Today is Bloomsday, an annual celebration of James Joyce's 'Ulysses'
Let us celebrate James Joyce's 265,000-word modernist masterpiece and all those who've read "one of the most baffling and brilliant books ever written"
Today, June 16, is known in literary circles as Bloomsday, when fans of James Joyce celebrate his novel Ulysses, published 100 years ago, with readings, festivals, pub crawls, sightseeing tours, and dramatizations.
All of the events in the novel take place on the day and night of June 16, 1904, a day in the life of Joyce's protagonist Leopold Bloom in the author's hometown of Dublin. “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete," Joyce had written, "that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”
What's the significance of a hundred-year old novel? In Why Dubliners celebrate Bloomsday, a uniquely Irish holiday, published in National Geographic earlier this week, journalist Edmund Vallance quoted Ireland President Michael D. Higgins:
“Ulysses was a brave new departure whose influence continues to be reflected in many of the great writings of the 21st century,” “Reading it now it appears to be both a celebration of what is the arrival of modernism, and in a curious way, an anticipation of its flaws and insufficiency. It is above all Irish in essence and reference.”
If you can't get to Dublin today, here's a video of marking Bloomsday 2022 the centenary year of Ulysses,
celebrating the words of James Joyce. And if you wonder what it's like to read the 265,000 word Ulysses, let's read Donna Liquori (much shorter) story "The slog, delight in James Joyce's 'Ulysses'" published last Sunday in the Times Union.
Bonus: If you're reading this post on your phone, download the He liked thick word soup Ulysses phone app that allows you to manipulate Joyce's text with your fingertips.
The slog, delight in James Joyce's 'Ulysses'
By Donna Liquori, first published in the Times Union on June 11, 2022
Since September, every other week, someone pours drinks and we all sit around the table at the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany trying to decipher one of the most baffling and brilliant books ever written.
“Ulysses” by James Joyce takes place on a single day: June 16, 1904, aka “Bloomsday,” named after central character Leopold Bloom. This year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of the book, initially banned in the United States. My Oxford edition has 732 pages and way more than 200,000 words. It includes a coordinated summary of “The Odyssey,” which fascinated Joyce, who used it to structure “Ulysses.”
Last year, my friend, Jessica DuPont, the owner of Half Moon Books in Kingston, showed me her rare first edition of “Ulysses.” And then another friend, Kathy McCarthy, invited me to read “Ulysses” with a group. And a plan to visit Dublin next year was shaping up. Perhaps it was a bit of kismet (a word that pops up a few times in “Ulysses”) so I dove in.
“Ulysses is a book that as an Irish-American, has always been on my ‘Ought to Have Read’ list,” McCarthy said. “I tried it a couple of times, once even on an audio book, but didn’t make it more than about five pages.” Our gathering evolved from an annual celebration. “A group of us at the Irish American Heritage Museum have been doing a very truncated reading from ‘Ulysses’ on Bloomsday, June 16, since 2016 at the museum,” said Meg Carroll, our leader and professor emeritus of English at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
“I pestered Meg for years to teach a class about ‘Ulysses,’ and when she sort-of retired, I pushed my case even harder – and she kindly agreed,” McCarthy said. “I’m in awe of the prep work she does for each session and how she leads us. This is a volunteer gig for her, and her dedication is amazing.”
Learning this book with the wrong teacher would be a disaster. Carroll shows up at each class with enthusiastic observations and takes us through the streets of Dublin, clearly enjoying herself.
“The experience for me has been extraordinary,” Carroll said. “I caught the Joyce bug as an undergraduate. Looking back, I do not know how the professor made this novel amazing and fun to a bunch of college kids who barely understood the surface of the story, but he did – enough so that for 40 years I have continued to take periodic shallow dives and to think about ‘Ulysses.’ And now, even with those other occasional shallow dives, I find myself stymied and delighted and confused and awestruck all at once.”
Each session, we tackle a chapter, reading it at home beforehand. Some went well and others were confounding. We laughed a lot. I had always thought “Ulysses” was mostly stream of consciousness, more style than substance. Now I think Joyce was deliberate and created these puzzles. The book’s also a bit trippy, immersive and sometimes disgusting. But no matter how each chapter was presented — one like a play, another mimicking literary styles throughout history and one in newspaper style — Joyce makes you work really hard.
Reading “Ulysses” aloud or listening to others perform it helped a lot, yet still left me confused. But then I’d see something profound like this:
“Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.”
I was struck how it is about the anguish and awe of being human, and about guilt, grief, art, relationships and religion.
“The novel is incredibly difficult to read and a very lonely and often incomplete experience on one's own, but with a group of enthusiastic motivated readers, like our group at the museum, the arduous journey … is full of insights, questions, laughter, complaints, groans, and noises of amazement.” Carroll said. “Each member of our group of 15 brings a distinct perspective, notices something different in the text, recognizes different references, does extra research, and is bowled over by Joyce's genius.”
Like I said, it’s a bit gross too: No bodily function is off limits. And some things are really tough to read.
“It’s a male-heavy book, and sometimes seems almost puerile,” McCarthy said. “The women seem incidental so all these chapters later, there’s nobody I identify with.”
Luckily, we have the libations, often drinks found in the novel, like Jameson and Guinness, and sometimes there’s food.
“I’m glad to be reading it, though; glad the group that came together is so awesome and happy to be learning from Meg and the group,” McCarthy said.
Since 2006, Donna Liquori has written the Times Union's Bibliofiles column, which explores the culture of reading, and also contributes features for the paper. A former Associated Press and Times Union staffer, her work's appeared in the New York Times and other publications. She lives in a century-old house in Delmar and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.