Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Month: June, 2010

Growing Up Joycean (1) – How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Ulysses

“There was no hope for him this time . . .”
— James Joyce, Dubliners (“The Sisters”)

We are all raised in the wake of someone else’s obsession. Religion and politics are the most common examples but it can be anything: a parent who loves old cars or spends every spare moment in their garden, an older sibling who collects stamps, a grandparent who is devoted to a hapless baseball team, a relative who loves Jazz or crossword puzzles . . . The same people who are there when we speak our first words or take our first steps, who teach us to tell time and tie our shoes, also initiate us into the parallel universe of their peculiar fascinations.

For me it was James Joyce. Before I could write, before I could read, my father was already sharing his love of Joyce with me in ways I am still discovering. My father’s opinions and observations about Joyce are buried throughout my mind like land mines. If I come across the word “very” in a book or article I immediately recall my father’s assertion (taken from Joyce) that it is a useless word. Sometimes, while watching or listening to a science program, someone will mention quarks and, like a reflex, my mind supplies “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (the term quark, my father loved to point out, was taken from Finnegans Wake). It is nearly impossible for me to think of Joyce without thinking of my father or, for that matter, to think of my father without thinking of Joyce.

Was my father a professor of Irish literature? A Joyce scholar? A writer or critic? He was none of these. In fact, he was a self-described hippie who dropped out of high school. He took many college classes but he never completed his degree. Not that this description does him justice. He was intensely curious, had a phenomenal memory, and a deep passion for reading. The superficiality of formal, institutionalized education frustrated him. The glib notion of studying a subject simply to pass a test or fulfill a prerequisite was anathema to him. He wanted to learn.

Which made him an ideal match for Joyce, a writer who requires (even presumes) active, engaged, and curious readers.

My father told me the story of how he discovered Joyce many times. In the late 1950s he was sent to a prestigious Catholic boarding school in New England. At some point the school authorities circulated a list of books that were forbidden. Already a rebellious student, he turned that list into a syllabus and vowed to read as many of the books as he could. One of those books was Ulysses. My father did not understand much of what he read but he was convinced it was a work of genius. Rather than dismiss Ulysses, he accepted its challenges and rewards with real excitement.

I never discovered Joyce. Joyce was always simply there. As far back as I can remember my father was telling me about Joyce and I took what he said as gospel. I was a particularly obedient child and my father was strident in his opinions. As a young man, though, I struggled with the reality of reading Joyce for myself. Where my father was fueled by the pleasures of rebellion, I had an eagerly approving authority figure looking over my shoulder—sometimes literally. It was an impossible situation. I loved reading and wanted to enjoy the writer my father revered above all others but the difficulty of the books themselves and the pressure of my father’s expectant enthusiasm made for a grueling experience. Joyce became a chore.

As I went on with my education, reading and loving other writers, my father was supportive and enthusiastic. At times, though, I could see he was losing patience. Yes, Melville and Dostoevsky and Chekhov and Austen were all wonderful but what about Joyce? When I started reading Proust he became peevish. He would pick up whichever volume of In Search of Lost Time I was reading, open it to the first page, and feign interest. Then, after a few seconds, his chin would drop to his chest as he pretended to fall asleep. I always chuckled gamely but part of my amusement came from the notion that someone who revered the last chapter of Ulysses (eight sentences that total forty-five pages) could be bored by anything, even Proust.

In her essay “Ulysses Without Tears: Teaching the Young a Difficult Book,” Mary Gordon describes how she introduces Joyce to college students:

“Imagine you had a friend,” I tell them, “who is a bully. An intellectual bully. He really enjoys knowing that he’s read much more than you. He often throws out references that you can’t possibly get . . . Why do you put up with him? Why do you continue to spend time with him? Because he tells great jokes and knows the words to absolutely wonderful songs. And he has a friend whom he travels with who’s a lot nicer than he is.”

That could easily be a description of my father. He could sit with you for hours and eagerly discuss literature, or film, or music. He also enjoyed dropping an allusion and letting it sit there between you, his face simultaneously expectant (did you catch it?) and challenging (I’ll bet you didn’t). When you finally gave in and asked for clarification, he explained himself with the earnest enthusiasm of a runner taking a victory lap. It was annoying and humbling and, more often than not, you didn’t mind because you learned a lot and he was funny as hell.

