James Joyce’s Ulysses
James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published in 1922, just over two weeks after the British handed over the keys of Dublin Castle to Michael Collins and his new Irish government. The other great literary event of that year was TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Joyce’s novel had much in common with Eliot’s long poem — it dealt with the rawness of urban life using competing narrative forms, including pastiche and myth and different kinds of voices. The Waste Land sounded a sort of death knell for the narrative poem, just as Ulysses set about killing off the single-perspective, the all-knowing authorial voice — firing the starting gun for a wave of “modernist” writing, from Virginia Woolf to Samuel Beckett, that comprehensively rewrote the rules as to how literature was approached and presented.
Ulysses, now celebrating its centenary, has grown in importance over the past 100 years, during which it has repeatedly been declared one of — if not the — greatest novels of the 20th century.
As postcolonial studies and gender studies have become all the rage in academia, Ulysses is a perfect way of testing any theory. For historians, it offers a fascinating picture of Dublin in a time of relative peace, with only small signs of the changes to come. For literary critics, it is a godsend, filled with patterns and word-games, parodies and obscure references. For the ordinary reader, it has the same cachet as running a marathon does for the ordinary athlete. It is a challenge and then, for those who have read the book, a matter of pride.
Joyce began Ulysses in Trieste in 1914 and finished it in Paris in 1921. As the book was being composed, the world he knew was being torn asunder. Joyce was lucky not to be interned by the Austrians when the war began. With his wife and family, he fled to Zurich in 1915. The following year, the centre of the city he was seeking to immortalise in his novel was blown apart. One of his closest friends was killed in the Easter Rebellion in Dublin; as a student, Joyce had known Patrick Pearse, who was executed as one of the leaders.
There is, of course, no mention of the war or the rebellion in Joyce’s novel, which was set on a single day in Dublin — June 16 1904. But Ulysses was composed in a period when writing anything at all in Ireland had a peculiar intensity. Even literary works with an intimate or personal setting could be read as interventions in a debate about Ireland. In the case of WB Yeats, this was not merely true in his public poems such as “September 1913” or “Easter 1916”, but also in his poems of lost love that allowed, by implication, the loved one to stand for a lost country.
James Joyce at Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris, with owner Sylvia Beach, in the 1920s when Joyce was seen as an outcast by the Irish establishment © Mondadori / Getty Images
But it was not all about loss because the debate was actually about the future. It was clear in 1904 that Ireland was going to be the first country to depart from the empire. The question was: how? And: what kind of country was going to emerge?
Ulysses itself, in all its generosity of style, its plenitude, the open sensuality of its characters, its lack of piety and respect for authority, its placing of a freethinking cosmopolitan Jewish man at its centre, can be read as a contribution to the Irish argument, the tone of the book as a blueprint for what Irish life might be like after independence.
While other writers, such as JM Synge, WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, the founders of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, exalted peasant life and the landscape of the west of Ireland, Joyce set Ulysses emphatically in the capital. He did not look to Irish mythology as the others did. The novel borrowed its structure from Homer’s Odyssey and experimented with the possible styles available to anyone writing in English. A few times, when the novel made use of what we might call Celtic tones in prose, it was only to mock them.
At the centre of the novel stands Leopold Bloom, with his rich mind and an unusual ability to notice and make observations. Bloom is a modern man who works selling advertisements. His wife Molly, a singer, is having an affair with a man who organises concerts for her. The novel uses 18 episodes, most of them based on episodes in Homer’s Odyssey, to follow Bloom and a young poet called Stephen Dedalus as they move around the city.
Joyce is not as interested in plot or even psychology as he is in language. He seeks to find a way to render Bloom’s mind, capture his darting thoughts and stray memories and musings. Ulysses is not merely groundbreaking for its connecting of the epic to the ordinary, but for making the smallest moment in Dublin that day seem to glitter and shimmer, and for exploring every possibility that narrative offers, including a monologue at the end, a tour-de-force of the first-person voice, for Molly.
Ulysses does not seek to make Ireland exotic or alarming for the English reader, as so many Irish novelists before Joyce did. Although there is a great deal of singing in the book, no one plays Irish traditional music or sings in Gaelic. They sing opera arias, music-hall songs and nationalist ballads. Joyce does not make them more Irish than they need to be.
