For Bloomsday: My Weird Odyssey With Joyce’s “Ulysses”

In the zombie edition of his Writers Almanac, Garrison Keillor notes that today, June 16, is “Bloomsday.”:

GK: On this day in 1904, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle went on their first date. Nora, who was from Galway, worked as a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel in Dublin; she met Joyce on the 10th of June, but with one thing and another, their first date didn’t happen until almost a week later.

They took a walk together in Ringsend, and may or may not have indulged in some hanky-panky, but either way it was the start of a romance that would last the rest of Joyce’s life — as Joyce’s father remarked when learning of Nora’s last name, “She’ll stick with him.”

Joyce commemorated the date in his novel Ulysses (1922), a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set in contemporary Dublin, which took him seven years to write. The book recounts the events of a single day — June 16, 1904 — in the inner and outer lives of its characters; the book’s protagonist doesn’t show up until the fourth chapter . . . .

Joyce described Dublin in obsessive detail “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the Earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book,” he told his friend Frank Budgen.

He used a phone directory to provide the real names and addresses of Dublin residents; Leopold and Molly Bloom’s house, at No. 7 Eccles Street, has since been demolished, but its front door is displayed in the James Joyce Centre in Dublin.

The first celebration of the book, which has been called the greatest book of the 20th century, didn’t take place in Dublin, or even Ireland at all; it was a “Ulysses lunch” held in France in 1929, hosted by the book’s publisher, Sylvia Beach.

The first “Bloomsday” was observed in 1954, on the 50th anniversary of the novel, when artist and publisher John Ryan led a group of writers — as well as Thomas Joyce, a dentist and James Joyce’s cousin — on a sort of drinking tour of Dublin in a couple of horse-drawn cabs. Like countless drinking tours before and since, this one didn’t complete its appointed course, its celebrants succumbing to the alcohol’s effects about halfway through.

Today, Bloomsday is celebrated around the world, often with a breakfast of fried kidneys kicking off the festivities, although there’s still something for the vegetarians: a Gorgonzola sandwich and “a nice salad” à la Bloom. Landmarks around Dublin are marked by brass plaques, and one Bloomsday tradition involves tracing Leopold’s steps as nearly as possible. [I]n Genoa, they’ve commemorated the book by reading the whole thing aloud, each section set in a different part of the city.

Most places it’s celebrated by pub crawls, street festivals, Irish music and food, public readings and dramatizations of Ulysses, and of course a host of scholarly panel discussions; the last part, at least, would come as no surprise to the author.

[Joyce] once said, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring immortality.”

As for me and Ulysses, the story is not exactly an epic (and this year, I’ll observe it not with fried kidneys but by listening to the January 6 Committee hearing, which has a much more gripping plot.)  But my encounter did start with an epic: not Joyce, but Tolstoy’s War & Peace.

I was living in central Pennsylvania, in 1997-2001, and had a habit of reading while sitting on the john.
It was there that I discovered why  Leo Tolstoy was regarded as a genius.

For years I had owned a fat copy of his War & Peace, a prize from some rummage sale book pile, and had felt faint twinges of guilt every time I noticed it, pretentiously occupying more than its rightful slice of space on my many bookshelves.

“It’s a world classic,” the voices from distant college years whispered. “You’ve hauled it from Virginia to Pennsylvania, and now  halfway across the state . . . . So are you ever going to read it? Or even try?”

”But, but . . .” I replied to myself, “look at it. I did open it once: The bloody thing is 1300 pages & change.  Am I able to concentrate that long? Are you nuts?”

And so the matter stood, until I made the big discovery about Tolstoy’s genius. It happened one day, in the accustomed location, on a morning when I had nothing better to read, and expected to sit a bit longer than usual. So I carried it in, opened it on my lap, and when the flush came, found myself — not exactly transfixed, but still going about a dozen pages in, three or four chapters worth.

And that was the big discovery, the revelation of Tolstoy’s genius (Drum roll):

Short chapters.

I mean short. As I recall (I later lost the fat volume in a decluttering attack), they averaged about three pages.