Eventually, my relationship with my father grew strained. At the time of his death in 2005 my father and I we were not exactly estranged but we had never fully reconciled either. My relationship with Joyce had also settled into a sort of truce: I genuinely loved several of the stories in Dubliners, especially “Araby,” “A Little Cloud,” and “The Dead.” I had tried to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man too soon and for many years my feelings about Joyce’s first novel were mixed. For Ulysses I had a grudging respect that was tinted by nostalgia for my father and the love of literature he had given me. As for Finnegans Wake, a book so filled with puns and allusions that it barely qualifies as English, so opaque that it is considered by many to be the most difficult book ever written . . . until recently I did not even own a copy. Nevertheless, for years I have joked that Finnegans Wake is a book I am condemned to read.

Then, over the last year, something changed. I fell in love with Ulysses. There was no eureka moment, no epiphany. It was as though a tide of appreciation and affection had been quietly rising within me until it simply spilled over and became an excitement my father would have recognized.

That moment of spilling over came courtesy of Irish critic Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses & Us: The Art of Everyday Life in James Joyce’s Masterpiece, released last year. For Kiberd, Ulysses is an example of wisdom literature, a book filled with lessons about how to live in the modern world. My father was uncomfortable with the idea that a work of art could have a message or serve any function outside itself. “If you want a message, go to Western Union,” he liked to say, often attributing the line to Joyce. Still, I think he would have appreciated Kiberd’s view.

I, at any rate, find the idea of Ulysses as wisdom literature liberating. Gone is the art-for-art’s sake compendium of style and technique and in its place is a book of supreme humanity whose challenges and difficulties are means to glimpsing how we could lead happier lives in this chaotic world. Even where Kiberd and my father overlap it was useful to read some of my father’s ideas in someone else’s words. Ulysses & Us helped me appreciate Joyce for myself, in my own way.

Which was what my father wanted all along, of course. It’s a sad truth that his love for Ulysses both prevented and made possible the arrival of my own.

I’m only sorry that my father is no longer here. I’m sure we could have had a good, long discussion about Ulysses. We would have talked long into the night as open books stacked up between us. Then, just as the conversation was winding down, he’d pause significantly. I imagine him stubbing out a cigarette for dramatic effect, then shooting me a cheeky glance over the rims of his glasses and saying, “So, when are you going start Finnegans Wake?”

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Chapter 5 (Lotus-Eaters)

Name a type of humor and Ulysses almost certainly has it. Dirty jokes? Droll anecdotes? Cutting insults? Corny puns? Witty banter? Satirical verse? Wry observations? Irreverent remarks? Misunderstandings? Coincidences? All of these (and more) are present and accounted for in Ulysses. Which is not to say that Ulysses is a comedy—or, rather, that it is only a comedy. Since Ulysses strives to portray the full spectrum of human life, all the jokes (private, public, cosmic) that make up an average day are interwoven with everything else.

The Lotus-Eaters episode in Homer’s Odyssey is short (a single paragraph or stanza in most translations) and would seem to offer little occasion for humor: Odysseus and his men briefly visit a land where the inhabitants live by eating the lotus-flower, a narcotic plant. When two members of his crew partake of the lotus-flower and lose all interest in returning home (or anything else) Odysseus quickly gathers his men and leaves.

While running errands (and generally wandering) through the neighborhood surrounding Westland Row in Dublin’s south side, Leopold Bloom witnesses and reflects upon numerous potentially addictive agents: nicotine, alcohol, gambling, sex, religion, etc. This being Dublin, it is on Catholicism that Bloom (and Joyce) linger. Yet Bloom’s knowledge of Catholicism is spotty. His father was a Jew, his mother a Protestant, and his wife Molly, while raised Catholic, is not especially devout. So Bloom’s thoughts as he sits in the back of All Hallows’ Church are those of an outsider who has collected just enough scraps of information to create some pleasant confusion.

To help highlight the humor in today’s excerpt (lines 338-448) I have included a full-cast vocal performance of the excerpt from the 2005 production of Bloomsday on Broadway featuring Stephen Colbert as Bloom. Joyce’s work benefits from being read aloud so, if you can, take the time to read along with the performance (less than nine minutes) and note which sentences are read by the narrator and which are read by Colbert or other actors.

The cold smell of sacred stone called him. He trod the worn steps, pushed the swingdoor and entered softly by the rere.

