Monday, 18 June 2012


imageThis Saturday the 16th of June was Bloomsday—a commemoration and celebration of the trail taken around Dublin by the characters in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the events of which all take place in the day and evening of 16th June 1904, mostly through the eyes and interior monologue of Joyce’s greatest creation, Leopold Bloom.

Hence, Bloomsday.

There were celebrations this year from Montreal to Buenos Aires,

imageeven Bloomsday breakfasts featuring Bloom's favourite, "grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
    Manager of Dublin's James Joyce Centre Mark Traynor said tourists would be descending on Dublin to follow in the footsteps of Joyce's most famous protagonist. "What people really want to do on Bloomsday is dress up, read aloud and drink lots of Guinness," just like Bloom himself, who enters a Dublin pub with the words: "I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint. Declare to God I could hear it hit the pit of my stomach with a click."

James Joyce once said his novel Ulysses was meant to provide a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared, it could be reconstructed through the book. But Joyce said many things, only some of them seriously.

Ninety years after its first appearance (and seventy after its last ban), Joyce’s novel still divides opinion.  Defending one of my own favourite novelists, Ayn Rand, Objectivist intellectual Harry Binswanger  calls it “trash,”

Joyce's style [alternates] between gibbering wordplay ("mellow yellow smellow") and ponderous, woozy abstractions ("tentative velation"), the style conforming to Plato's dichotomy between perceptual concretes and ineffable abstractions.

Yet another of my favourite novelists, Anthony Burgess, reckons Joyce wrote it “not just to rival classical achievement but to contain it.” Not to dismiss romanticism but to extend it. Not to give meat to cloistered pedants and “bloody owls,” but

to entertain, to enhance life, to give joy… Ulysses is a great comic is part of a total, cosmic laughter that takes in drains, love, politics, and the deathless gods, and feels guilty about nothing.  Joyce…accepts the world as it is and relishes man’s creations (why, otherwise, glorify and art or science in every chapter except the last?). 

imageIt is ultimately an affirmative journey (the book ends with a "yes", indeed a whole series of them).  Burgess maintains Joyce offers us a challenge, and as Ulysses’s Molly Bloom asserts at the end of the novel, part of being fully aware, fully alive, is saying “yes” to that challenge: “when we have read Joyce and absorbed even one iota of his substance, neither literature nor life can ever be quite the same again. We shall be finding an embarrassing joy in the commonplace, seeing the most defiled city as a figure of heaven, and assuming, against all odds, a hardly supportable optimism.”

A challenge  like that I found too hard to resist, and too resolving the apparent contradiction between the opinions of Burgess and Binswanger, both of whom I respect. So a few years ago I took it up.

It’s not a quick read. And nor would you want to hurry. One reader recounts the challenge:

I first started reading Ulysses in the late 1990s, as an undergraduate at University College Dublin. It seemed so vast to me, like something I'd never be able to crack. There it was with its sepia and green cover, with an image depicting the River Liffey. It was almost as if its size and physicality were mocking my love for the instant gratification provided by frivolous computer games (and my comically short attention span).
    But I dived in. I read it with expert annotations, read it with friends, read it alone, gave up, started again, laughed, cried, and then gave up once more. It became like a friend, though. One I felt I partially understood, and yet would probably never fully know. To this day, I have not read it through over a continuous period. Instead, I have digested it in parts over about five years.

But I have to say, having just started a similar journey, I’m with Burgess. Ulysses I’ve discovered is nine-hundred pages of brawling, sprawling, fabulous, crapulous, life-giving reflection and rambunctiousness.  I hope, like Atlas Shrugged, to enjoy reading and re-reading it for the rest of my life. 

And I look forward to joining a Bloomsday celebration somewhere next year—maybe like the one I missed this year. Bugger.


  1. I don't know if I've made it through or not anymore. I've an ebook version permanently on Kindle and iPad which I delve into between other reads. I've been reading and not-reading Ulysses for something like thirty years.

  2. Yes, me too. It would help if the eBook versions had a chapter layout. Grrrr. Very happy to accept recommendations.

  3. It took me about half a dozen goes over a period of a few years to get through 'Ulysses', I can't really say it was worth it. The book starts out well enough, but I defy anybody to read the middle sequences and actually understand them (if I remember, 'circe' & 'oxen of the sun' are particularly incomprehensible). In the end, to me, it just seemed like empty technical fireworks with nothing really to say. I don't think there has ever been such an epic waste of talent as post 'Portrait' Joyce. Don't even get me started on 'Finnegans Wake', I think Nabokov summed it up best when he called it 'a persistent snore in the next room'.

  4. I only remember the bit about feeding his cat. A brilliant piece of writing, especially when read out loud. But beyond that I never got. Yes, technical fireworks.

    PC, with your taste for the impenetrable mammoth, you'll be onto Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in a few years. :)

  5. ... Gravity's Rainbow in a few years ... And then the Bible.

    ... Running ;)

  6. Gravity's Rainbow is a walk in the park compared to Ulysses, though it still took me the better part of a year to read it. If anybody is keen on tackling Pynchon, I would actually recommend Mason & Dixon, IMHO a far superior book, his best, I think.


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