The centennial of Ulysses is in 2022, and coming back to the book after a gap of some years I remember the way it makes me fall asleep somewhere in the middle of Stephen’s walk across Sandymount Strand. The first two episodes—all fine. Surprisingly easy. What’s all the fuss about? Then the book unlooses itself entirely in the mind of Dedalus and starts to dream: “He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth’s kiss.”
Hang on. Did Stephen actually visit his aunt’s house, or just imagine that he did? Is he still thinking of his mother’s death? There is a dead dog on the strand, and also a live dog called Tatters, and this living dog is actually quite funny, as he smells a rock and pisses on it, then pisses at an “unsmelt” rock. “The simple pleasures of the poor,” according to Stephen, but is he also taking a leak? Or is he doing something else now?
I have felt it before, the same swooning sense of complexity, the same delicious struggle not to allow my own thoughts in. The attempt to make sense, fill in blanks, tell the real from the imagined, becomes tiring the way a profound conversation is tiring, when the subject is important but not clear. It is a kind of strenuous dreaming, very like writing fiction. Joyce has been in our brains, playing in the place where meaning is made, and this can feel disturbing or delightful. Something has been done to the act of reading itself. It seems as though he is inviting us to write his book for him, or with him, as we go along.
On June 16, 1904, Stephen Dedalus, a young writer, is mourning his mother and in need of a better father. Leopold Bloom, an adman, is avoiding his unfaithful wife and mourning a long-dead infant son. They meet, drink, recognize something in each other. Apart from this, nothing much happens. There is a funeral. People wander around Dublin while thinking. Momentous events (Molly Bloom’s adultery, the birth of a baby) happen elsewhere. Meanwhile, the reader is left with men blathering on, singing, arguing, lapsing into reverie, playing with themselves. Bloom dodges the man who is heading uptown in order to sleep with his wife. He is subjected to anti-Semitism in a pub. At dusk he masturbates, covertly enough, on a beach.
The title may be taken from Homer’s great epic, but this is all very far from heroic. Unless the book itself is heroic; it keeps doing monumental things—outlandish, never previously attempted. The English language is regrown from its historical roots in the basement of a maternity hospital, the whole caboodle goes completely mad in a brothel. Bloom dusts himself and Stephen down, and the prose comes strenuously together in a great rhetorical to-and-fro until, at last, it runs easy and wild in the mind of Molly Bloom.
Perhaps it has been, after all, pretty epic, though we are still not sure what kind of journey we’ve been on. We stalk the references, and this can be reassuring. Buck Mulligan “is” a real man named Oliver St. John Gogarty; the old woman who comes to sell him Sandycove milk “is” Athena, from Homer’s Odyssey. Many of the answers we find to the questions that the book provokes don’t, in fact, answer anything much. As Molly says, “If I asked him hed say its from the Greek leave us as wise as we were before.” The Homeric correspondences are so constantly disappointing, they are a joke in themselves, and yet they tell us that we are reading a story, so we refer to the chapters—as Joyce, finally, did not—by the titles of episodes from the Odyssey on which they are obliquely based. And there we are, writing the book for him again.
People say that they finished Ulysses or that they could not finish it, as if either outcome were some kind of big deal. But I have never managed to finish Ulysses, even though my eyes have seen all the words it contains. You can finish it all you like; the next time you pick the book up it will be different, because you are different. Ulysses invites meaning, then throws it back at you, multiplied.
I bought my first copy for under a fiver in a bookshop in Kinsale when I was fourteen. This was, of course, a precocious thing to do, but—consider—when Joyce was fourteen, he bought his first sexual experience on the street. If that happened today, we would call social services. How much did he pay, I wonder? Bloom remembers his own first, Bridie Kelly on Hatch Street, who could be had “for a bare shilling and her luckpenny.” So perhaps that’s how much loose change Joyce had in his young pocket as he came back from the theater, which in those days cost as much as fifteen shillings or as little as sixpence. Young James Joyce may have asked the girl or woman her name (but I do not think he did) and she most certainly asked him for that extra penny. In Paris, seven years later, he was so destitute he wrote to his mother complaining that, after starving for forty-two hours, he had blown her rescue money on a single meal costing a shilling.
A lot of energy has been spent talking about the rudeness of Ulysses. Now that I know more about the world, I sometimes follow the money instead. The book is set on a day when Dedalus, who owes money everywhere, gets paid much less than he needs in order to make good. The men who bump into one another around Dublin are interconnected by debt—they are borrowing and lending, buying drinks or, like Bloom, failing to stand their round.
