostly felt like for me.
It’s not that I didn’t try my best. On the advice of Joyceans, I sipped the novel in small aliquots like you might sip a fine wine. I also bit off large chunks like you’d do with a favourite chocolate bar if you were hungry (or if you were cramming for an exam). In addition, I used reference books, and then abandoned them, and then went searching for where I’d put them. I even listened to recordings. All to no avail.
As I waded through page after page of turgid prose, I kept wondering what Brother O’Neill, the Christian Brother who taught me English for the Leaving Certificate, would have said if he’d been asked to correct Ulysses: “Joyce, a pen is a flick-knife, not a shovel. Please cut. B –”.
Another reason for not enjoying Ulysses is my age. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less tolerant of being bored. If Stephen Dedalus walked into a pub I was in, I’d duck; if Leopold Bloom did, I’d start looking at my watch soon after so as not to miss my tram.
(Confession: I’d have given up rereading Ulysses only for the irreverent Joycean pastiche WhatsApps of the reading group I’m in: “Stephen opened his mouth. Spoke. Nagging bite of twit-wit.”)
What interests me most about Ulysses is its success as a cultural phenomenon. Major credit must go to the professional Joycean academics, who contrary to Patrick Kavanagh’s view that they would kill Joyce with their symposia and PhDs, have kept him alive as a literary Tim Finnegan —— as well as to the amateur Joyceans for whom no Ulysses trivia is trivial enough.
An advertising agent (of sorts) like Leopold Bloom would appreciate the ingenuity of marketing executives who managed to uncouple having fun on Bloomsday from the experience of reading the novel — and packaged Bloomsday as imaginatively as Plumtree’s Potted Meats.
Ulysses also fits in with the new image we have of ourselves: post-Catholic (but hanging on to the trappings), sexually liberated (but with hang-ups), post-nationalist (but conscious of our heroic past), intellectually superior (but not above reading the tabloid gossip), pro-European/anti-Brexit (but with an abiding interest in the British royal family), better speakers of English than our former colonial masters (with the advantage of having the “cúpla focal”) — and also with our penchant for a decent funeral, a rowdy session, profanity, and a fry-up. Ulysses also satisfies our nostalgia for a Hovis-ad Dublin where there are cobblestones, horses, where everyone knows everyone, and where nicknames are better than photo-IDs (Buck Mulligan, Blazes Boylan, Maggot O’Reilly, Pisser Burke etc).
In the movie The Good Shepherd (recently available on Netflix), which stars Matt Damon, the binding of a hardback copy of Ulysses is used to hide secret documents belonging to a spy. Ulysses captures the zeitgeist of a world full of hidden meanings.
Although it’s a heretical “non-serviam” for me at the altar of Ulysses, and I’ll never read the novel from cover to cover again, I have discovered a new role model reader out of whose book I promise to take a leaf.
When photographed in 1955 reading the novel, Marilyn Munroe said she liked to dip into Ulysses and read the bits she liked, rather than reading it chapter by chapter. Bingo!
From my point of view, it’s just a pity Joyce never had the benefit of a Ms Munroe — or a Brother O’Neill.
Chris Fitzpatrick’s first poetry collection, Poetic Licence in a Time of Corona, was published in May 2022 by Twenty First Century Renaissance.