How to read Ulysses

27 June 2022

1:00 AM

27 June 2022

1:00 AM

In the labyrinthine basement studio of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Irish actor Barry McGovern is doing something that would be inconceivable in any other country. Remarkably, he’s reading the whole of James Joyce’s Ulysses out loud. Even more remarkably, a substantial audience are paying good money to sit and watch him. He’s been hard at it for five days, and he still has two days to go: 33 hours (plus toilet breaks) spread over an entire week.

Like a lot of people, I’ve always found Ulysses a dreadful struggle, so why do I persevere with it? Partly snobbery, of course. Having scratched a living for 30 years writing about the arts, I’ve lost count of all the boffins who’ve told me it’s the most important novel of the 20th Century, yet I could never make head nor tail of it. Was there something wrong with me? Maybe a visit to Bloomsday, Dublin’s annual James Joyce jamboree, would help me get inside the book which even Joyce himself called ‘usylessly [sic] unreadable.’

Hearing McGovern recite it, Ulysses suddenly makes a lot more sense. I still can’t quite work out what’s going on, but it sounds a lot better out loud. The trick, I soon discover, is not to follow it too closely, but to let the words wash over you, like music. It’s strangely soothing, like the hubbub of drunken conversation. It’s also dangerously soporific – I almost nod off once or twice. Three hours fly by, Barry takes a bow, and we shuffle out into the street, blinking in the sunlight, wondering ‘What the hell was all that about?’

My beef with Ulysses isn’t with the book itself. It’s a magical, perplexing work, an endless source of wonder and befuddled fascination. The thing that gets my goat is the industry that’s grown up around it. By producing a great novel that was largely inaccessible to the average reader, Joyce opened the door to a battalion of eggheads, self-appointed gatekeepers for whom a book is not a book but a text, something to be analysed and interpreted, rather than enjoyed for its own sake.

‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries,’ Joyce said, but like a lot of practical jokes it backfired on its author. Sure enough, these puzzles and enigmas have secured the book’s academic status, but they’ve obscured its poetry, and above all its sense of fun. As McGovern says, it’s ‘one of the few books that has made me laugh out loud on public transport.’ It’s that sense of fun which I’ve come here to try and find.

It’s a hundred years since Ulysses was published, and Dublin is celebrating this centenary with a big street party. No other city would make such a fuss of a single book, but Dublin is no ordinary city and Ulysses is no ordinary book. Joyce took seven years to write it, from 1914 to 1921, but it’s all set on a single day in Dublin – 16th June 1904, to be precise – a day in the life of a nondescript everyman called Leopold Bloom.

As we follow him around town, we hear everything he says and hears, and eavesdrop on his every thought. For the reader it’s a bizarre experience, like being stuck inside someone else’s head. There are brief flashes of enlightenment, and long stretches of boredom and frustration – a lot like real life, in fact. It’s an easy book to admire and a difficult book to like. It has inspired a few good writers, and an awful lot of bad ones. So why have so many Dubliners taken it to their hearts?

Ironically, for a book which has become synonymous with Dublin, the city is but a ghostly presence in Ulysses. Joyce namechecks every street and public building, but he rarely bothers to describe them – yet somehow these names alone conjure up an image of the city that’s more enduring than the torrent of humdrum detail that he supplies about Leopold Bloom.

Another irony is that Ulysses was written from abroad. Joyce spent the seven years of its gestation in Trieste, Zurich and Paris, avoiding the First World War and the Easter Rising. By the time the book appeared it was already ancient history – set before the war, before the revolution, but published just as Ireland (or at least part of it) was about to win her independence. Yet although Ulysses appeared in such a seismic year, it’s actually pretty apolitical, mocking both the Brits (‘bursting with money and indigestion’) and the wide-eyed romantics of Irish nationalism. Joyce was an internationalist, not a nationalist, a citizen of nowhere. Born a British subject, he never acquired an Irish passport, and remained a British subject until his death, in 1941. ‘When I die, Dublin will be written in my heart,’ he said, but he’s buried in Zurich, where he died, a fitting resting place for a man who was, above all, a pan-European.

Ulysses might have been published a little earlier had it not been prosecuted for obscenity in the United States, after extracts appeared in an American literary journal, the Little Review. This controversy delayed the publication of the book, but in the long run it did it no harm at all. Published in Paris, it was banned in Britain, and although it was never outlawed in Ireland it retained an illicit reputation there for decades, disappointing generations of schoolboys who were frustrated to discover that this supposedly disreputable book provided precious little titillation. Joyce was sexually explicit, but only by the prim standards of the 1920s, and his descriptions of copulation are distinctly unappealing. The book’s finale, a monologue by Bloom’s wife Molly, has a powerful erotic charge, but since it consists of just eight sentences, spread over 60 pages, it’s safe to say there are far easier ways to get a thrill.

Conversely the main thing that’s obsessed academics isn’t the naughty bits, but the classical allusions. As every schoolboy used to know, Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus, and Joyce’s book is (very) loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey. Whereas Odysseus, aka Ulysses, spends ten years getting home from Troy and has lots of adventures en route, Bloom spends a day running errands around Dublin, enduring petty mishaps, and ends up back where he started. It’s a good joke, but the humour has escaped most academics, who’ve buried the original manuscript beneath an avalanche of earnest literary criticism. No wonder TS Eliot called it a book ‘from which none of us can escape.’