Bloom’s goodwill is patient and material, however—he is a charitable man—and when he sees Stephen’s sister in the street, he is shocked at the state of her: “Good Lord, that poor child’s dress is in flitters. Underfed she looks too. Potatoes and marge, marge and potatoes.” This girl, Dilly, begs money from her father, Simon, for food, also in the street—“I’m sure you have another shilling”—and she spends a penny of what he gives her on a secondhand French primer. A girl who burns old boots to keep warm wants to learn French. These glimpses of hunger and hopefulness are so pathetic and shaming, you might think the farting and the frottage were just there to distract us.
It was the bodily functions that caused all the trouble. When the book was published it was feted, vilified, banned. Edna O’Brien said, however, that “what hurt Joyce most was the response of his family,” which makes you wonder what he thought he was doing when he wrote all that. In fact, when his relatives described the book they might have been describing themselves. His blackguard of a father looked at it through his monocle and said that his son was “a nice sort of blackguard.” His brother Stanislaus, who could be cold, said the novel “lacked serenity and warmth.” Stanislaus also disliked the way the book wants to get bigger as it goes on and is so reluctant to close: “As episodes grow longer and longer and you try to tell every damn thing you know about anybody that appears or anything that crops up, my patience oozes out.”
Nora said nothing. She read only twenty-seven pages, including, Joyce said bitterly, the title page. Where did she stop?
Here’s a different question. Do you read Ulysses in an intellectual fashion? Does the challenge make you feel brilliant, pedantic, a little bit pretentious—does it make you feel, that is, like Stephen Dedalus? Or do you go with the flow, read feelingly, sensuously, let this gorgeous stuff work inside you as if you were Leopold Bloom, a man who pictures his penis floating in the bath as a languid floating flower?
Reading Ulysses without notes—just as it is, just as you are—is an act of either arrogance or submission, both of which are available to the very young. For me, at fourteen, it was like mainlining language, getting high on words, just the pleasure of them, their intricacies and density. I also read it one word at a time, which is not a bad way, childish as it may seem, to read a book that is so disruptive of the sentence.
My Dublin aunts lived, in a slightly Edwardian atmosphere, not far from Bloom’s fictional home, so I’d had glimpses of this world already. Here on the page were their violet-flavored cachous, which Bloom called “kissing comfits.” Here were their odd-sounding religious “sodalities,” which had nothing to do with turf sods, or sodomy, or solidarity. “I declare to my antimacassar,” says one narrator, and I knew an antimacassar was not another kind of auntie, it was a doily that aunties put on the backs of chairs. I also knew what a bowsy was and what was a gusset. To these pleasures of familiarity were added the headier delights of Joyce’s linguistic violations and his refusal to tell the inside of a character’s head from the outside world. I did not understand Ulysses, but I certainly understood (before it sent me to sleep) the possibility that anything at all might come to mind, and that this was a deeply subversive, potentially filthy and wonderful assertion to make about the human soul.
No wonder my mother was not pleased to find me reading it. My copy was put in the attic to wait until I was eighteen. At which time I climbed the ladder, took off its dusty newspaper wrapping, and read the thing. It was my pass into the adult world. This was some years before the popularity of Bloomsday, that happy pantomime of literary Dubliners going about in straw boaters or long skirts on June 16. Ulysses was still a book, a private as opposed to public experience, and some of the conversations about it felt a bit pervy. It seemed to attract a certain kind of knowingness in clever men, and the way they looked at me, if I talked about reading it, managed to make me feel ashamed.
Is this Joyce’s fault? The culture of Joyce commentary can be an invitation to pedantry for men who are interested in everything that isn’t sex between two people. Was Bloom masturbating at, to, or for a young woman on Sandymount Strand at dusk? The prepositions seem important. Gerty McDowell, the woman in question, certainly seems to enjoy it. The episode is written as a high romance; she thinks like a woman in a novelette or like a consumer of the advertisements in a woman’s magazine. Perhaps this is why she is so interested in her own underwear and has an impulse to show it off at just the right moment for Bloom.
The slyly inadequate correspondence from Homer is that she represents the marriage-minded Princess Nausicaa, who helps Odysseus after he is cast up on her shore. Joyce described the episode as “the projected mirage,” and this may explain Gerty’s rhapsodic participation in Bloom’s excitement. Of course! The text shows Bloom’s projection, not Gerty’s reality. She isn’t thinking about her underwear; she is thinking, like any young person on a beach, about life, love, art, and her dinner. When Joyce was asked what really happened between Bloom and Gerty, he said, “Nothing…It all took place in Bloom’s imagination.”