Something going on: some sodality. Pity so empty. Nice discreet place to be next some girl. Who is my neighbour? Jammed by the hour to slow music. That woman at midnight mass. Seventh heaven. Women knelt in the benches with crimson halters round their necks, heads bowed. A batch knelt at the altar rails. The priest went along by them, murmuring, holding the thing in his hands. He stopped at each, took out a communion, shook a drop or two (are they in water?) off it and put it neatly into her mouth. Her hat and head sank. Then the next one. Her hat sank at once. Then the next one: a small old woman. The priest bent down to put it into her mouth, murmuring all the time. Latin. The next one. Shut your eyes and open your mouth. What? Corpus: Body. Corpse. Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first. Hospice for the dying. They don’t seem to chew it; only swallow it down. Rum idea: eating bits of a corpse. Why the cannibals cotton to it.

He stood aside watching their blind masks pass down the aisle, one by one, and seek their places. He approached a bench and seated himself in its corner, nursing his hat and newspaper. These pots we have to wear. We ought to have hats modelled on our heads. They were about him here and there, with heads still bowed in their crimson halters, waiting for it to melt in their stomachs. Something like those mazzoth: it’s that sort of bread: unleavened shewbread. Look at them. Now I bet it makes them feel happy. Lollipop. It does. Yes, bread of angels it’s called. There’s a big idea behind it, kind of kingdom of God is within you feel. First communicants. Hokypoky penny a lump. Then feel all like one family party, same in the theatre, all in the same swim. They do. I’m sure of that. Not so lonely. In our confraternity. Then come out a big spreeish. Let off steam. Thing is if you really believe in it. Lourdes cure, waters of oblivion, and the Knock apparition, statues bleeding. Old fellow asleep near that confession box. Hence those snores. Blind faith. Safe in the arms of Kingdom come. Lulls all pain. Wake this time next year.

He saw the priest stow the communion cup away, well in, and kneel an instant before it, showing a large grey bootsole from under the lace affair he had on. Suppose he lost the pin of his. He wouldn’t know what to do to. Bald spot behind. Letters on his back I. N. R. I.? No: I. H. S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in.

Meet one Sunday after the rosary. Do not deny my request. Turn up with a veil and black bag. Dusk and the light behind her. She might be here with a ribbon round her neck and do the other thing all the same on the sly. Their character. That fellow that turned queen’s evidence on the invincibles he used to receive the, Carey was his name, the communion every morning. This very church. Peter Carey. No, Peter Claver I am thinking of. Denis Carey. And just imagine that. Wife and six children at home. And plotting that murder all the time. Those crawthumpers, now that’s a good name for them, there’s always something shiftylooking about them. They’re not straight men of business either. O no she’s not here: the flower: no, no. By the way did I tear up that envelope? Yes: under the bridge.

The priest was rinsing out the chalice: then he tossed off the dregs smartly. Wine. Makes it more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they are used to Guinness’s porter or some temperance beverage Wheatley’s Dublin hop bitters or Cantrell and Cochrane’s ginger ale (aromatic). Doesn’t give them any of it: shew wine: only the other. Cold comfort. Pious fraud but quite right: otherwise they’d have one old booser worse than another coming along, cadging for a drink. Queer the whole atmosphere of the. Quite right. Perfectly right that is.

Mr Bloom looked back towards the choir. Not going to be any music. Pity. Who has the organ here I wonder? Old Glynn he knew how to make that instrument talk, the vibrato: fifty pounds a year they say he had in Gardiner street. Molly was in fine voice that day, the Stabat Mater of Rossini. Father Bernard Vaughan’s sermon first. Christ or Pilate? Christ, but don’t keep us all night over it. Music they wanted. Footdrill stopped. Could hear a pin drop. I told her to pitch her voice against that corner. I could feel the thrill in the air, the full, the people looking up:

Quis est homo.

Some of that old sacred music is splendid. Mercadante: seven last words. Mozart’s twelfth mass: the Gloria in that. Those old popes were keen on music, on art and statues and pictures of all kinds. Palestrina for example too. They had a gay old time while it lasted. Healthy too chanting, regular hours, then brew liqueurs. Benedictine. Green Chartreuse. Still, having eunuchs in their choir that was coming it a bit thick. What kind of voice is it? Must be curious to hear after their own strong basses. Connoisseurs. Suppose they wouldn’t feel anything after. Kind of a placid. No worry. Fall into flesh don’t they? Gluttons, tall, long legs. Who knows? Eunuch. One way out of it.

