It’s on again this Thursday – Bloomsday, when groups of otherwise sane men around the English-speaking world will don bowler hats, drink black beer, fry a lump of kidney, wander around town a bit, lunch on port and gorgonzola, confront various demons, come to grief at the sight of a young girl’s knickers, have a bowel movement, philosophise and try not to think about wifely infidelity. And much more besides.
Why should anyone seek to relive the (fictional) odyssey of Leopold Bloom around Dublin on 16 June 1904, as told by James Joyce in his monumental Ulysses?
Well, I suppose everyone has his reasons. I know I have mine, which we’ll come to in a minute, but I was surprised to find a woman doing Bloomsday. Ulysses is a very male piece of work. Gabrielle Carey (right), writing joyously in the Review section of the Weekend Australian newspaper, tells us that on Thursday she’ll be “re-reading Ulysses – aloud – with a group of fellow Joyce junkies around my kitchen table. We start with strong tea and end with wine. In between there are lots of laughs”.
Thing is, that’s pretty much what I’ll be doing, too. The little band of deep thinkers with whom I co-habit at my club will be sitting down to a proper lunch, with table service, but that aside we’ll be reading, joking, laughing, too. I am something of a reluctant starter because I am not a huge fan of Ulysses, but I’ll be there – sans bowler (a flat cap will have to do) – mainly because I enjoy the company of the fellows with whom I’ve been doing this for some years now.
It all began for us before The Time of the Great Pestilence, on 4 February 2016 to be precise, when we came together at the suggestion of a couple of Joyce scholars to read Ulysses as a group. The thinking was that, although many of us would like to read Ulysses, few actually would last the distance with it or even get beyond the size of the volume and the reputation that preceded it. But with one another’s support, and no doubt a dose of male competition, we would get through it – reading aloud in turns and, guided by the scholars, discussing as we went. Even then, it was a ridiculously difficult read.
Gabrielle Carey, having loved Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wanted to get into Ulysses, too, but was daunted like us: she “assumed that I would need at least a PhD in English literature before I could even approach page one”. Twenty years later she discovered that what she needed was not a doctorate so much as a doctor, “a patient husband to read aloud to me every Sunday morning from the comfort of our warm bed”.
Here she learned what our little group learned: “The secret was not to read Ulysses but to hear it read, to transform the individual experience of reading into a communal and social one, or even a sexy and loving one. And that is the reason why, every year across the globe people gather in pubs, in streets, in halls, in libraries, in homes and even under messy bedcovers to read extracts from the book . . .”
Well, of course leaving out Gabby’s Sunday morning exercises (which filled me with a certain amount of nostalgia), that’s what kept our Joyceans group together for two years struggling with this monstrous production. There is music in it when read aloud. We didn’t go through all of it – meeting monthly for two hours at a time made that impossible – but, with the editing and guidance of the scholars in our midst, I think all of us can claim to have read Ulysses.
What happened next was even better. Apart from the annual Bloomsday lunch, we didn’t disband. We decided the Joyceans would transform themselves via another saga, Anthony Powell’s 12-book A Dance to the Music of Time, into the Dancers. We didn’t read all of that as a group either, as many of our number grew bored with it, especially since they had a TV series to carry them through the story. After that, as the Gerties, we read a new translation of Faust (Part II) – which was fun. But our Joyce scholars were getting restless and, inevitably I suppose, we came back to the expat Irishman, reading both Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We’ve now left Joyce behind for good – Finnegan’s Wake is deemed by even our Joyce scholars as a step too far – and we’ve dived into Laurence Sterne’s 18th century romp, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Our leader describes this as a huge shaggy dog story, and I think he’s right. I’m enjoying it immensely.
To some extent Ulysses is a shaggy dog story, too. The influence of Sterne, with his long digressions, wordplay and jokes, is apparent. Gabrielle Carey notes that Joyce was disappointed at the pomposity and solemnity of much of the criticism Ulysses received: “They had missed the point, he felt, and wished that more of them had realised that his book was essentially a comedy.” What would he make of Bloomsday and the great school of Ulysses scholarship it’s built on?
I think he (left) would be just as pompous and solemn about them as his original critics were of his novel. Ulysses is one sprawling mess of a book constructed around an appropriation of Homer’s poem and designed to demonstrate Joyce’s own vast knowledge and his Shakespearian command of the English language. Oh, it’s an odyssey all right – a voyage around and through Joyce’s ego. But before I go any further, be under no misapprehension: The man could write. The confirmation of that, though, is not Ulysses; it’s his earlier works.
The short stories in the Dubliners collection were written around 1905 when Joyce was just 23 (and, shamefully for those who rejected them, not published until 1914). If you didn’t know anything about the author you would think them the work of a much more mature man. It’s a pity I didn’t come to them when I was much younger. Portrait, Joyce’s first novel, was published in 1916 and for me it is sensitive, funny and terrifying all at once. Having read Ulysses before I read Portrait I could see as I went where the style developed in Portrait was leading. The difference is that Portrait has a restraint, even in its excesses, that keeps the reader gasping for more.
Ulysses gives you the “more”, as Joyce, voluntarily exiled from an Ireland he couldn’t abide, tells them all where to go, and in spades. It is in parts overwritten, boring and pretentious. In other parts it is brilliantly evocative, sordidly hilarious and hilariously sordid. Difficult in those parts, true, but great, as Portrait promised. Portrait, for me, is the complete masterpiece: Ulysses is a collection of pieces.
Those of my readers of a certain age will remember Gabrielle Carey (she’s the one on the right) as the co-author with Kathy Lette of a 1979 rites-of-passage novel, Puberty Blues, written when they were both teenagers, about the goings-on among the young surf set on Sydney’s northern beaches. It was a sitting duck for a T&A movie, and that’s what duly happened. Carey is now a respected EngLit academic (with a Joyce specialty) who freelances for various publications. I always like her stuff when I come across it because she retains a singular voice, not just parroting the accepted wisdom of whatever’s trending. Her idea of a Sunday morning threesome with a book of choice carries a nice, warm vibe.