Running with the Joyceans – An Irishman’s Diary on the marathon that is ‘Ulysses’

Vladimir Nabokov’s map of ‘Ulysses’

Vladimir Nabokov’s map of ‘Ulysses’


Reading Ulysses, as I’ve been doing again lately after a lapse of years, is a bit like running the Dublin City Marathon. The book and race cover much the same ground, after all (although Joyce’s route-map features more of the northside). And the National Maternity Hospital is a key stage in both.

The big difference is that when you reach Holles Street in the marathon, you’re almost finished. Every October, the NMH echoes to the patter of thousands of worn-out feet, as runners’ labours give way to their receipt of little bundles of joy – the race “goody-bags”.

Whereas in Ulysses, the chapter in Holles Street is where many readers must hit the wall. Actually, stretching from pages 380 to 425 in my edition, it’s a bit too early to fit that analogy fully. You still have ten miles of the book to go at that stage. But once past the hospital, you’re into the Monto/Nighttown section, which is a 100-page romp, downhill with the wind.

In the meantime, the Holles Street episode is the book’s most difficult.  

Joyce himself found it so, with his struggles to write it mirroring the pains of poor Mina Purefoy as she delivers a ninth child to her husband Theodore (a devout Methodist, but not of the Billings kind) while, in the next room, drunken medical students hold a party.  

That sub-plot aside, the section is complex even by Joycean standards. There’s all the usual stuff: the Homeric parallel (Odysseus landing on the sacred isle of Helios); the running colour theme (white in this case); the dominant organ (uterus); and so on.  

Mirroring pregnancy, the chapter is also divided into three sections, for the trimesters, and nine sub-sections, for the months.

Then there’s the constantly changing narrative style: a miniature history of language.

Starting with literal translations of ancient Latin, it progresses through early and middle English into modern times, subdividing faster than the cells of the embryonic Purefoy to finish in what Joyce called a “frightful jumble” of latter-day slang.

One critic identified 33 different styles being parodied and guessed there were many more. But the effect of all this cleverness is that at least some of Mrs Purefoy’s pain is shared with readers. Even Joyce’s patron Harriet Shaw Weaver, exaggerating slightly, likened the experience to doing “the rounds of hell”.

Another big difference between reading and running marathons, of course, is that where you lose weight doing the latter, you can gain it with the former.  

I seem to have put on more than a kilo during my latest assault on Ulysses, for which I blame the drinks and nibbles that consumption of serious literature late at night demands.  

Lacking an epidural, I needed a bottle of wine for Holles Street alone.

But among the book’s many fascinations, I’ve noticed this time, is the question of Bloom’s fitness levels as he traverses the city on that June day in 1904.  

Whether the normally meticulous Joyce thought this through fully is not clear, because although he implies that his hero is unfit and slightly pot-bellied, evidence suggests otherwise.

Bloom is also presented as being of advanced middle age - an “old stager”. So it’s alarming for modern readers to learn that he’s 38. But then, as a study of him in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science a few years ago pointed out, the life-expectancy of an Irish male then was only 47.8.  

At nearly 40, Bloom was about to enter “the age of disability”. On top of this, he shared his creator’s aversion to athletic activity.

And yet the author of the IJHSS study, one Jeff McClung, who walked the route with a GPS unit, then crunched those and all Bloom’s other numbers, concluded he was very fit for his age and era.

At nine miles, the walking part of his route was no marathon. But it would have required a lot of stamina and far higher calorie intake than the 1,400 McClung calculates Bloom consumed that day (impressively, the study adds 10 units for a dollop of mustard with lunch).  

And although his anaerobic fitness levels are not conducive to intensive exercise, he can move quickly when required.

This is supported by the famous episode in Barney Kiernan’s Pub, at the end of which he has to take evasive action from a biscuit tin flung violently by “the Citizen” as Bloom flees into a waiting carriage, before ascending “amid clouds of angels [...] at an angle of 45 degrees over Donohue’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel”.