Published in 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses is considered one of the most important novels in the Western literary canon, as well as one of the most difficult.
It’s long. The plot is hard to follow — or even find. And the prose is steeped in obscure references to history, religion, and Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Many readers quickly abandon Ulysses — sometimes on the first page.
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air,” Joyce begins. You might say to yourself, “Uh, what?”
By the third episode (or chapter), Joyce’s narrative becomes a pure stream of consciousness, as he follows the thoughts of Stephen Dedalus: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: At least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.” (Dedalus, a character Joyce based on himself, is the protagonist in his earlier novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916. The name is also a nod to the Greek myth of Daedalus, the inventor, and his son, Icarus.)
“You don’t get the stuff an author ordinarily gives you for your comfort as a reader,” said Grant Franks, 64, a faculty member at St. John’s College. “Like, where are we? Who are the characters?”
Joyce (1882-1941) was a modernist writer, critic, and teacher whose best-known works include Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Finnegan’s Wake (1939), the latter of which is considered as important — and inaccessible — as Ulysses. He was raised in Dublin and later lived in continental Europe with his wife, Nora. Joyce’s writing influenced subsequent generations of experimental and language-focused writers, including Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and Salman Rushdie. Ulysses stands as Joyce’s most controversial work. It was banned in the United States until 1933 because some graphic sexual content was considered obscene by standards of the time.
Franks is in a James Joyce reading group with self-described “Joyce geek” Adam Harvey, 52, that meets on Saturdays at St. John’s. The two men have read Ulysses cover to cover more times than they can count. In Franks’ bookshelf-lined campus office, the men’s affection and enthusiasm for Joyce were palpable — as was their eagerness for others to get excited, too. They insisted that although the novel is difficult to wade through, readers can embrace such a challenge, rather than running scared. Ulysses, they said, is fun.
Though he’d read it at least once before, Franks said he hadn’t gotten much out of the novel until 2004, when he taught a class in English literature and chose Ulysses to discuss with his students. “In the course of that, it opened up for me. Reading it with others helped. Reading it more slowly helped. Being older and less stupid helped,” he said, the last bit uttered in a self-deprecating manner. He realized that Joyce was playing with narrative style, language, and literary tradition — and that he wanted to join him in the revelry.
The entertaining qualities of this thick classic are celebrated on Bloomsday every year on June 16, the date on which the action of the novel takes place, albeit in 1904. Harvey hosts Bloomsday in Santa Fe at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, to which he welcomes seasoned readers and newbies alike. Actors read passages from the novel, and attendees can sing along to dancehall songs referenced by Joyce and sample food and drink that are mentioned in the book. Some people even dress in period costume.
“Accessibility is the priority,” Harvey said. He’s read Ulysses over and over for the past 20 years. “It doesn’t matter how much you read or how often you read it. Just return to it. The next reading will bring a new insight.”
The two enthusiasts acknowledge that despite their intimacy with the novel, Ulysses nevertheless remains daunting, even to them.
“Let’s get this out in the open,” Harvey said. “It’s a book that’s famous for not having a plot, which is not to say that nothing happens.”
Franks said it is not a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, nor is it a metaphor for the ancient Greek epic poem, though there are many allusions to the Homeric classic. “The Odyssey lurks behind Ulysses. It’s a story told in the somewhat conscious shadow of the Odyssey,” he said. Ulysses is a hero’s journey, though not in the way of a Joseph Campbell book or a Star Wars movie. Here, the heroism isn’t writ large, but lived in tiny moments and small triumphs, he said.
Franks did his best to summarize the plot, such as it is. “Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, who only know each other indirectly, proceed through a day in Dublin. By the end of the day, they’ve met each other and found a feeling of fellowship that leads to them coming home together and talking. Stephen leaves and Bloom goes to sleep. Bloom knows that on this day, his wife, Molly, is planning to cuckold him. The final chapter is Molly — her thoughts reflecting on the day, leaving us with a question mark about what the future holds for these three.”
Joyce was known for his extravagantly layered and musical prose, which often reads more like poetry than fiction. Reading Ulysses purely for linguistic pleasure is one way to enter the novel, said Harvey and Franks. Those who are inclined to decipher its more arcane intricacies can turn to Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses (1989), among other scholarly takes. Guidance can be crucial if you are intent on pushing through, Franks said, because somewhere in the middle of the story “the narrative voice begins to explode. [The characters] find themselves in these exchanges that are shaped by a variety of different styles — as if narrative style just reached out and said, ‘I’m going to remake Dublin my way.’ ”
Franks and Harvey don’t always agree on their interpretations of the book, but they respect each other, turning the conversation back and forth, stopping to let the other speak. Franks talked about the symbolism of Bloom’s Judaism and whether or not he was considered Irish by the other characters in the novel. Harvey spoke affectionally of Molly Bloom and questioned whether or not Ulysses could be considered an adultery novel in the tradition of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1873) or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856). Franks and Harvey know the book so well that they can quickly locate whatever passage they are looking for, and even quote bits from memory, like the end of chapter 12, when some drunken fellows have become angry with Bloom for not buying them drinks. They are under the mistaken impression that he has won money in a wager, and they consider him stingy because he is Jewish. “When, lo, there came about them all a great brightness and they beheld the chariot wherein He stood ascend to heaven. And they beheld Him in the chariot, clothed upon the glory of the brightness, having raiment as of the sun, fair as the moon and terrible that for awe they durst not look upon Him. And there came a voice out of heaven calling: Elijah! Elijah! And he answered with a main cry: Abba! Adonai!”
Harvey said that if he could change just one misconception people seem to have about Ulysses, it would be the idea that Joyce wrote it to be impenetrable because he thought he was smarter than other people. “The idea is that there’s an essential arrogance to it. And it is intimidating. I’m still intimidated by it. But the remedy is not dismissal. Ulysses is not intellectual highfalutin. It’s about bringing the noise of the street with us so that even if the language is cryptic and obfuscating, it nevertheless points you to a pulse, a human element that breathes and lives.” ◀
▼ Fifth annual Bloomsday in Santa Fe
6-9 p.m. Sunday, June 16
Jean Cocteau Cinema, 418 Montezuma Ave., 505-466-5528
Admission is $20 at the door or jeancocteaucinema.com/event/bloomsday-in-santa-fe
▼ JoyceGroup Santa Fe
10 a.m.-1 p.m., Saturdays
Winiarski Seminar Building, Room 201, St. John’s College, 1160 Camino de Cruz Blanca; free