He saw the priest bend down and kiss the altar and then face about and bless all the people. All crossed themselves and stood up. Mr Bloom glanced about him and then stood up, looking over the risen hats. Stand up at the gospel of course. Then all settled down on their knees again and he sat back quietly in his bench. The priest came down from the altar, holding the thing out from him, and he and the massboy answered each other in Latin. Then the priest knelt down and began to read off a card:
—O God, our refuge and our strength …..

Mr Bloom put his face forward to catch the words. English. Throw them the bone. I remember slightly. How long since your last mass? Gloria and immaculate virgin. Joseph her spouse. Peter and Paul. More interesting if you understood what it was all about. Wonderful organisation certainly, goes like clockwork. Confession. Everyone wants to. Then I will tell you all. Penance. Punish me, please. Great weapon In their hands. More than doctor or solicitor. Woman dying to. And I schschschschschsch. And did you chachachachacha? And why did you? Look down at her ring to find an excuse. Whispering gallery walls have ears. Husband learn to his surprise. God’s little joke. Then out she comes. Repentance skindeep. Lovely shame. Pray at an altar. Hail Mary and Holy Mary. Flowers, incense, candles melting. Hide her blushes. Salvation army blatant imitation. Reformed prostitute will address the meeting. How I found the Lord. Squareheaded chaps those must be in Rome: they work the whole show. And don’t they rake in the money too? Bequests also: to the P.P. for the time being in his absolute discretion. Masses for the repose of my soul to be said publicly with open doors. Monasteries and convents. The priest in the Fermanagh will case in the witness box. No browbeating him. He had his answer pat for everything. Liberty and exaltation of our holy mother the church. The doctors of the church: they mapped out the whole theology of it.

The priest prayed:

—Blessed Michael, archangel, defend us in the hour of conflict. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil (may God restrain him, we humbly pray): and do thou, O prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God thrust Satan down to hell and with him those other wicked spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.

The priest and the massboy stood up and walked off. All over.

Chapter 4 (Calypso)

While living in Paris, Joyce occasionally chatted with his friend Frank Budgen (a painter from England) as a way of working through his ideas about Ulysses. During one such conversation (related in Budgen’s book James Joyce & the Making of Ulysses) Joyce asked if Budgen could think of “any complete all-round character presented by any writer.” Budgen’s candidates included some of the best known figures in world literature, all of whom Joyce dismissed: Christ because “he was a bachelor;” Faust because “he’s never alone. Mephistopheles is always hanging round him.” Hamlet, he concedes, “is a human being, but he is a son only.” Joyce’s answer, of course, is Ulysses (Odysseus) and the reasons he gives for this choice speak volumes about his conception of what makes a hero:

Ulysses is son to Laertes, but he is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover to Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy, and King of Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all. Don’t forget that he was a war dodger who tried to evade military service by simulating madness . . . Another thing, the history of Ulysses did not come to an end when the Trojan War was over. It began just when the other Greek heroes went back to live the rest of their lives in peace . . . he was the first gentleman in Europe. When he advanced, naked, to meet the young princess he hid from her eyes the parts that mattered of his brine-soaked, barnacle-encrusted body. He was an inventor too. The tank was his creation. Wooden horse or iron box—it doesn’t matter.

Speaking to another, German-speaking, friend Joyce would explain that “Ulysses was not ‘gut’ but ‘gutmutig’ [decent; good-hearted].” The hero of Ulysses could not be someone who merely embodied an ideal or whose significance was limited to specific situations (war, for instance). For his modern epic, Joyce wanted a hero who was fully engaged with the world around him.

As in life, first impressions in fiction mean a great deal and our first impression of Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, makes clear he is no traditional masculine hero. When we first see Bloom he is in the kitchen preparing breakfast for his wife, Molly, and talking to his cat. Throughout the chapter we follow Bloom through his morning routine as he makes tea, runs a quick errand, brings Molly her breakfast in bed, reads the morning mail, thinks about the coming day’s events (including attending the funeral of an acquaintance) and spends some time in the outhouse. His interior monologue is also homey, even chatty, especially after spending three chapters with the brooding thoughts of Stephen Dedalus. While Stephen morbidly examines his own shortcomings, Bloom contemplates his cat’s whiskers (“wonder is it true if you clip them they can’t mouse after”), remembers the gift he gave his daughter for her fourth birthday (“the amberoid necklace she broke”), idly ogles a servant girl at the butchershop (“pleasant to see first thing in the morning”) and warns himself about the toilet (“better be careful not to get these trousers dirty for the funeral”). Even when the memory of his daughter’s birth calls to mind the midwife who also delivered his son, Rudy, who died as an infant—there is a gentle generosity: “Jolly old woman. Lots of babies she must have brought into the world. She knew from the first poor Rudy wouldn’t live. Well, God is good, sir. She knew at once. He would have been eleven now if he had lived.”

