Today is the 99th Bloomsday. I bought Ulysses for myself on my 16th birthday, picking up the now much-despised Penguin ‘Corrected Text’ edition, edited by Hans Walter Gabler. (It’s still the only copy I have.) I bounced off of it two or three times before finally getting past Stephen’s monologue in Chapter 3 (the ‘Proteus’ episode). I go back to it pretty regularly, and read it again last year.
Joyce was in the news recently, in a poll of people’s least-favorite books (brought to my attention by Tim Dunlop). Joyce was narrowly outpolled by Tolkien as the least favorite author of the small group interviewed. Then again, one of those votes was cast by Neil Hamilton, correctly described in the feature as a “Disgraced former Conservative minister.” “I found it impenetrable,” he says of Ulysses, “and I got fed up with the style.” The style of which chapter, you Tory twit? To borrow from Anthony Burgess’ excellent introduction to Joyce: “Here is the hero of Ulysses seen in his primary, Nevil Shute, aspect, though the language of this inventory has, in sheer sound, in sheer organisation of consonsants and vowels, a distinction few popular novelists could reach:
Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
Here he is seen in relation to one phase of past history:
Some man that wayfaring was stood by housedoor at night’s oncoming. Of Israel’s folk was that man that on earth wandering far had fared. Stark ruth of man his errand than him lone led till that house.
And here he is in one of his comic-mythic aspects:
And there came a voice out of heaven calling: Elijah! Elijah! And he answered him with a main cry: Abba! Adonai! And 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 Donohue’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.
… The comedy of Joyce is an aspect of the heroic: it shows man in relation to the whole cosmos, and the whole cosmos appears in his work symbolized in the whole of language.”
While Joyce’s detractors may be Hamiltonian nincompoops, he is often even less well-served by his supporters. Worst of these, from my point of view, are the awful Oirish Joyceans (though Academic J(OY)ce/an[s] are often close behind). OJs are under no compulsion to have actually read anything by Joyce. They believe instead that their national origin gives them an ownership share in his genius. You see this at its generalized worst in the infamous poster of Ireland’s Writers, which International Law requires be displayed in every Irish pub in the world. A subclause forbids any mention that almost everyone shown on the poster was driven from, destroyed or despised by the country. (Those that weren’t generally didn’t like it and left of their own accord.) Only Russia has a similar relationship to its literary heritage. It’s no surprise that both nations are martyrs to drink.