Well, I did it. With increasing emotional intensity, I approached, and eventually reached, that final, climactic “yes”. I closed the book and laughed – what virtuosity, what verve. What to do now, having finished the greatest novel I ever read? I had been irresistibly pulled into the world of Ulysses, and I didn’t want to leave it.
A few months ago, I found myself in Waterstones, scanning the fiction section, looking for something new – something to surprise me. I reached Joyce, and sighed. I had tried Ulysses several times, but couldn’t get past the “scrupulous meanness” of style of the opening pages. I had difficulty getting through the mangled sentences, and visualising what was going on.
For old time’s sake, I pulled out the thick Penguin book, and was immediately attracted to it. The Martello tower on the cover was familiar from my previous attempts, and the script above it was both known and unsettling: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead . . .”
I sat down and started reading, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead . . .” After ten minutes, I was still turning the pages . . and realised, with something of a shock, that rather than just browsing, I was now actually reading Ulysses. Rather than me choosing the book, it was as if the book had deemed me ready. I stood up, approached the counter and bought it for 9.99 GBP, and my life was changed forever.
The next couple of months – yes, it takes a long time to read – I spent in Bloomsday, 16th June 1904, and got to know Leopold and Molly Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan, Gerty MacDowell and Blazes Boylan. Joyce’s avowed intention with Ulysses was to construct a day in the life of Dublin with such realism and detail that one could actually step into it. The addresses, locations, street names, shops, pubs are all real, as are many of the episodes and characters. For instance, the opening scene on top of the Martello tower, so opaque and unreal to some, is actually a faithful telling of Joyce’s difficult encounters with medical student, Oliver Gogarty. This tension between otherworldliness and brute fact is key to understanding the magic and struggles one encounters reading this book.
Whereas the story begins with Stephen Dedalus (the young Joyce), it centres on the fascinating Jewish advertising executive, Leopold Bloom. Indeed the text, though prima facie descriptive of the interweaving experiences of the younger and older men, is actually a phenomenology of the Lebenswelt (“life world”) of Bloom. This is more than mere description of Bloom’s inner states as he struggles through the day, but is an expression to the world of what it is to be human. Having come from a scientific background, Joyce was an avowed dualist – and this contradiction between unyielding circumstances and fragile, fluid, emotional living-from-minute-to-minute permeates the text. Joyce’s faithfulness to the physical, commercial and political realities of Dublin on that day are celebrated every year when Ulysses fans flock to Dublin for Bloomsday to visit the various locations - Davy Byrne’s Pub, Sweny’s Chemist, 7 Eccles Street (RIP). Meanwhile, the book’s faithfulness to the experience of living in such circumstances is so unyielding, so honest that it can be unsettling – unearthing secrets and experiences within all of us that we might not want to countenance. Ulysses, however, presents such experiences to us in such a way that we not only enter Dublin, but we enter the fraught, intellectual and emotional psyche of Leopold Bloom – the occasional, and quickly repressed, broodings about the death of his son, and pangs about his wife having sex with Blazes Boylan that very afternoon. By the end of a day with Leopold Bloom we know the man in the round – his hopes, dreams, anxieties, opinions, nightmares and peccadillos – and we love him. At least I do. Leopold Bloom is not a fictional character, but a real person you get to know.
There are challenges in reading Ulysses, passages when one has to grit one’s teeth and make a real effort. Life is not always a breeze, and Joyce fully intended the reader to struggle through certain episodes, just as we do through life. I am culturally Anglo-Irish, with roots in Wexford, and I found this heritage helpful during the denser passages. One technique I quickly developed was to vocalise the text in an Irish accent –an appropriate method, as Joyce created Ulysses to be read and occasionally sung out loud. Doing not only brings the most difficult passages to life, but also - on some occasions – brings tears to one’s eyes.
Joyce was an accomplished musician, and weaved rhythms and melodies into his books. Notable is the haunting “Love’s Old Sweet Song” written by James Lynam Molloy, a piece to be sung by Molly Bloom on her forthcoming concert tour, and a leitmotif for Leopold’s complex feelings for his wife in spite of her infidelity. Anybody who has not heard Richard Tauber’s version of this song, should do so right now. It says more about the relationship between the Blooms than a thousand words – just as Joyce intended:
While the most difficult sections of the book require some effort to get through, they invariably leave the reader enlightened and looking at the world in new ways. One such passage is the chapter Oxen of the Sun, which centres upon the drunken conversations in a maternity hospital waiting room during Mrs Purefoy’s difficult delivery. During this passage, the language of the text morphs from early English though key stages in its development up to the literary and commercial English of the early 20th century. Not an easy read. Indeed, rather like an anxious father to be, I paced up and down the room, book in hand, mouthing the text for hours on end. I can’t imagine getting through this chapter any other way. Eventually, however, the baby is born, as is the next chapter. Finishing Oxen of the Sun you get the same feeling as you do climbing a mountain, or hearing the last note of a Mahler symphony.
Much has been written about Molly Bloom’s soliloquy – deservedly so. Having been an object – of desire, abuse, reflection, regret, mockery – during the whole book, she finally gains a voice, as her husband descends into sleep after the day’s travails. Whereas it took us a whole day to get to know Leopold, we get to know Molly intimately within the first few lines of her monologue. We’re in bed with Molly Bloom. Indeed, as she speaks to herself, we become Molly Bloom. I hate to use the word literature here, as the passage is more significant than that. It is the closest one can get to being another person.
Joyce introduces a word early on in the breakfast discourse between Leopold and Molly – “metempsychosis”, the migration of the soul. This to me is the overall intention of the book. What Joyce has done here is to provide the infrastructure and the means for our own metempsychosis, from passive reader, to being – being – Leopold and Molly Bloom. Metempsychosis. The migration of the soul. There is no higher art than this.
Oh, did I mention the gags? It is also very very funny!