It is interesting to note, in the midst of all this domestic bliss, that the fourth chapter of Ulysses corresponds to the “Calypso” episode in Homer’s Odyssey. For seven years, the goddess Calypso holds Odysseus on her island in the center of the sea, compelling him to be her lover. Calypso herself is a captive, confined to her island by Zeus, and it is only through the intervention of Athena that Odysseus is freed. Much is made of the correspondences between Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey but it is worth remembering that those connections are neither static nor simplistic. In this chapter, Molly Bloom is explicitly linked to Calypso but throughout Ulysses she is also associated with Odysseus’ devoted wife Penelope. There is another, subtler, correspondence as well. In a later episode, when Circe uses sorcery to change Odysseus’ men into swine, Odysseus himself is protected from this fate by an herb given to him by the god Hermes. The name of that herb is Moly.

In this scene (lines 331-388), Molly asks Bloom for the definition of a word she has come across while reading a pulpy novel. Notice how Joyce introduces his characters and their connection to the world of Ancient Greece while the moving between dialogue, authorial description, and unfiltered examples of Bloom’s internal thought processes throughout the scene, often switching perspective within a paragraph or even a sentence. If you like you can read along with his full-cast performance from Bloomsday on Broadway featuring Stephen Colbert as Bloom:

—Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.

She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.

—Met him what? he asked.
—Here, she said. What does that mean?

He leaned downwards and read near her polished thumbnail.

—Metempsychosis?
—Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

He smiled, glancing askance at her mocking eye. The same young eyes. The first night after the charades. Dolphin’s Barn. He turned over the smudged pages. Ruby: the Pride of the Ring. Hello. Illustration. Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of the on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent. The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath. Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler’s. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we’ll break our sides. Families of them. Bone them young so they metemspychosis. That we live after death. Our souls. That a man’s soul after he dies. Dignam’s soul ….

—Did you finish it? he asked.
—Yes, she said. There’s nothing smutty in it. Is she in love with the first fellow all the time?
—Never read it. Do you want another?
—Yes. Get another of Paul de Kock’s. Nice name he has.

She poured more tea into her cup, watching its flow sideways.

Must get that Capel street library book renewed or they’ll write to Kearney, my guarantor. Reincarnation: that’s the word.

—Some people believe, he said, that we go on living in another body after death, that we lived before. They call it reincarnation. That we all lived before on the earth thousands of years ago or some other planet. They say we have forgotten it. Some say they remember their past lives.

The sluggish cream wound curdling spirals through her tea. Better remind her of the word: metempsychosis. An example would be better. An example?

The Bath of the Nymph over the bed. Given away with the Easter number of Photo Bits: splendid masterpiece in art colours. Tea before you put milk in. Not unlike her with her hair down: slimmer. Three and six I gave for the frame. She said it would look nice over the bed. Naked nymphs: Greece: and for instance all the people that lived then.

He turned the pages back.

—Metempsychosis, he said, is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example.

Her spoon ceased to stir up the sugar. She gazed straight before her, inhaling through her arched nostrils.

—There’s a smell of burn, she said. Did you leave anything on the fire?
—The kidney! he cried suddenly.

He fitted the book roughly into his inner pocket and, stubbing his toes against the broken commode, hurried out towards the smell, stepping hastily down the stairs with a flurried stork’s legs. Pungent smoke shot up in an angry jet from a side of the pan. By prodding a prong of the fork under the kidney he detached it and turned it turtle on its back. Only a little burnt. He tossed it off the pan on to a plate and let the scant brown gravy trickle over it.

More About Joyce & Ulysses Online

Want to learn more? There is plenty of Ulysses material available online.

Texts & References

The full text of Ulysses is available online in several formats: plain text, as a PDF, and with annotations.

Audio

There are several unabridged recordings of Ulysses available for sale. The authorized version by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan and the full-cast radio production by Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) are two of the best.

For countries outside the UK and European Union (where Ulysses is under copyright until 2012) there is also a free version by the folks at LibriVox (a public domain audiobook project).

