Today is Bloomsday, the annual celebration of all things related to James Joyce in general and the great novel Ulysses in particular. For those who don’t know, Ulysses is set on a single day, 16th June 1904, and follows the perambulations around Dublin of two character, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom.
Ulysses isn’t the most accessible of novels, but it has a kind of mad poetry that draws you in, particularly when you hear it read aloud. It’s been my experience that once you’ve experienced Joyce, snatches of his dialogue remain forever locked in your mind, sometimes entirely devoid of context. Context is apparently everything with Joyce, and it can be daunting; he makes no concessions to those unfamiliar with the complex web of religious, cultural and political allegiances that constituted early 20th century Irish life. To give one example of many possibilities, at that time the Irish experience was a colonial one, and from the first chapters of Ulysses we’re presented with the conflicted responses of two young Irishmen to the English character they’re living with, who has arrived from Oxford with an ideological agenda that includes a romantic attachment to the idea of Irish culture.
So when an elderly woman arrives to deliver the milk, it turns into a richly comic scene in which Haines attempts to converse with her in Irish, which she doesn’t understand, and she ends up saying: “I’m told it’s a grand
language for them that knows.” You can hear the ideologies clashing and the crash of disillusionment, all in one apparently trivial conversation.
But dear Lord, Joyce doesn’t make it easy for us. Ulysses begins with a man shaving, and parodying the Catholic Mass as he lifts his basin. And then there’s the gun emplacements. Here we have a man sitting on a gun emplacement – what’s going on there? Some kind of militaristic penile symbolism? No, it’s just that these fellows happen to be living in a rented gun tower. Of course, there probably are many layers of symbolism there, but right now just a little explanation would do.
And that’s always the problem, as I see it, with Joyce’s prose. Everything in you wants to let it wash over you in wild, sensual waves of association, but you trip over something baffling in virtually every sentence, leaving you torn between experience and exegesis. And we haven’t even started on the classical stuff.
So, three cheers for the wonderful people at Radio 4, who are disrupting their entire schedule today to fit in a nine-hour dramatisation of Ulysses. It sounds wonderful. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. I’ve heard a couple of clips and was amazed by how clear and comprehensible they made it sound. There is a certain amount of supportive commentry on offer, and that undoubtedly helps. I want to salute Radio 4, because while the majority of broadcasting increasingly resembles an intellectual desert, they are never afraid to do bold things that make significant demands on their listeners and take us well out of the comfort zones that the busyness and complexity of modern life impose.
And if you fancy exploring further, I can recommend Melvyn Bragg’s latest edition of In Our Time, and the wonderful series of podcasts Re:Joyce by Frank Delaney. There are already over a hundred of them, and he’s only onto Chapter Three, but I guess that’s an Irishman for you once he gets warmed up. They’re only five minutes long, and I guarantee they’ll leave you wanting more.