Today is Bloomsday, which is perhaps not the best-known day of celebration. It’s a celebration of all things James Joyce, and more specifically, his great novel Ulysses (1922). Bloomsday always falls on 16 June, because that’s the day on which the book is set (in 1904). And it’s named Bloomsday in honour of the novel’s hero, Leopold Bloom. And of course his wife Molly Bloom too, who has a very important part to play in the book. Why though, would we have a day of celebration for a single book?
If you’re unfamiliar with it, let me provide you with a detailed synopsis:
Leopold Bloom spends a normal day in Dublin.
Do I need to explain more about why people would celebrate this novel? Really? Ok then.
Written by Joyce between 1914 and 1922, it tells a very simple story on the surface, but is a work of incredible depth and complexity. It’s often lauded as the high point of the literary modernist movement of the early 20th century. Modernism was a broad movement concerned largely with consciously breaking with the conventions of traditional literature. There are therefore few concrete links between different modernist works, apart from experimentalism in general, and a greater focus on character psychology rather than narrative. In this sense, Ulysses is a classic modernist work. Stylistically it varies from chapter to chapter, with some being quite straightforward prose, but others in completely different styles, such as the text of a play, or a punctuationless stream-of-consciousness style meant to replicate a character’s thought processes. And the novel is simultaneously about nothing and everything. It works perfectly well as a focus on the inner life of a perfectly ordinary man. But if you’re well versed in philosophy, classical literature, Irish mythology, classical mythology, Irish politics in the 19th and early 20th century, the geography of Dublin, theology, international politics, and ancient history, there are plenty of interesting references and allusions for you to pick up on in this incredibly dense text.
As you might be thinking at this stage, it’s probably not the type of book to pack in your suitcase for reading on the beach. But if you would like to read it, there’s some help at hand. In 1921, Joyce created a schema to help his friend understand the novel. It provides a title for each chapter, referencing different parts of Homer’s Odyssey (Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus), as well as a corresponding scene, hour, organ, colour, symbol, art, and technic. Luckily I had this to help me decode the book when I first (and latest) read it back around 2002 in college. I suppose a professor providing weekly lectures on each chapter helped too. I’ve always been curious to know what it would be like to read Ulysses without any external assistance. I’m sure most of the allusions would go over my head, but I might still get something out of it. For all the complexity of his writing, Joyce was also concerned with the style and sound of language for its own sake.
This is at times evident in Joyce’s final work, Finnegans Wake (1937, and the lack of an apostrophe is Joyce’s!). This book, written over the course of 17 years, is hard to describe except as a vast linguistic experiment. It combines standard English words with words from other languages, portmanteaus, and multi-layered puns, forming what is basically its own language. Reading it for any meaning is basically a thankless task. I’ve never attempted to read it, and possibly never will. As someone interested in language though, it’s always fascinated me. To perform such extreme experimentation with language as Joyce does in Finnegans Wake (and in Ulysses too, to a lesser extent) is something few writers have ever attempted. By delving so deep into the complexities of English and other languages, Finnegans Wake might seem impenetrable. But in a weird way its near-complete opacity simplifies it. The best way to read Finnegans Wake is probably to read it just for the sound of the words and the rhythm they make together, freeing yourself from dissecting it for complex references. And I suspect that that’s how Joyce probably would have preferred people read it.
If you’re interested in getting into Joyce though, I recommend tackling his works in chronological order. Dubliners (1914) is a beautiful collection of short stories depicting small moments in the lives of regular Dublin people. Small moments to us, but very important to them, often, and the straightforward prose style makes it quite accessible. His next work, the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), is also a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story, though a knowledge of Irish culture and politics at the time makes it a much richer read.
Even if not that many people read Joyce’s works, or enjoy reading them, it’s hard not to deny his influence on our ideas of what a novel could be. And it’s hard not to admire his incredible experimentation with language, to the point of effectively developing his own language.
So what should you do to celebrate Bloomsday? Well, some brave souls have the same breakfast that Bloom enjoys in the novel (the posh ones anyway), including many of the traditional ingredients of a fried Irish breakfast, in addition to liver and kidneys, the latter of which gave to his (Bloom’s) palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine. (Ulysses, Calypso chapter) Yum. Most people prefer to dress up as characters from the novel, attend readings of (parts of) the novel, and go on pub crawls (there are a few visits to the pub in the novel). If you happen to be around Dublin today, have a look at what’s on. Though I think Joyce would have preferred the novel were commemorated by staying in a dark dusty pub enjoying pints of porter and chatting with some of the more colourful citizens of Dublin, if at all.
Finally, I think it’s also worth pointing out that Joyce spent some time in Pola (then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the modern city of Pula in Croatia) teaching English. Yet another reason to suspect there’s a link between being an Irish English-language teacher and a genius writer, I suppose…