IN AN AGE which commends novels by citing their “accessibility,” one praises James Joyce’s Ulysses before a good many deafened ears. This singular 1922 work demands much from the reader, but the reward of one’s efforts is enormous. The highest tribute I can pay is this: I derive pleasure beyond what I can describe from the time I’ve lived among the fictional citizens of Dublin on June 16, 1904. I feel a bit sorry for anyone who doesn’t, or can’t, understand why I say this.
There are also those who won’t, but I do not feel badly for them. Among the detractors are many novelists. A common negative view is that Joyce is a writer of the mind only, a too-clever maker of over-wrought and show-offish puzzles. The verdict from those who have settled the account along these lines is that he is a wanker and an elitist. Nor will I deny that these critics have a point, for they do. (For further reflection on the wanker bit, the reader is directed here.) I took an entire university course dedicated to Ulysses and nothing else. I read the novel in the rec room of my 379 Alfred Street Kingston home, in my right hand Stuart Gilbert’s “James Joyce’s Ulysses: a study” and about me on the leather sofa C. T. Lewis’s Elementary Latin Dictionary, notes, several commentaries by Hugh Kenner et al., and chapter-by-chapter tables and charts. Imagine that Douglas Copeland’s latest output, or Life of Pi, or anything now being praised on the CBC, had to be read that way. It is impossible to do so, for the reason alluded to at the top of this essay.
As for the idea that Ulysses is a book of the mind and not of the emotions: this I can believe to be an honest account only from those who have not immersed themselves in the text. Pursued to its logical conclusion, this statement may well bring us to a circular argument. Who is to say which of us does or does not understand Ulysses? And yet I am dumbfounded by literate people who do not perceive in the material richness and in the extraordinary detail Joyce’s evident love (yes, love) of the physical world, the skin and guts of the earth, the feel of the exquisite word upon the tongue. What few notice, or perhaps bother to say, is that Joyce’s mastery of English bears the mark of a compulsion. He had to have spent many thousands of hours in libraries to achieve it, even to the detriment of his health. If this is not devotion, even of a slightly weird and obsessive sort, what then might it be? Ulysses is as I have said a work of love — love of language, of Dublin, of imagination, of the sound of human accents and the still, sad music of humanity. The text is at places tender, lovely, hilarious, absurd, badly-written (by design), and sad. It is also an elaborate literary game, but the game enhances rather than annuls emotion. What, then, do I conclude? Ulysses is fucking difficult, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It is also a book that has gotten into my DNA. There are passages which regularly come to my mind unsummoned, for example Bloom’s effort in Chapter 12, the Tavern or “Cyclops” chapter, to answer the question What is a nation?
—But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.
—Yes, says Bloom.
—What is it? says John Wyse.
—A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
—By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had the laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:
—Or also living in different places.
—That covers my case, says Joe.
Speaking again of love — this passage culminates in the Jewish Bloom’s protest of injustice against his own race and a denunciation of hate:
—But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
—What? says Alf.
—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.
When I discovered that Ottawa had an Eccles Street, I had to go there just to see if there was a door numbered 7 (there is). Funerals make me mindful of Chapter 6, Martellos — such as those found along the Kingston waterfront — of Chapter 1. The sighting of organ meats, for example at the grocer’s, invokes a passage you well know if you are among the devotees. The novel’s ending is one of the most beautiful and simple, and literally as well as figuratively affirmative, in English literature. Along the way, Ulysses is crammed with every conceivable goddamn detail, almost as if Joyce, expecting at any moment the flood, had crafted something to keep the furnishings of humanity afloat. Having mastered and internalized every English prose style and literary device in the canon, from the time of Beowulf to his present, Joyce made of his mind itself a sort of ark. He loved to talk and drink and, to again cite Wordsworth, to be a man speaking to men. This I think provided much of the impulse behind his work, the desire to commune. Today men and women (although probably more of the former than latter) reciprocate in the same spirit when they congregate on June 16.
I remember Timothy Findley once boasting he’d read the entire novel in one sitting and in something like twenty-four hours. Thirty seems to me about right as an average. There are readings of the entire eighteen-chapter work held at various places around the world (the nearest to Ottawa being in Syracuse), as well as many festivals organized around individual chapters and even scenes. Most interesting of all — to me at least —is the annual Hungarian celebration organized around the birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father, Rudolf Virag (Virag means “flower”), and derived from a reference to Bloom’s lineage in “Ithaca,” Chapter 17, written as a catechism. I submit to the court of opinion this evidence, which amply demonstrates that Ulysses is a book widely celebrated, and from which I believe it follows that Ulysses is itself a book of celebration. Indeed, it is in my view the best of all literary parties.