But he also said the episode dealt with “female hypocrisy,” which seems a typically sour comment about women, and also unfair. When Joyce lived in Zurich he wrote some highly romantic letters to a woman named Martha Fleischman, on whom he had become fixated after he saw her “pulling a chain” in her bathroom opposite his apartment. Later, in the street, he realized that she had a limp. Each of these details shades his infatuation with paraphilia—coprophilia, voyeurism, devotism. Sexuality stalls at the fetish, and though Joyce loves to be high-flown as well as low-minded, the parody can seem gleeful, while the smallness of his interest disconcerts.
The prose is not small, however. Gerty’s thoughts are written not by a hack writer of romantic fiction but by a great prose stylist, and the reader is also transported. The moment when Gerty limps away is—for us, if not quite for Bloom—one of great sympathetic enlargement. An image of Gerty will return in the brothel section to accuse Bloom, as one of a series of sadomasochistic fantasies that culminate in his being feminized and violated. Later again, we learn that he has not come inside his wife, Molly, in the ten years since their son died. A book that avoids intercourse has room for everything else—fantasy, imagination, remembrance, reproduction, and love.
If Gerty is a third-person object, to Bloom and to the book, Molly is triumphantly a first-person subject. Sometimes petty, often vain, and very far from monogamous, Molly considers various partners past and future, including the young Dedalus, and she rails against the double standards imposed on women. She thinks about sex a lot, about motherhood very little, and about her dead son only fleetingly. She does all this without punctuation. The thrill and difficulty of reading Molly comes from the libidinous rush of a style that constantly threatens to slip or surprise, and it can be hard to find a discussion of her character that does not feel dated. She is earth mother or adultress, cheap or mythic, she is “an invitation to the readers’ voyeurism,” and seldom allowed to be just herself.
What would happen if she used a few full stops? Molly farts a bit, gets her period, and uses the chamber pot. Such anatomical events are not more shocking because they happen in a woman’s body—unless they are. They do not read as arousal, and only sometimes as the writer’s prurience. “Of course hes mad on the subject of drawers,” Molly says about Bloom, because she is no fool, but she also fell for him because she saw that “he understood or felt what a woman is.” Joyce may have had his own kind of good time writing Molly, but this adventure in female desiring is the opposite of misogynistic, not just because of the freedom of her voice, but because there is no doubting that Molly is in charge of herself: “theyre not going to be chaining me up no damn fear.”
These days I read everything slowly; my brain is like an old computer file with too much information in it. I slow down, stop. I go back over it again. This is also a good way to read Ulysses, with a guidebook, notes, the Internet at your fingertips. And I read as my parents used to watch Irish-made films: in order to identify the locations and, loudly, point them out. The Oval pub still exists and was up till recently frequented by newspapermen; Davy Byrne’s is still moral; the reading room of the National Library remains open to scholars. I gave birth in the same building as Mina Purefoy, I swim with Buck Mulligan, and mourn the passing of friends in the chapel at Glasnevin.
For a while I lived in a house named in the book, a fact that seemed, until just recently, not especially thrilling. The address 13 St. Kevin’s Parade is given for Moses Herzog, referred to in the “Cyclops” episode as someone to whom money is owed for sugar and tea. There I “lived in sin” back in 1985—the phrase was in active use in my Catholic family, and it made the relationship feel forbidden and doomed. My fellow sinner is, in 2021, usefully sitting across the room from me, so I can ask him to confirm the number of the house. A quick search discovers (on Twitter!) the relevant page in Thom’s Official Directory of 1904, which Joyce used as a reference while writing Ulysses. The house is three up from the intersection with Clanbrassil Street, which is close to where the Islamic Relief center now stands. M. Herzog is listed by Thom’s at that address, though the official census of 1901 shows an Isaac and Abraham Herzog. In fact, Thom’s misspells and misgenders four other residents of the street who then turn up, botched, in the pages of Ulysses.
There are few or no Jewish residents now in Dublin’s “Little Jerusalem,” the network of redbrick streets where Bloom was born and where Molly later walked, while pregnant, with Mrs. Moisel. I had no idea, when I lived there in 1985, that the house opposite had once served as a synagogue. The disappeared community was made up of migrants from Lithuania, who moved on to larger houses in better areas, and eventually left an increasingly Catholic, economically stagnant Ireland altogether.
Of course, Molly did not actually walk these streets with Mrs. Moisel, because Molly did not, strictly speaking, exist. It’s also a bit of a stretch to see her accepted so easily in a conservative Litvak enclave. Molly went to Mass, her father-in-law was Hungarian, her husband, Bloom, was twice baptized and nonpracticing. Joyce got the religion of the residents exactly right, and their culture slightly wrong. Even so, because of his insane attempt at accuracy and his weird, often libelous insistence on cramming the book with the names of real people, it is possible to fall through the text into a place like Little Jerusalem, which Ireland’s homogeneous, nationalist history-making has more or less forgotten.
