For those who like classic 20th century Irish literature, or famously difficult books, or stories with memorable poop scenes: tomorrow is Bloomsday! And not just any Bloomsday, but the first one since the book entered public domain in the UK! Which means Stephen Joyce can’t stop people from reading the book, aloud, in public, to celebrate. (And yes he did try, the jerk.)
Many people are doing many wonderful festive things, and tomorrow I will join them, but today I am reflecting.
My experience with Joyce started with one boyfriend in college, a math major who had figured out how many pages per day he had to read to finish Ulysses in a year. Halfway through, he realized he had forgotten what happened at the beginning, so he doubled his page number and started over while also keeping his more advanced bookmark — meaning that by this schedule he would finish both his first and his second rereading at the same time. Of course, school and social life (ahem!) kept getting in the way, so he turned out to be reading Ulysses for pretty much the entirety of our year-and-a-half-long relationship.
Sometimes, I could persuade him to read bits aloud right before bed. I never had any idea what was happening plot-wise or character-wise, but it always sounded fantastic.
Many years later I would learn that this is a near-perfect way to approach Ulysses, which is rich and dreamlike and makes little to no sense when you read it in a straight line.
I read the book myself for my masters’ thesis in comparative literature. This was a foolhardy, ambitious document I was thoroughly unqualified to attempt, since it started with Ovid’s Fasti (Roman calendar poem, super-good), went through Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, and ended with Ulysses. Any one of these would have been more than enough for a thesis, and here I was cherry-picking material on time, ghosts, reading, holidays, bodies, and food. I’m pretty sure my professors let me pass just to get me out of the department. Our budget for grad student pretension was used up long ago.
I thoroughly enjoy Ulysses, especially now that I can hop around and reread my favorite parts (the Lazarus episode!) without having to slog through my least favorite parts (the whole brothel thing, ugh). But even though I’ve read it, and talked very pedantically about how it works as a novel (while quoting Ricoeur—I KNOW), it still doesn’t feel like it’s actually mine, in the way that Jane Eyre is mine or Good Omens or Howl’s Moving Castle by the great Diana Wynne Jones (genuflects).
Ulysses will always belong to that ex-boyfriend, and I will read it with a mild sense of guilt, in the same way that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will always belong to that first guy I had a crush on in 8th grade, who told me the Beatles I loved for songs like “All My Loving” had a psychedelic phase. (Abbey Road, though? Totally mine.)
And there is a part of me that feels Joyce would approve this, or at least get an arch sort of Irish satisfaction out of it, this idea that there is always something furtive about how I approach his masterpiece, that there is no way I could ever fully grab onto it and fold it into my heart. None of the characters in the novel really get to do that with one another, either—and Joyce put so much effort into the poetry and music of his sentences that I know he would love to hear that for the first two years, I only listened to it spoken and never so much as looked at the words on the page.
And there’s something pleasing in the idea that people we’ve loved leave something behind when they go. That this failed relationship lives on between Ulysses and I: awkward and ill-suited, but also still valuable, and worth every moment of the time.
Joyce might call it a gravestone in a cemetery; I think of it as adding one more volume to the library.