Tuesday 15 June 2010

Happy Blooming Day!

Tomorrow marks one of the most important days, no wait, the most important day in the history of modern literature (no qualifications here!) It's 16 June, Bloomsday, the day all of the action in James Joyce's Ulysses takes place, the day also that the author and Nora Barnacle, his future wife, first went out together. Ulysses, that wonderful, panoramic and magical book, is set entirely within the confines of 16 June 1904, although all time seems to be drawn in, a day when Leopold Bloom, after whom it’s named, wanders around Dublin as Homer's Odysseus wandered from Troy to Ithaca. The various episodes also allude to the journey outlined in the Odyssey, one step removed by the Roman translation of the name of the epic hero.

Joyce described Ulysses as his encyclopaedia, and in a sense that's exactly what it is with dozens and dozens of literary, poetic and historical allusions. I went so far as to say that if Ireland disappeared from the face of the earth it would be possible to recreate it using this book as a template. I was warned in advance when I announced that I intended read it, warned even by people who specialise in English literature, that it was 'impossible', that it was a real brain blower! But just as one would never sit down and read an encyclopaedia systematically from cover to cover, forgoing all else, I decided to read Ulysses 'discreetly', if I can put it like that, absorbing an episode at a time, with a day or two in between, interspersed with other reading. It worked and worked beautifully.

It was the Oxford Classics version that I read, based on the original 1922 text and annotated by Jeri Johnson. I'm so glad I did because the notes, which take up over a hundred pages, alerted me to so much that I would have otherwise have missed. The episode I enjoyed the most was Oxen of the Sun where Joyce writes in the style of a number of different authors, moving with ease from people like Defoe and Dickens, capturing their modes of expression with utter conviction.

Ulysses is one of those books that is met either with love...or incomprehension. In an early review H. G. Wells, outraged by Joyce's revolutionary style, described it as 'literary Bolshevism', a mark of his own fertile but limited imagination. If I were to describe it, or to try to match it to an image, I would suggest that it's a kind of cubist painting in words. I love cubism also, especially the paintings of Picasso and Braque, where a single object is seen in a myriad of facets, almost as if from the compound eye of a fly. That's Ulysses, a progress in a time looked at from a whole variety of angles, a whole series of perspectives.

A happy Bloomsday to one and all and please do raise a glass to one of the most creative and original authors who ever lived.


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  2. There is also the simple joy in words, in the poetry of prose.

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  4. Good post, Ana (you may want to correct 'Stephen Bloom', although your union of the two wanderers might have some deep significance!).

    I read Ulysses 20 years ago, largely on the London Underground. I loved it ... I was surprised at how funny it was, and could see how Joyce influenced Flann O'Brien, for example. It's an incredibly brave and ambitious book.

    Knowing Dublin well (I could see everywhere in my mind's eye, and hear the dialogue) and being familiar with Irish culture was a big advantage, I thought, but clearly it is not essential.

    There will be much celebration in Dublin today; no doubt some people are frying kidneys as I write.

  5. Yikes, Brendano! I think there must be some Freudian significance here. :-) Thanks for pointing this out. Anyway, do have a good day.

  6. ps Joyce looks like Stanley Cripps.

  7. Ana, I read a few pages and thought it incomprehensible. A bit like modern art in written form, if you like. But I sometimes appreciate the fact that there are some things that defy reason :-)

  8. Nobby, if you ever decide to have another go the edition I mentioned comes highly recommended. :-)

    Thanks, Caoimhin. I hope you had a good one.

  9. Picasso said 'The world today doesn't make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do? . . .I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them'. Joyce is reported to have said:

    For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.

    (Arthur Power. From an Old Waterford House).

    Joyce's ULYSSES is one of my all time favourite books. I recommend the same edition as yours. Although several editions have been piroted after the '22 text it still remains the most complete. A publication history detailing the editorial changes and why they were made is given in this edition. Thus Joyce:

    I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's imortality.

    (Jacques Benoîst-Méchin in . Richard Ellmann. Oxford University Press, 1959, revised 1982. 525).

    I highly recommend that this be read (yes, there are a myriad books of commentary on Joyce's ULYSSES, including the copious notes in this edition) with James Joyce's Odyssey: A Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses by Frank Delaney (author of such delights as The Celts and ) chapter by chapter. He retraces Bloom's journey, making it timeless (as he does in Betjeman Country which incidentally I re-retraced in my own Litel Boke Seeking Betjeman Country).

    You were probably thinking of Joyce's comments to his friend in Zurich that "I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book." He also used to say that he never really finished it, thought the book did finish off his eyesight (like Homer, like Milton who went blind writing).

    It is difficult to choose one favourite section of the book but I would go for Molly Bloom's soliloquy wherein the book in invoked and evoked. Here it is in 2 parts from the film adaptation BLOOM


    You can hear the only know recording of Joyce here, reading from Finnegan's Wake.


    And see the only film I've ever seen of him here: