Sunday, 16 June 2019


Today is the 16th of June: Bloomsday. Bloomsday: a day for Leopold Bloom: a commemoration, celebration and reincarnation of the trail taken around Dublin by Bloom and Dedalus and sundry other characters in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses on an otherwise uneventful day.  All the events of which are somehow modelled on the ten-year trip back from Troy taken in legend by Odysseus, yet somehow all taking place in Dublin the day and evening of 16th June 1904, as seen mostly through the eyes and interior monologue of Joyce’s greatest creation, Leopold Bloom.

Hence, Bloomsday.

"What people really want to do on Bloomsday is dress up, read aloud and drink lots of Guinness," says the manager of Dublin's James Joyce Centre. Nothing wrong with that. Just like Bloom himself, who enters a Dublin pub "blue mouldy for the want of that pint."

Bloom is a fellow whose interior monologue is easy to enjoy.

There are Bloomsday celebrations every year from Montreal to Buenos Aires, even "Bloomsday breakfasts" featuring Bloom's favourite, "grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” Nice if you like that sort of thing.

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. Even among folk I admire. Ayn Rand enthusiast Harry Binswanger, for example, dismisses it as “trash.” "The book," he says, "is practically impossible to read — the reason for its snob appeal."
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.
And yet it seems to me he's missing something -- not least the joy.

Embracing the joy and wordplay (and helping to explain much of it) another of my favourite novelists, Anthony Burgess, reckons Joyce wrote the book “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 novel.. it 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?).
It is ultimately an affirmative journey around the traps (the book ends with a "yes"-- a whole exhilarating 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.
He's right you know.
It’s not a quick read. But nor should you want to hurry. (Think of it, if you like, as an Infinite Jest for adults.) 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.
Like Burgess,  I’ve discovered Ulysses is nine-hundred pages of brawling, sprawling, fabulous, crapulous, life-giving reflection and rambunctiousness. Like that reader above, I've only twice read it straight through, but mostly in parts at a time, enjoying their relation to the whole. And like Atlas Shrugged, I look forward to enjoying reading, re-reading and thinking about it for the rest of my life. (I don't see that I need to choose between them.)

And I look forward to joining  the Bloomsday celebration in Auckland this afternoon.

Maybe I'll see you there?

[Pics from Robert Berry's graphic novel Ulysses Seen]


1 comment:

  1. I've read Ulysses (after half a dozen abortive attempts), I've also read Burgess' spirited defense ("Here Comes Everybody"). Joyce's work reads like the disintegration of a great talent, sparks flash in "The Dubliners", "Portrait" is interesting, but the dabble in interior monologue starts. You can actually hear the wheels coming off in about chapter 5 of "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" is obviously incomprehensible (Nabokov described it as "a snore in the next room"). The obsession with wordplay and complexity obliterates any life from the text. After reading "Here Comes Everybody", I *almost* went back and re-read "Ulysses"...*almost*. But by the time Burgress comes to analyze "Finnegans Wake" you can sense he's almost unable to justify it to himself. BTW Ellman's biography of Joyce is excellent, one of the best biographies I have read.


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