Yesterday (2 February) marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
This modernist novel was published in Paris, France, on Joyce’s 40th birthday and despite a bumpy trajectory — deemed obscene in the US and banned in the UK until 1936 — it’s long been regarded as a masterpiece of English-language literature.
The story is set on 16 June 1904 in Dublin and follows a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, as he traverses the city on foot. It chronicles his innermost thoughts as well as his actions, appointments and conversations. It’s challenging and clever, stylistically dense and brilliantly witty — and quite unlike anything that came before it or has followed since.
I read it in 2011 when I was in between jobs and had the time and focus to read it in its entirety. Back then my blog was heavily focused on Irish literature, so I was delighted when Tourism Ireland invited me to celebrate Bloomsday (16 June) in the city in which the story is set.
There was a Bloomsday breakfast at the Gresham Hotel in O’Connell Street, complete with a troupe of Joycean players performing scenes from the novel while we chowed down on “grilled mutton kidneys” with “a fine tang of faintly scented urine”. This was followed by a literary walk and an evening pub quiz.
Part of my stay involved an entertaining session on how to read Ulysses led by academic Dr Eibhlín Evans. More than a decade later I still recall that session in quite vivid detail. I wrote about the session at the time but deleted that post when I rebranded and moved my blog from Typepad to WordPress in 2014.
I have dug it out of my files and thought it might be timely to republish it here today:
Originally published at 10am on 20 July 2011
You want to read James Joyce’s Ulysses but are too scared to tackle it. You’ve picked it up once or twice. You might have even read a chapter or two. But then you’ve abandoned the book — and felt like a failure.
Many of us have been there. I tried to read the novel in my early 20s. I got about a third of the way into it, then put it down and never picked it up again. A year or two later, too ashamed to keep the book in my personal library, I sold it to a second-hand store just to be rid of the damn thing.
But then last month I set upon a mission to read it in three weeks — to have it finished by Bloomsday — and found myself thoroughly enjoying it. The key is not to get too concerned with understanding every single reference, but just go with the flow, and if all else fails, read bits of it out loud and buy yourself a guide to help you along.
Or you could try a different route — and learn to read it while in Dublin.
Dr Eibhlín Evans, an academic and writer, set up The Flying Book Club [now defunct] to do just that — and a lot more besides. The organisation, based in a gorgeous Georgian building not far from St Stephen’s Green, runs all kinds of literary programmes for visitors to Dublin who wants to learn more about the city’s literary history and Irish literature in general.
When I visited Dublin last month I attended a three-hour session on “Feel the Fear but Read it Anyway!” which provided tips on reading Ulysses for those who have always been too scared to tackle it.
Even though I had recently finished reading the book — just two days earlier, in fact — it was an inspiring session. If only I’d attended it before I had read the book, the challenge would have been far less daunting.
During the session, held on a damp rainy Friday afternoon, Dr Evans put the book into context and gave us some background to Joyce’s troubled life. Dr Mark Quinn also gave us some tips on reading the book, and then we were treated to a lively and animated reading by a Dubliner, who really got into the spirit of it and brought Joyce’s work to life. In fact, he had us all roaring with laughter. (It was the bit in Barney Kiernan’s pub that ends with the anti-semitic “citizen” hurling a biscuit tin at Bloom’s head while his dog gives chase.)
I took some notes, and what follows is a mix of tips I picked up from those who were there, including the dozen or so people in the audience:
Ulysses has a difficult reputation — and not without reason. It has a structure, a narrative and a voice that you probably have never come across before
It is a “novel of ideas”
It was written at a time when the world was going through a period of radical uncertainty — psychology was a new science, religion was being challenged by Darwinism, gender issues were coming to the fore with the suffragette movement and history was no longer viewed as a reliable narrative
It was written at a time when Nationalism was on the rise in Ireland. And what better way to analyse a country than by having your central character — Leopold Bloom, the Irish-born Jew — as an outsider, with an outsider’s keen eye and dispassionate way of looking at things
The main character is an anti-hero — he is an ordinary man with ordinary problems trying to get by like everyone else
The book depicts the inner reality of its characters, rather than outer reality. This is achieved chiefly through stream-of-consciousness and inner dialogue
It is helpful to look at the book as if it was a newspaper, with each chapter like a different section
Note that each chapter is written in a different literary style and is often themed around a particular subject or idea
It is not necessary to understand every reference in the book. If you don’t understand something, don’t get hung up on it — just keep reading!
If you get really stuck, try reading some of it out loud — or listen to an audio version to get to grips with the Dublin vernacular
I would add that the more widely you read — everything from historical drama to post-modern fiction — the easier you will find Ulysses to tackle because the book is essentially a history of English literary styles condensed into one volume. In many ways, when I tackled it, I felt like I’d been in training for it my whole life.
If you’re still too scared, take The Flying Book Club’s advice and feel the fear but read it anyway!
I travelled to Dublin and attended this event as a guest of Tourism Ireland. Many thanks to Dr Eibhlín Evans and The Flying Book Club for the warm Irish welcome, delicious afternoon tea and wonderful discussion — it was the highlight of my trip.
Here are some interesting pieces that have been published to celebrate the centenary:
- Dear Mr Joyce — an essay by Edna O’Brien
- Dangerous, voyeuristic, transgressive, exciting — an essay by Anne Enright
- Why Joyce was obsessed with the perfect blue cover — a piece published in The Conversation
Have you read Ulysses? Or would you like to?