Because the text is so unstable and, for many different reasons, inaccurate, you can also fall into a shouting match with six academics and your Dublin mother, who may consider you have got your facts, or your interpretation of the facts, a tiny bit wrong. This, with a sacred text like Ulysses, means entirely, horribly wrong. Joyce was a genius, so even his mistakes were made on purpose. There is no such thing as a mistake. Stick a pin in any page and you will find a fight.
Is the Pidgeon who gave poor Mary Shortall the pox a reference to the Holy Ghost? Hmm. According to the prostitute Kitty Ricketts, Mary was “in the lock with the pox she got from Jimmy Pidgeon in the blue caps had a child off him that couldn’t swallow.” The line is followed by a recurring joke about the “pigeon sacré” who put the Virgin Mary into an embarrassing condition. I chase the bird, flapping and cooing, through the text. Stephen is reminded of the joke about the Holy Ghost when he sees the Pigeonhouse from Sandymount Strand—this building was named for John Pidgeon, who had an eatery there in the 1760s, but there is no clear relation to Jimmy. In the post office Bloom thinks about the problem of pox-bearing British soldiers (the blue caps) while waiting for the postmistress to retrieve his letter from a “pigeonhole”—but that is surely just another decoy among many.
One commentator says that Pidgeon was a common Dublin name, but there were only eighty-two of them in the 1911 census. Among them is a Robert Pidgeon who worked in the General Post Office, and might well have been the father of our postman in the 1970s. He was a smiling man, who was rumored to have fifteen children—“so far as we know,” my father used to say, darkly. He also got great mileage from the phrase “the pigeon post.”
It is possible to spin out from this single pin stuck in the text to a historically shifting map of the real Dublin—the concrete chimney stacks of the Pigeonhouse are visible from any point along the bay. I, meanwhile, am back in the punning proliferation of my comically (not) cuckolded father, who found in Mr. Pidgeon’s name a daily pleasure. Habit is also important here, and what could be more habitual than the post? I am reminded of a style of nurturing masculinity, which is always mild, always funny, and this informs my experience of Leopold Bloom. Don’t ask me to read Ulysses without my own father there—why would I want to do that?
For some years now, I have lived close to the Joyce Museum in Sandycove, which is housed in the Martello tower where Joyce once slept and where he later set the first chapter of Ulysses. The sea, I am happy to say, is no more snot-green than Homer’s was wine-dark. But though the water resists Joyce’s famous description, the squat, round stone tower belongs almost completely now to the book. It is populated by shades both fictional and historical, and by living people who are their familiars. I walk through a neighborhood of Joyce tourists and badly behaved Joycean ghosts. There, up the road, is the house where the real playwright J.M. Synge lived and a fictional Dedalus pissed against the hall door—unless, as he says, it was Mulligan. (“—Me! Stephen exclaimed. That was your contribution to literature.”) Another example of Joyce fixing the real to the literary by a transgressive use of waste matter.
Recently, just to get the full experience, I sat on a bench near the Forty Foot, the swimming spot below the Martello tower where Buck Mulligan goes for his dip, and I read a page or two. It was a mild September afternoon. The day was so windless and still, I could hear a man address a quiet friend, one leaving, one arriving, both of them with their towels rolled.
“Hello there, young Thomas,” he said. “Were you aware that a certain gentleman is home this week? Your presence may be required.”
And it seemed to me a continuation of the book I held in my hand.
The dialogue in Ulysses uses tricks of speech that are as real and abiding as the streets of the city that Joyce worked so hard to recreate. This tone is not exactly camp, but it is rakish, mock-heroic; a glittering game that fills the verbal space between men who like each other—but not too much!
“I’ve been in since four,” the man went on, cheerfully. “Went for a walk, took a Barry White in the new jacks they have up there. Lovely.” The local council had recently reopened a nearby public restroom, so this good news was both personal and civic. It was also astonishingly male.
I felt a theory coming on. I wondered at the way male speech often confuses top and bottom, why Irish men are so happily described as “talking shite” or “bollocks,” or why an “old fart” is by default male. So many of the men in Ulysses are heard huffing and blowing, not to mention gassing about politics. Perhaps, for Joyce, speech was just another thing that came from the body and lingered on the air. If you ask me what Ulysses has to offer—despite the maleness of the text, despite the author’s perversion, despite the way it exists not on the page but in your reading of the page—the answer is still “Everything, everything, everything.”