Ulysses

James Joyce
James Joyce, Ulysses

Everything and everyone is in Joyce’s Ulysses (even my very un-Irish surname, page 308), which is no suprise given that Joyce once confided that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant”. I (certainly no professor) know this because I have just finished Ulysses, determined not to have been outfaced by a book that is near the top of most lists of never-finished books. I began reading it 30 years ago and digested the first half of it ten or so pages at a time like a boa constrictor swallowing an antelope. Then this year, at the halfway point where “they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green street like a shot off a shovel” (page 343), my reading of the book took off, headwinds dropped and a rosy glow of contentment spread within me as I lapped up Joyce’s magnificent language.

Much of Ulysses has ascended at an angle of fortyfive degrees over my head. At the time I read of Bloom’s escape down Little Green Street, I was ignorant of Kiernan’s pub being used as a stand-in for Homer’s cave of the cyclops, and of the references in that section to long, cylindrical objects (such as lit cigars) acting as stand-ins for weapons that Odysseus could have used to blind his captor. I did catch the multiple satires on literary pretentiousness. I noted the four-thirty start of Bloom’s being cuckolded by Boylan, which made more sense when seen through Molly’s own eyes in her soliloquy in the wondrous final section of the book.

In admitting to terrible ignorance about so much of Joyce’s detail in the book, I’d aver that this speaks sufficiently for the book’s amplitude of linguistic fun. (That level of a single reading of the book was enough to get me there. I doubt that I’m alone in that.) You can experiment with this in the way that Joyce himself couldn’t. He took to Trieste a copy of Thom’s Dublin Directory for the year 1904, a Dublin newspaper for June 16th of that year and dictionaries of all imaginable flavours (unlike Shakespeare who had none). Who would be bold enough now to quantify the volume of writing about Ulysses that can be found on the internet? Try, for example, the enigmatic “sandblind upupa” (page 411). For me, it immediately sparked an image of a blind hoopoe, upupa epops being its wonderful Latin name. For others, it is variably one of the following: a newly-invented word suggesting “utopia”, the cause of Bloom’s wasteland; the anonymous “U.P.” postcard that the Breens received which implied Mr Breen’s impotence (“not U.P.” as it were) which Bloom fears for himself; pupa, neither larva nor full-grown adult insect, but hoped-for metamorphosis of Bloom into parenthood; or simply a weak-sighted bird described in medieval bestiaries as living off the flesh of corpses and which lines its nest with human excrement. There will be more if, like me, you are curious enough to look. The exquisite portmanteau word mangongwheeltracktrolleyglarejuggernaut (page 439) is everywhere on the internet but always without substance, marvelled at but side-stepped. Joyce inserts it into an otherwise staccato ramble that Bloom has in his wanderings through Dublin’s red-light district.

Guy Davenport's illustration of James Joyce writing a sentence
Guy Davenport’s illustration of James Joyce writing a sentence

No, the depths of Ulysses will always escape me. I shall not read up on the geography of Dublin or the never-ending list of things one could do in Dublin on Bloomsday. I shan’t be adding to the public wealth of knowledge about who appears in the book, where they lived, what their professions were and how they might be related to Joyce if at all. Suffice to say that the book has spawned hinterlands. It is enough to hold the book, turn its pages, listen to the voices that babble, screech, whisper and cajole at us from its depths, and cherish some of the details of the extraordinary universe that Joyce conjured up. As Guy Davenport’s illustration has it, with Chaplin and Odysseus guarding the shelves of memory, Joyce’s mind may well have pondered deep which morsels to draw on from the European family of languages for the sentence he was currently shaping, his musing upon ladies underwear sustaining him the while.

Notes

  • Page numbers refer to the now-ancient Penguin Modern Classics edition of Ulysses, dated 1971.
  • Page 308: “… even the stern provostmarshal, lieutenantcolonel Tomkin-Maxwell ffrenchmullan Tomlinson …”