Music in the Works of James Joyce is dedicated to cataloging and recording the numerous songs Joyce references in his novels and stories. This site includes lots of information and two CDs worth of original recordings.

Paigerella’s podcast is a true labor of love: this Ulysses enthusiast began reading the entire novel aloud in from October of 2006 through February of 2011.

Images

There are several sites dedicated to documenting the locations mentioned in Ulysses and at least one that attempts to illustrate each episode in Ulysses with period documents.

Adaptations

Ulysses “Seen” is an impressive online graphic novel adaptation currently in progress.

Two feature-length films: Ulysses (1967) starring Miles O’Shea  and Bloom  (2003) starring Stephen Rea.

Stage productions include Ulysses in Nighttown (an adaptation the dream play chapter) and Gibraltar (an attempt to isolate and dramatize the love story of Leopold and Molly Bloom).

 

Cathechism (An FAQ)

What is Bloomsday?

Bloomsday is probably the best known literary “holiday” in the world. Every June 16th, in cities and towns around the globe, literature lovers celebrate the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place: June 16, 1904. The celebration takes many forms. Some are public: professional and amateur programs (on stage, on the radio, in pubs and cafes) that include readings from the book, re-enactments of famous scenes, performances of songs featured in the novel, and walking tours that follow the paths of the novel’s characters. Other celebrations are more private: people reading or listening to recordings of favorites passages, eating some of the food or drinking a glass (or pint) of one of the many alcoholic beverages mentioned in the book. Or, as in my case, writing a little about Ulysses and sharing it with the others.

It is worth pointing out that Ulysses itself is a celebration of June 16th — for it was on that date in 1904 that James Joyce met his wife, Nora Barnacle.

Why is it called Bloomsday?

Bloomsday takes its name from Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses. The term Bloomsday is never used by Joyce in Ulysses. According to yes I said yes I will Yes. A Celebration of James Joyce, Ulysses, and 100 Year of Bloomsday (2004) the word Bloomsday was coined by Sylvia Beach, the American expatriate whose bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, was an important center of Parisian literary life. Beach, the first publisher of Ulysses, held gatherings every June 16th throughout the 1920s. The earliest known celebration of Bloomsday in Dublin occurred in 1954 and was attended by five Dubliners, among them the poet Patrick Kavanagh and one of Joyce’s cousins.

I’ve never read Ulysses. What is it about?

There is no simple answer to this question. As Samuel Beckett once said of Joyce: “His writing is not about something. It is the thing itself.”

In broad terms, the answer is Life. To give a little more detail, Ulysses follows three Dubliners through an ordinary Thursday: Stephen Dedalus (aspiring writer and accomplished drinker), Leopold Bloom (a newspaper ad canvasser who deals in “time and space”), and Molly Bloom (Leopold’s wife, a concert singer who may be having an affair with her manager). The events in each character’s day correspond, in various ways, to episodes in The Odyssey—Homer’s epic poem about the crafty warrior Odysseus and his ten-year journey home following the Trojan War.

Ulysses explores a variety of themes and concepts: the notion of life as an odyssey, the role of mythology for individuals and cultures, feelings of alienation, mentorship, the nature of consciousness, bigotry, love, sexuality, infidelity, coincidence, and the feeling of drowning in one’s own life, to name only a few. At the same time, Ulysses is also an exploration of language and technique. It has been said that the English language, as much as Leopold Bloom, is the hero of Ulysses.

What is the Bloomsday Project?

The Bloomsday Project began on June 16, 2005. That year I decided to celebrate Bloomsday by sending an email message to friends and family. That first message included a few words about Bloomsday and an excerpt from the penultimate chapter of Ulysses (“Ithaca,” a personal favorite). In 2006 I decided to make the messages an annual tradition. That year, I focused on the first chapter of the book and have moved sequentially through the novel ever since, one chapter per year.

What do you mean “Every day is Bloomsday?”

While Ulysses is set on June 16, 1904 the novel itself makes clear that there is nothing inherently special about this date. There are no events of national or international importance and, even on the personal level, the most important events are relatively modest. Ulysses, despite its size and the grandeur of its source material, is at its core a story of ordinary people living ordinary lives. The implication, it seems to me, is that each of us lives our own Bloomsday every day. Each day, we are all the hero of our own lives. It seems odd, even perverse, to only celebrate the spirit of Bloomsday on June 16th.

Every day is Bloomsday.