He wants to normalise Dublin, to make sure that the characters are not insular or confined by their Irishness, but instead are made memorable because of their wit, their sensuous inner life, how they see the world.
Also, in placing Dublin at the centre of a monumental novel, Joyce had no interest in explaining Ireland to the outside world. Any Irish novelist knows the problem Joyce faced: what do you do with the names of obscure historical figures and events that are fully recognisable to an Irish reader but utterly mysterious to an outsider? If you are an English writer, you don’t have to explain football or Gladstone. If you are an Irish writer, who will know what you are talking about when you mention hurling or refer to O’Connell?
Joyce made no allowances for the reader as outsider. In Joyce’s imagination, his first readers were Irish, even if his book was published in France.
Leopold Bloom is neither Protestant nor Catholic, nationalist nor Unionist. He evades easy arguments about Ireland. But there is one episode where his humanism and the sweetness of his mind are tested by his compatriots.
In the 12th episode known as “Cyclops”, in a pub called Barney Kiernan’s, Bloom enters into a discussion about Ireland and nationhood. He defines a nation “as the same people living in the same place”, but then refines this to include people “also living in different places”. When asked what his nation was, he replies simply: “Ireland . . . I was born here. Ireland.” Later, when he complains that his fellow Jews were being persecuted elsewhere, he recoils at the suggestion that this be withstood with “force”: “But it’s no use . . . Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred.”
Joyce is actually writing this after the 1916 rebellion, after the carnage of the first world war. He is alert to how little anyone in 1904 could imagine that “force, hatred, history” and the idea of the nation would cause such destruction within a decade. In having Bloom stand firm against fanaticism and violence, Joyce is pushing history back to offer an alternative, allowing Bloom a sour eloquence that is all the more powerful because of the clichés and claptrap spoken all around him in the pub.
“Cyclops” has its own internal violence. Throughout the episode, as the men talk in the pub, Joyce introduces elaborate interventions in the form of parodies of types of discourse current in Ireland at the time. One was of a newspaper description of a social occasion — but the occasion was not social at all; it was the public execution of the patriot Robert Emmet in 1803 in Dublin, an event viewed as deeply solemn by most Irish people in 1904, when the book is set, as much as in 1922 when Ulysses was published.
Marilyn Monroe reading ‘Ulysses’ in 1955 © Eve Arnold / Magnum Photos
He goes on to make fun of the execution of a patriot with a mad list of ridiculous names of onlookers — “Señor Hidalgo Caballero Don Pecadillo y Palabras y Paternoster de la Malora de la Malaria” and “Hokopoko Harakiri” — and in doing so, pushes against the cult of death in a country living under its spell.
In case anyone does not notice that Joyce is writing after the 1916 rebellion, he names the executioner of Emmet as “Tomkin-Maxwell ffrenchmullan Tomlinson”, which is glossed in Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford and Robert J Seidman as “A fictional name that suggests extraordinary pretension to ‘good family’ background.” For an Irish reader, however, the name Maxwell jumps out. Sir John Maxwell was the military governor in Ireland in 1916 who ordered the execution of the leaders.
June 16 The date on which ‘Ulysses’ is set, now celebrated annually in Dublin as ‘Bloomsday’
By making fun of what was considered haunting and tragic, Joyce set himself up in opposition to accepted opinion. By making the execution so uproariously funny, he suggested that the version of a past laden down with martyrs and patriotic commemoration was mawkish and burdensome.
In a later episode, “Oxen of the Sun”, Joyce sets a scene in a maternity hospital where a number of men have strangely gathered. The writing is made up of moments from the history of English prose. In March 1920, as he worked on this episode, Joyce wrote to a friend about the technique, which would include “earliest English alliterative and monosyllabic and Anglo-Saxon” before then moving through the roll-call of Elizabethan chronicle, Milton, Pepys and so on, ending “in a frightful jumble”.
Anthony Burgess said that this episode was the one he would have most like to have written: “It is an author’s chapter, a dazzling and authoritative display of what English can do.”
