Today is Bloomsday — the day when devotees celebrate the work of James Joyce, particularly his novel Ulysses (because the book takes place on June 16). This year, I’ll be participating in Bloomsday by embarking on a project: Reading Ulysses.
I’ve never read Ulysses. I’ve never read any James Joyce at all. Indeed, I’ve read very few modern (or modernist — Ulysses is both) literary novels. My formal education was mostly focused on the theatre, and my reading for pleasure and self-improvement has been diverse but also pretty scattershot — and in novels, skewed towards my favourite genres.
So why a heedless leap into the treacherous waters of modern literary fiction? Why read a book that is over 900 pages of dense prose, literary and mythological allusions, extended sections that are stream-of-consciousness, all of it written in the idiomatic English spoken in the Dublin of a hundred years ago?
Well, heck, when you put it that way, why wouldn’t I read it?
Oh, actual reasons? Fine.
“It is said, after all, that people reach middle age the day they realize they’re never going to read Remembrance of Things Past.”
Alison Bechdel wrote that in her brilliant graphic memoir, Fun Home. I don’t think there’s any point in disputing that I am, in fact, middle aged, but I’m not ready to accept my impending intellectual calcification with a shrug and a “Meh,” just yet, either. I have no guilt whatsoever about devoting some of my pleasure reading to things that are uncomplicated and fun, but there’s also something to be said for embracing a challenge. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that really called for stretching my mental muscles, and that can be fun, too.
I’m also simply delighted by the idea of Bloomsday. The fact that there’s a day celebrated world-wide — by, to be fair, probably a pretty small number of people on balance — devoted to a thought-provoking, intellectually challenging work of literature fills me with happiness, and I’d like to be part of it.
Finally, the work of Joyce generally and Ulysses specifically are a sort of fault line in literature; the symbolic dividing line between the accessible, popular novels of the Nineteenth Century and the esoteric, literary, modernist (and later, postmodernist) novels of the Twentieth Century. That makes Ulysses a liminal work — one that exists on the threshold between states — and as I’ve mentioned before, I have an interest in creative works that occupy liminal spaces.
And, since I’m making a project of reading Ulysses, I’m also going to blog it. As I make my way through the book, I’ll share my progress and my thoughts here — probably about once a week, although I have no idea yet how much of Ulysses a week’s worth of thinking and reading will cover. Could be a chapter, could be a handful of pages. My friend Rachel Hartman reminded me today that Joyce himself said of Ulysses, “It took me seven years to write it, it should take them seven years to read.”
I do kind of hope it won’t take quite that long; I’m putting off reading The Goblin Emperor for this.
In any case, I hope you’ll join me on my odyssey. Please follow along as I progress through Leopold Bloom’s Dublin over the coming weeks. If you’re new to the book, like I am, you may be inspired to read along too — I’d like that. Or you may have already read it and have some insight you can share. In either case, please do comment and add your responses, to Ulysses, or to my reactions to it.
Let’s begin now.
(Man, can you imagine a Disney long-playing record adaptation of Ulysses? That would be a very, very long-playing record indeed. But would Donald or Mickey play Leopold Bloom?)