“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Above is the opening line to arguably Joyce’s best work (sorry Portrait – I still love you most), Ulysses, a modernist novel that shaped the modern fiction we know so well today. The gargantuan book follows Leopold Bloom (among others) and takes place over a mere 24 hours on June 16th, and as such, today is Bloomsday! Under normal circumstances, there would be celebrations held in Dublin, Ireland – the novel’s setting and birthplace – but this year is a little different. Nevertheless, pull out your best stately outfit, pop the kidneys on the stove, and take a traipse down Dublin’s streets – virtually, of course.
Groundbreaking, confusing, beautiful, vulgar, artful, grotesque, wordy, worldly, patriotic, brilliant – all words used to describe Ulysses from the day of its conception, to its era of appreciation today. The novel is difficult to describe, since its sprawling pages touch on everything from nationalism, to sexuality, shame, religion, food consumption, music, media, the list goes on. Generally, the novel is focused on Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, and a host of Dublin’s civilians. The book is made up of 18 ‘episodes’, each one satirising or appropriating a different writing style, era, medium, or similar. From Chaucer, to Dickens, to girls’ magazines, each episode is completely apart from its predecessor – to the point that the final chapter/episode does away with punctuation altogether!
When I stepped into the first class of my Joyce module during my time at university (Joyce’s alma mater!!) the five other students and I silently quaked in fear of the infamous novel. Ulysses is so notoriously difficult to read, it has its own WikiHow page! Now, I will admit that I found out (after the fact) that we were only ever supposed to read sections of the novel… something I was left wishing I’d known before I spent ten hours straight finishing the novel in full before class.. but I digress.
Map of Dublin locations in ‘Ulysses’// via wikipedia
FUN FACT: June 16th is the day Ulysses takes place because it is allegedly the date of Joyce’s first date with later wife Nora Barnacle. Sometimes after a first date I send a long text to my best friend, it doesn’t quite reach 780 pages, though.
The novel was ill-received at the time of its release in 1922 (though it had been serialised previously), with some even taking legal action to have it removed from circulation. Not only this, but it has been routinely banned from different groups or schools, and is infamous for being probably the last book you’d consider giving your grandma. For many, the concern is surrounding the stark, vulgar way Joyce depicts masturbation, sexuality, and general obscenity. It has long sparked conversations surrounding censorship.
Having read Ulysses, only now do I feel like I can glean the best benefits of the novel. With a general sense of the plot and characters, you can really hone in on select episodes, without feeling lost or overwhelmed. The best way the go about it, at least in my experience, is listen as you read! YouTube has a really good catalogue of recordings episode-by-episode, and it definitely helps to hear different voices, intonations, and actions, rather than in your head alone. RTE, Ireland’s national broadcasting service, is playing a HUUUUGE 29-hour- long reading on their channel, and you can find that here.
While reading Ulysses is no small feat, it is such a worthy one (and not just for bragging rights!). James Joyce changed the face of modern literature forever with Bloom’s story, and it is a lot of fun to dig into. Whether you are reading, writing, cursing, listening, kissing, eating, walking, or dreaming today, you’re embodying the spirit of Ulysses, and that’s what matters! As for me, will I be listening to the book all day? Yes I said yes I will yes.
Featured image via National Portrait Gallery//Grafton Street Dublin