Leo Bloom, a nondescript, middle-aged man, wanders his city of Dublin on June 16, 1904. He confronts friends, enemies, shopkeepers and bartenders, vendors and grifters. He journeys from eight a.m. to two a.m. the next morning. Hard on his mind is the fact that his wife Molly is having an affair, his male sex drive, and pending war. Every unconscious thought in his head is recorded in stream of internal soliloquy. James Joyce, through Bloom, is performing Irish jazz, his subconscious his instrument.
Three literary artifices dominate the book: Modernism, in which writers across the globe are experimenting with stream of consciousness; mythic storytelling, in the guise of Homer’s “Ulysses;” and attention to the common man as a tragic figure, as in the works of playwrights Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, and novelist John Updike.
One hundred sixteen years ago, the book dubbed the greatest literary work of the twentieth century was published. James Joyce told his wife Nora that the work would confound critics for a century. “Ulysses” still confounds critics and is scarcely read by readers much less the general public who think that smart means “smart phone.”
James Augustine Joyce was born in Dublin, Ireland to a hard drinking father and an enabling mother. It was apparent early on that the son was a genius. His father published his boy’s first poem when the boy was ten. Joyce possessed a serious eye for detail, so much so that it was said, after the publication of “Ulysses,” that if Dublin were bombed in a war (World War I is the looming backdrop for all of this), it could be rebuilt based on Joyce’s detailed descriptions of the city.
Joyce was educated in a time when that word meant something, unlike our time when “well educated” means “well trained,” and graduate degrees come as prizes in cereal boxes. He spoke 17 languages, snatches of many of those appearing in “Ulysses,” one of many off-putting stylistic gifts, to the reading public of the time, to us. He was the beneficiary of a patron who for years paid his family’s living expenses. His subject was Dublin and the surrounding countryside. Said James Joyce, “In the particular is contained the universal.”
“Ulysses” was published serially in Europe. The first thousand copies of the novel were burned—guess where!— in the United States, for obscenity. Conservative censors and ministers and priests and capitalist patriarchs, who knew what was right for all of us, sensed the danger in the book and sought to exterminate it.
I first read “Ulysses” when I was in my teens. Curiosity almost killed the cat. I had no study guide, so I passed over the parts written in other languages. I hadn’t yet read Homer’s “Ulysses,” so I missed the myth part. Still, the power, the raw power of the words, of the men speaking the words, of the artist who wrote the words, electrified me. I started reading the chapters aloud, slowly making sense of the narrative.
Today, Bloomsday will be celebrated across the world, mostly by actors who will read the entire book in 18-hour marathons. And audiences will picnic and drink and laugh and reflect. There will be scholarly events—scholars come hard on after writers write, after all—but “Ulysses” belongs to us, working men and women, hard live-ers and drinkers and lapsed religionists and sinners and devout Catholics and cuckolds and quirky folk.
Asterisk: James Joyce’s secretary, young Samuel Beckett, read the tea leaves and realized that the wordy Modernist movement had sailed. He built a new literary ship, and the scholars (of course!) dubbed it Absurdism. There isn’t a person alive who, consciously or unconsciously, isn’t waiting for Godot. I was a fly on the wall at an event in Chicago where Edward Albee was talking to a group of people. “I called Art Miller,” Albee said, “and I said Art, let’s fly to the Soviet Union and meet some dissident poets. And Art said, “‘Let’s stop in Paris and meet up with Sam.’” Gods talking about gods.
I nearly peed myself.