Which meant, in the calculus of ordinary life, I could cover at least one chapter, or maybe stretch to two, in a daily round of peristalsis.

Genius, I tell you.

After a couple days more, the book and its cunning design began to take hold: yes, it was long; but in bite-sized pieces. My subconscious said, “Hey, maybe you can DO this.”

And in short order, I gained determination. Like a flabby couch potato resolving to muscle up and run the next year’s local half-marathon; like an elevator junkie deciding to climb the 896 stairs of the Washington Monument, I vowed to scale the depths and heights of War; and Peace.

Not for credit; no exam or papers to write. The reward would simply be the ability, next time the book came up in conversation, to shrug and say, faking a casual air, ”Yeah, I read it— the scene in the sleigh was really something,” and have most of the remark be actually true.

And that’s what I did. It took a chunk over a year, which worked out to an average of nearly three chapters per day, and maybe 25 rolls of toilet paper.

This was almost a quarter century ago, and I don’t remember all that much of it, but no kidding— the scene in the sleigh was cool, and Tolstoy made Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow vivid enough I thought my toes might get frostbite once or twice. Not least, I have been able to shrug and say, “Oh yeah,” a few times IRL when it has come up.

This still feels like a real accomplishment.

But as with many such achievements, and much of life, it had a down side. It came in the form of succumbing to the temptation of hubris:

Hey, if I could manage War & Peace when I’m almost sixty, why not extend my classic education and scale another of the many literary peaks I’ve been skirting all my spotty liberal arts career?

Sure, why not. So which will it be? Proust?  Gibbon’s Decline & Fall? Boswell’s unabridged Life of Dr. Johnson?

Then I had it: I’d go for the one that was not only long but also notoriously difficult, and yet raved about annually by a cult of hardcore disciples who read it aloud clear through nonstop (or until they drank themselves into rehab.)

The same one that was banned as obscene for a dozen years. It was also on my bookshelf, in its own obscure corner, complete with a bold-print cover emblem proclaiming it as The Greatest Novel of the almost-finished 20th Century:

Yes. It had to be Ulysses.

But if I was to be so supremely ambitious, I would also be careful.

Having glanced at it, I knew that Joyce had salted it with numerous quotations in other languages, and copious allusions to languages and cultural landmarks unknown to me. So I needed a guidebook.

There were several available, and I ordered one. (Did I buy it from a fast-moving internet upstart called Amazon? Maybe.) It had about half as many pages, and seemed stuffed with explanatory allusional abundance.  Thus the next time I shut the door, there the three of us were: I’m not too vain to fear being imagined as seated, pants down, with a book open on each knee. The search for true literary breadth and understanding banishes petit bourgeois shame. And irregularity.

It was a bit less than a year later when I wistfully scanned Molly Bloom sighing her breathy “Yeses” and  closed the two volumes for the last time.

Summer had come and gone and was poised to return again. I had faithfully followed the twists and turns; looked up all the untranslated quotes; hovered over the purported Homeric and other mythic correspondences; digested the erudite overviews of each chapter and section.

Finally, I gazed again at the motto with the word “Greatest” on the cover, and from between my curled lips, an anguished mutter escaped:

I don’t freaking get it.”

“WHY?” I silently shouted at the heavens, or at least the ceiling. “Why is this supposed to be the greatest novel of the century? HOW?  Based on WHAT??

My reaction had a distinctly self-accusatory undertone: who put me through such a culturally deficient education that I couldn’t see anything here but inflated, self-important/indulgent logorrheic babble?

Or: in what ways were my mind and sensibility so provincially deficient that even the smutty parts came across as prolix and dull rather than shocking? For that matter, except for Molly’s brief final squirms, not even titillating? (And I defy any surviving Puritan to define the word “Yes,” as obscene.) Hey, I even have some Irish ancestry, but that didn’t seem to help.

In sum, Ulysses became such a drawn-out disappointment, finishing it felt more like surviving the longest dental appointment in history. Or being the butt of the most elaborate (& dumbest) practical joke ever perpetrated by a sadistic English Department.