Thankfully, most Dubliners have a more breezy relationship with James Joyce, and every Bloomsday (16th June, the day on which Ulysses is set) the city is awash with folk in Edwardian costume, re-enacting incidents from the novel: climbing the Martello Tower in Sandycove (the opening scene of the book); eating a gorgonzola sandwich and drinking a glass of burgundy in Davy Byrnes’ pub on Duke Street (Leopold Bloom’s lunch of choice).

Anthony Burgess was disparaging about this sort of thing. ‘The real keys to an understanding of Joyce are given to the diligent reader, not to the purchaser of an Aer Lingus ticket,’ he opined. I couldn’t agree less. Yes, it’s all rather daft, but it’s perfectly harmless, and it brought this reader a good deal closer to the lost world of the book.

I dropped into the James Joyce centre, in a handsome Georgian townhouse, full of Joycean curios and knick-knacks, just down the road from Belvedere College, where Joyce went to school, and saw a wonderful dramatisation of several scenes from Ulysses which brought the characters alive in a way my own indiligent reading never had.

I have a hunch that Joyce would have been heartily amused by these fancy-dress festivities. Despite the pretensions of his later writing, he always shunned pomposity. Introduced to Marcel Proust, the two men talked chiefly about chocolate truffles. To the artist Patrick Tuohy, who tried to engage him in metaphysical discussion while painting his portrait, Joyce retorted, ‘Never mind my soul, Tuohy – just make sure you get my tie right.’

I’d assumed that Bloomsday was a fairly modern phenomenon, but it turns out it’s almost as old as the book. Joyce refers to it in a letter in 1924, and in 1954 the writers John Ryan, Anthony Cronin and Patrick Kavanagh (among others) revived this antique tradition with a suitably chaotic pub crawl. Today it’s a lot more organised, with ticketed events, but these are refreshingly informal, and no-one takes it too seriously. And if some of these revellers have never read a word of Joyce, who cares? It’s precisely the sort of postmodern absurdity the author surely would have relished.

Bloomsday will have been and gone by the time you read this, but many of the centenary celebrations run throughout the summer. There are exhibitions of Ulysses-inspired artworks at Dublin’s palatial National Gallery, and also at Smock Alley Theatre, that illustrious auditorium where George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals and Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer were first performed. I went there to watch a riveting dramatisation of Joyce’s short story ensemble, Dubliners – far easier to understand than Ulysses, and still so relevant today.

You could spend a lifetime trying to track down every site from Joyce’s life and work in Dublin, but I confined my literary pilgrimage to a couple of key sites: Marsh’s Library on St Patrick’s Close, where Joyce used to sit and read as a teenager, and the Museum of Literature of Ireland, housed in the grand old University College building where Joyce was a student.

‘His only subject is Dublin,’ says the museum’s director, Simon O’Connor, over coffee in the museum café, looking out onto Iveagh Gardens. ‘He has this very singular artistic project, to capture the essence of an entire city and its people.’ But was he successful? I’m not so sure. You don’t need to know Hardy’s Wessex to enjoy the works of Thomas Hardy, but Ulysses? Dubliners is perfectly comprehensible to someone who’s never visited Dublin. Ulysses, a lot less so. Maybe that’s why Bloomsday has become such a big thing here. The book is more like a playscript than something you sit down and read. And no wonder, in a place where the oral tradition is such a big part of daily life. ‘Language in Ireland is like an Olympic sport – everyone you know is trying to outsmart you and come up with the best one-liner,’ says O’Connor. ‘We speak the language of a colonising power, but we speak it very well.’

Sure enough, it turns out that the man who knows Ulysses best of all is the man who’s read the whole thing out loud. ‘It’s one of my favourite books, even though it is very difficult,’ says Barry McGovern, in the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street, across the road from the GPO. ‘It’s like Picasso or Stravinsky or Diaghilev. It’s revolutionary in what it did.’

Ulysses is a book that transforms English into another tongue. The vocabulary is English, but the rhythms and syntax are alien. Irish writers have changed the English language in ways the English couldn’t. Like Latin American writers, they’ve taken a lexicon that was imposed upon them and made it their own. Can anyone from outside Ireland understand it completely? Not really. I reckon McGovern’s marathon recital may be the closest I’ll ever get.

‘Joyce and Beckett were poets who wrote in prose,’ says McGovern, and like Samuel Beckett, Joyce had to leave Ireland to find his voice. ‘He would never have done that in Dublin. He had to get away.’ McGovern was born in Dublin in 1948, on Eccles Street, the street where Leopold Bloom lives in Ulysses. Dublin has been transformed since then, but Joyce’s poetical map of the city remains the same. As I walk back along O’Connell Street, following Leopold Bloom’s footsteps across the city, I recall a letter that Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus in 1905, long before Ulysses was published: ‘When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for thousands of years, that it is the second city of the British Empire, that it is nearly three times as big as Venice, it seems strange that no artist has given it to the world.’

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