It’s 16 June, aka Bloomsday, aka the day on which James Joyce‘s Ulysses is set. As much as Joyce’s birthday on 2 February, Bloomsday has become a time to reflect on Joyce’s work, his life and the fingerprints he has left across Irish, British and French culture.
Way back when I was studying English Lit at university, I took a module in Irish literature. We studied the “easy” Joyce – Dubliners, Stephen Hero, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I say “easy” when perhaps the word I want is “deceptive”. Simple words and straightforward scenes combine to create elaborate stories, pained relationships, dysfunctional individuals and families, journeys through religion, philosophy, history and art – all hidden beneath the veneer of a conversation over dinner or some lads walking home from a Dublin pub. I was hooked.
Against advice, I decided to write my dissertation on Joyce and, in particular, Ulysses. (I confess here: I wanted to write about Finnegan’s Wake as well, but I was wise enough to take the piece of advice that said simply: don’t!) I wanted to write about the city of Dublin, the setting for Ulysses. Dublin was a place that Joyce had left ten years before he started writing Ulysses, but it was also a place that he couldn’t let go. Living in various cities in mainland Europe, he continued to write about Dublin, the addict who has gone cold turkey but always dreams of his drug. He loved Dublin and he hated it. It made him proud, it made him angry. It was backward, parochial, prejudiced, colourful, lively, disrespectful, anarchic, messy, loud, traditional, irreverent, ugly and beautiful all at the same time, and it’s often hard to tell which of those characteristics he liked and which he despised.
Ulysses is a hefty tome and hard work. It’s revolutionary in so many ways. Think of the grand books that came before and that had a real sense of place: anything by Dickens or Hardy or George Eliot. There you follow a grand sweep of events over months, years, lifetimes, always rooted in location (A Tale Of Two Cities leaps out as a prime example). Ulysses takes place on one day and follows two characters who walk around their city. As simple and as complicated as that. One single day. One city in almost forensic detail. It’s almost as if the universe has folded back in on itself and we’re back at the moment just before the Big Bang: so much pressure and tension and energy in such a tight place and time.
Another element of revolution is Joyce’s language. It’s a complex read, full of puns, historical and cultural references, wordplay and experimentation. Compared to what came before, it’s challenging. Compared to Finnegan’s Wake, which followed, it’s a doddle. Each sentence deserves attention, chewing over, review. Ulysses remains a clarion call to writers to explore the potential of language, to push at the boundaries of words, to create new words when old ones won’t do. So much advice about writing emphasises simplicity of word choice to ensure clarity of meaning. Joyce is probably turning in is grave.
Ulysses is available in full to read online via Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4300/4300-h/4300-h.htm. You can get assorted (friendlier) e-book versions from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4300. Or you can head to your local library or independent bookstore for a copy. If you ask nicely, I might even lend you mine. Once I’ve finished re-reading it.