All that sitting time essentially wasted. Worst of all, my post-Joycean  funk completely sunk my literary Odyssey in the swirling loo; or with a bow to Count Leo, Ulysses was my Waterloo.

The fact that War and Peace had turned out to be a rattling good, if overlong story did not redeem the torpedoed quest. Proust, Boswell and Co. have since been safe from my piercing gaze.

In the following decades, I have still read a lot in what I gather the French call comfort stations. Even a few more substantial tomes were perused there, including 500 pages of letters by my Quaker hero Lucretia Mott.

And Richard Ellmann’s illustrious biography of the self-doomed genius, Oscar Wilde. It weighed in at 736 pages. A few others.

But it’s not the same.

For me, those venerable towering classics, and in particular the Ulysses centennial foofaraw, have slid into the same dismal category as the Super Bowl and the Olympics: some legendary early Hollywood titan put it best: “Include me out.”

Or if Homer or that crowd were to shoehorn it into one of their myths, it could well be dubbed, “Icarus in the Water Closet.”

Yet one nugget of gold remains today.

For all the wannabe writers out there, including myself, if you ever set out to write an epic, tape this mantra at eye-level opposite your ceramic throne (or if you’re into ink, tattoo it on the back of your dominant hand) and repeat it every time you sit down:

Short chapters.

10 thoughts on “For Bloomsday: My Weird Odyssey With Joyce’s “Ulysses””

  1. “explanatory allusional abundance”! A wonderful bit of wordsmithing! I think that phrase alone qualifies you to write the next Great Novel. I’ll order a copy when it is written.

    1. Actually, the most elaborate of Joyce’s practical jokes came later: Finnigan’s Wake. He himself said, when he had finished out that he had now provided for the next several generations of doctoral students. 🙄

    2. For Jacob Stone & others:

      I set out to write The Great Novel,
      A classic ‘afore which they’d grovel.
      But the text became weirder,
      Til the verve disappeared, er,
      And now I just blog in my hovel.

  2. LOL

    Forty years ago or so I visited a somewhat older friend at his house and found him seated, with a lap desk with 4 books open, one directly in front and the others surrounding the open book. The one in front was Ulysses. One of the other 3 was a 1 volume version of the OED. The other 2 are lost to me in memory, although I think one was book of of textual analysis of Ulysses and the other a book of mythology. This was his hobby.

    And then there’s the tale, told to me as an undergraduate at the time of its happening, of an assistant professor (Kim Townsend, PhD in philosophy and another PhD in English) coming to the open door of the English dept. chair (a revolving chair, no one wanted to do it) and exclaiming “I just reread Ulysses. A great book!”

    The chair (Ben DeMott) replied, without looking up, “it’s a lonnng book.”

    W&P has a very Quaker message at the heart of it, which I (never having read all of it) discovered accidentally. The phrase “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” was one I would on occasion have use for as I worked with folks in psychotherapy and a self-help course I created/taught. I took it to be a French aphorism, which is pretty much a redundant term. But no: it’s from a letter in War & Peace and Tolstoy created the aphorism. Is that not why War & Peace is so long, so as to completely understand and thus to completely forgive, from all perspectives?

    When Quakers seek Spirit in others in order to more fully understand, we come to understand as the other understands not as we understand. That additional understanding makes forgiving or not forgiving lose all meaning.

    Arlie Hochschild’s “Strangers In Their Own Land” creates a similar effect on the reader as she shares the inner stories of those who, cast off by the society in which they live, end up in places that are at incomprehensible, until understood on their terms, not ours.

    Thanks for the opening,

    Hank

    1. Some other Friends have peculiar habits as well. I for instance, like to read old Quaker minutes, even some of the ancient committee reports. This practice is, you know, legal; but please don’t tell anyone.

      1. I’ll tell anyone — because that’s great historical research. Which is very much what you do, and for which I and your other readers are grateful.

  3. There is a great New Yorker article this week on the same subject. I must confess that although I also have read War and Peace, I took one look at the ol’ U. and said to my self that this was just a bridge too far. Congratulations on your perseverance. Sorry for the time you will never get back. Love Ben

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