Jun 16, 2014

Today I have a book to read, a daunting and impossible book that I have never yet managed to read right through, but maybe I will today. English majors will know immediately that I’m referring to the blockbusting, doorstopping, mind numbing novel called Ulysses by James Joyce and, yes, today is Bloomsday.

Non-English majors may need a quick footnote here. Bloomsday is observed every June 16 in Dublin, Ireland, to commemorate the life of James Joyce and relive the events in his novel Ulysses, all of which took place on the same day in Dublin in 1904. The name "Bloomsday" derives from Leopold Bloom, the main character in the novel, and June 16 was the Date of Joyce’s first walk with his, future wife, Nora Barnacle. So far, so simple.

Things get less simple when you try to read the book itself, which is seven hundred and eighty three pages long. Here’s the Cliff Notes version. The novel loosely follows the adventures of Ulysses from Homer’s Odyssey, with characters representing those in the Greek epic, even though the weather and scenery in Dublin are nothing like those in the Aegean. These characters explore various places and events around Dublin including a newspaper office, a brothel, a funeral, and some public houses. Beyond this, the book is indescribable. Nothing is made easy for the reader. Joyce changes the order of events in the original story, uses stream of consciousness and other ‘modernist’ techniques, invents brand new words, and includes hundreds of obscure references. This is a novel that you have to read with several academic commentaries to hand, and indeed there are reading groups, clubs, and web networks whose members do nothing but slog through the pages of Ulysses. It’s a lifetime commitment.

I took my first shot at reading Ulysses back in the sixties, when I thought I wanted to be an intellectual. My reading took me as far as lunchtime on June 16, when Leopold Bloom visits the National Museum in Dublin, at which point I decided that being an intellectual just wasn’t worth it. A few years later I tried again, this time reading backwards from the end in the hope that the book would reveal its secret that way. No luck.  Now I have Ulysses on my mind again, and I’ve been turning it this way and that, like a Rubik Cube, trying to grasp the reason for its extraordinary fame and influence. It’s amazingly clever, I can see that. But that’s all I can see, which no doubt is my problem.

A book so formidable may be worth the effort, no matter what, because you would get such a sense of satisfaction just from having read the whole thing. It would be one of those personal achievements to brag about, like climbing Everest or graduating Summa cum Laude from Harvard, neither of which I have managed to do yet.

But is there any virtue in reading such a book? Does it tune up the brain, like Mozart’s music or Tom and Ray’s mathematical puzzlers on "Car Talk"? Or can it, as I rather suspect, bring on the mental equivalent of a computer crash? Blue screen, fatal error.

It’s best not to think about it, and just have a nice Bloomsday. The things to do, in case you were wondering, are to dress in period costume, walk around Dublin, stop in the historic pubs and, of course, you must read the book.

Copyright: David Bouchier