Ulysses is awash with irony, low hilarity and high seriousness. Published on the author’s 40th birthday, it celebrates what happens when an Irish writer re-creates the English novel. The formal novel’s playfulness, its inclusiveness and openness to the outside world, its insistence on the autonomy of the imagination, had lessons to teach Ireland in 1922, a country about to become insular and insecure. In Ulysses, Joyce suggested another way that Ireland might emerge from empire, with Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom as its citizens. Ireland ignored him, of course, not even doing him the favour of officially banning his book.
The Irish government remained suspicious of Joyce, despite the acclaim his book received. The poet Eavan Boland reported that her father, an Irish diplomat, was in Switzerland with Eamon de Valera, the Taoiseach (or Irish prime minister), in the mid-1930s when a request came from Joyce — who was attending the same eye clinic as de Valera — for them to have dinner together. De Valera refused. When Joyce died in Zurich in 1941, the British minister to Bern spoke at the funeral, but there was no official Irish representation.
Revellers in Edwardian costume celebrating ‘Bloomsday’ in Dublin, 1996 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Shortly before his death, I spoke to Arthur Schlesinger about John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in June 1963. He told me that Kennedy had deliberately inserted a reference to James Joyce in his speech to the joint houses of parliament in Dublin as a way of nudging the Irish government and the Irish people to accept Joyce as a great writer, a great Irishman.
In 1954, on what is now called Bloomsday — 16 June — a number of writers did a Dublin pilgrimage, following some of the route taken by Bloom and Dedalus. In the past few decades, the city is awash on Bloomsday with people in Edwardian costume acting out scenes from Ulysses. The former outcast is now at the centre of a national cultural celebration with huge international appeal, impossible to ignore — or almost . . .
One year, being busy, I forgot it was Bloomsday. I found myself outside a city-centre supermarket with two bags of groceries being accosted by a large group of Joyceans, all dressed up. They asked me what character in the book I was playing. I told them I was no one at all, just an ordinary man in a city on an ordinary day. And we agreed finally that this was fully in the spirit of Joyce’s great novel.
Colm Tóibín’s most recent novel is ‘The Magician’ (Viking/Scribner)
From ‘filthy book’ to literary classic
Like its titular inspiration, Ulysses has survived a long and perilous journey. Before 1,000 numbered copies were published in Paris in 1922 by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company, the novel first appeared in serial form from 1918-20 in The Little Review, an avant-garde American magazine, for whom Ezra Pound excised potential obscenities. In 1920, however, the passage in which Bloom masturbates at the sight of Gerty MacDowell was discovered by the daughter of a New York lawyer. The magazine’s editors, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were prosecuted, and Ulysses in effect banned in America. British publishers, too, declined to handle it.
After appearing in Beach’s legendarily error-ridden edition (later ones have made nearly 5,000 corrections), it was furtively dispatched to subscribers, including George Bernard Shaw. TS Eliot pronounced it “the most important expression [of] the present age . . . from which none of us can escape”.
But in December 1922, Sir Archibald Bodkin, the UK director of public prosecutions, declared Ulysses a “filthy book”. The following year customs officers in Folkestone seized and burned 500 copies.
It wasn’t until a 1933 case brought by Random House that the US ban was lifted and Judge John M Woolsey admitted the book, while not “easy to read”, was a “tour de force”. In the UK, Ulysses was first published by Bodley Head in 1936. In Ireland, the book wasn’t sold openly until the 1960s while Joseph Strick’s 1967 film adaptation was banned until 2000.
Since 1922, Ulysses has established itself as one of the defining works of modern world literature, inspiring scores of writers and selling millions of copies. Not all of them are the same. With so many editorial amendments and different editions, there is no “definitive” Ulysses. This has provided fuel for lively “Joyce wars” between academics, fulfilling Joyce’s hope that he would attain immortality by keeping the professors “busy for centuries arguing over what [he] meant”.
The centenary is being marked with updated editions of the novel and critical guides to it, including a cloth-bound Penguin Classics version and an updated edition of Ulysses Unbound. A Reader’s Companion to James Joyce’s Ulysses by Terence Killeen (Penguin). The book that was once almost impossible to find, and was indeed actively culled, is now everywhere.