Exuberantly marked across the globe, Bloomsday celebrates the single day on which James Joyce set Ulysses, his epic adaptation of The Odyssey, which also happens to be the day of his first successful rendezvous with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Each chapter of the novel corresponds to an episode in the daily life of one of the book’s three protagonists as they move around Dublin in the summer of 1904: Stephen Dedalus, the frustrated artist as a young man; Leopold Bloom, the Jewish everyman; and Molly Bloom, his profoundly sensual but unfaithful wife.
Immodesty on such a scale is rarely justified, but Joyce was entitled to make his claims on posterity since we don’t just remember his ambitions, we read what they achieved. In his influential book The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey argued that while “one effect of Ulysses is to show that mass man matters, that he has an inner life as complex as an intellectual’s,” the novel’s density works to “rigorously exclude people like Bloom from its readership.” I feel uncomfortable with the implication that writing sympathetically about “mass man” means writing for him, perhaps because I can’t quite banish the sense that I might have more than a little of him in me. But to properly defend Ulysses against the charge that it is deeply and treacherously unreadable, you cannot avoid calling yourself to the stand. Martin Amis baldly posed the question, “Who curls up with it?” And writing on this blog last year, Peter Terzian elected to take Ulysses on a vacation, reasoning that the book affords “the kind of pleasure to be found in difficulty.” I agree and would also subscribe to his method of consulting guides to Ulysses on a preliminary read, before trying to do without them for a second attempt immediately after. But I wanted to push things further still, to see just how much pleasure could be derived from the second most difficult novel in the language: to engage in some omphalos-gazing extreme reading.
Think of it as an abbreviated season of 24 where fractionally more than nothing happens. Last Thursday, I was at home in the English Midlands, miles from any celebrations that I knew of, so I rather unsociably confined myself to my desk. My intention was to read Ulysses on Bloomsday, beneath and between several Pisan towers of books that I can’t fit on my shelves and with a pen and paper and easy access to Google as my substitute for a scholarly apparatus. Failure was inevitable, but, for most of the day, it was the closest thing to company I had.
It all started very well. Those first two chapters really are duplicitously engrossing. Stephen’s tense introspection introduces Joyce’s gift for dramaturgy as well as for narrative: there are those gliding darts of barbed dialogue, the famous exchanges about historical responsibility with the Englishman Haines and Mr. Deasy that establish the novel’s presiding distaste for colonialism and anti-Semitism; and Joyce’s delicate sketching of the elderly milkmaid and scruffy young Cyril Sargent. But then I hit “Proteus.” Paul Muldoon once remarked that the phrase “ineluctable modality of the visible” was a showstopper for him on his first reading, and so it proved for me second time round. I clapped the book shut, pronounced myself ready for lunch and looked at my watch. It was ten-thirty.
After lunch, the first of several strung throughout the day, I resumed. Next up was “Calypso,” where Bloom is unforgettably introduced to us while emptying his bowels, a scene in which Joyce ventilates the stuffy chamber of novelistic domesticity with a refreshingly cloacal draught. By the end of the day, having beached somewhere around the middle of “Scylla and Charybdis,” I realized that I had hardly vindicated Joyce’s democratic credentials through my misconceived tribute. This clearly wasn’t the way to do it. So shortly before three-thirty, I put in a call to New York, where Caraid O’Brien, actress and director, was preparing for that evening’s seventh annual Radio Bloomsday celebration, broadcast live on Pacifica Radio Network. Each year, Galway-born O’Brien orchestrates an impressively diverse performance of selected parts of Ulysses, culminating in a read-through of Molly Bloom’s rapturous hymn to sensuality. For O’Brien, Bloomsday is “the only literary holiday we have.”
I asked her whether she thought the book lends itself well to performance. “The book just comes alive when you get other artists to read the text, so we wanted to create a show that was accessible to as many people as possible and bring together as many different types of performers and other sound artists and writers to put their spin on their particular section of Ulysses so that someone who’s experiencing it for the first time can get a way into the text.” This year, O’Brien cast “the quintessential Jewish New York playwright” Wallace Shawn as Poldy, surrounding him with Irish performers, such as the novelist Anne Enright, who read “Calypso” in its entirety, and Muldoon, who revisited “Proteus,” while Jerry Stiller was on hand to read from the Hebrew for “Aeolus,” thereby bringing out “the Jewishness of Joyce.” O’Brien herself performs Molly each year and explained that “what’s so intimate about Molly’s monologue is that most of our readers listen to it in bed and she’s in bed and so you have somebody else’s stream-of-consciousness wafting over your head.” In this way, Radio Bloomsday reminds us of something else that Joyce is trying to convey: that ordinariness is an improvised patchwork of the commonplace and singular, the close to hand and the exotic.
Declan Kiberd’s excellent Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living makes the case for the novel as a sort of manual for everyday life, arguing that it teaches us “how to cope with grief and loss; how to tell a joke and how not to tell a joke; how to be frank about death in the age of its denial; how to walk and think at the same time.” Strangely though, Kiberd seems to neglect the impact the novel can have on the history of an ordinary reading life. Does anybody read Ulysses just once? If you fight your way to the other end of the book, wouldn’t you want to recover your tracks? In my experience, what you parenthetically squeeze in between reads is just as important as what you hope to gain from the book itself. You might, for instance, graduate to Finnegans Wake, perhaps even go back in time and trawl through Homer’s great epic. I managed neither, but then I never did read in quite the same way again. I first read Ulysses in what now seems like a state of imaginative innocence, before encountering Henry James, Faulkner, Nabokov, or Henry Green, and there’s no question that my first baffled attempt on Joyce’s masterpiece prepared me for these writers’ less extreme manipulation of invented detail. Ulysses also instructs us in the art of reading, of slowing it all right down and attending with delicate care to the very specific though uncontainable resonances of words, whether etymological or phonetic. For this common reader, Bloomsday serves as an anniversary for the moment where things started to slide away, when books became dangerously interesting.
Jonathan Gharraie is the British correspondent for The Daily.