Thursday, June 9, 2011

Joyce's Ulysses - its enduring popularity explained by Senator David Norris

As I mentioned in a previous post, our little gang is reading and reviewing books set in and about Dublin this year.  Somehow I ended up with the daunting task of reading Ulysses.  Until recently, I'd never even met anyone who had managed to get the whole way through it.  In fact, I half thought that if one did complete it, that person might have to be deported or given a medal or both.  I had notions of completing it before Bloomsday (16th June) but have spectacularly failed on that front.  It'll come as no surprise to anyone that Ulysses is a hard book to get into.  I've never re-read so many sentences and am actually keeping a list of words I had to look up in the dictionary (many of which are not there since Joyce made them up).  It's a hard admission from a woman who has kept a book journal since the age of 11, but better minds than me have failed in this endeavour.  So I got some help.

David Norris, the preeminent Joycean scholar, Trinity College Senator and presidential hopeful, kindly agreed to an interview to help me (and our readers) ford the wild river of Joyce's masterwork.  He began by giving me some background on the novel and Joyce himself.

Norris never met Joyce or his wife but he was lucky enough to meet and know many of their friends, publishers and contemporaries such as Sylvia Beach, Maria Jolas, Frank Budgen and many more.  Interestingly, he says it’s fallacy that Ulysses was ever banned in Ireland.  In fact, they used the Customs Consolidation Act (1876), which meant they didn’t allow it into Ireland, a small technicality which of course amounts to the same thing.

“The spark of the novel began on 10th June, not the 16th, which is Bloomsday, when Joyce was out walking on Merrion Square and his eye was caught by a beautiful young woman – she had long chestnut hair and a certain saucy air about her”.  This was Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid from Galway and Joyce’s future wife.  She actually thought he was a foreigner on first appearance.  They made a date, which she did not keep, being a bit of a flirt.  Joyce pursued Nora to her place of work and persuaded her to meet again, on Thursday, 16th June 1904.  They went out walking on the beach in Sandymount.  The exact details are unknown but they began some form of intimate relationship that day and were together until his death in 1941.  Joyce’s father was said to comment on hearing his future daughter-in-law’s surname, “she’ll stick with him”!  As Norris eloquently put it “that was the day the clocks stopped for him”.  They moved to the Continent in 1908 and Joyce rarely returned to Ireland again, yet his novels are all set in Edwardian Dublin.

Norris’ major advice to readers of Ulysses is to read it aloud. Joyce was a musician – he had a beautiful tenor voice and even took a bronze medal at the Féis Ceol.  Nora would have preferred him to be a musician than a writer, saying that he could have earned more money this way.  To illustrate his point, Norris quotes from memory the opening lines of the novel. 

"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of
lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown,
ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He
held the bowl aloft and intoned:
Introibo ad altare Dei."

I have to say his advice immediately makes sense.  I’m going to abandon the notion of reading it and get an audiobook of it (and then I’ll have a small ongoing personal debate as to whether listening to a book means I can put it in the book journal!)  Once I’ve listened to it, and know the story, I’ll be in a better position to read it.

It's also reassuring to know that some of Joyce’s characters are as puzzled by his word use as his readers were.  At least he knew it was challenging!  Of course, his celebrated development of stream-of-consciousness writing appears in the novel and would seem to show the meandering thoughts of his characters, but in fact, every word is selected and intended.

I couldn't resist asking if  there was a correlation between it taking Odysseus 10 years to get home (after the Iliad) and how long it takes to read the book.  “No, but Joyce would have been amused and delighted by that!”  Joyce himself described it as his “usylessly (sic) unreadable blue book of Eccles”.

We then moved on to talk about Bloomsday, which is now actually a week long series of cultural events to do with Joyce and Ulysses.   Of particular interest this year is a talk at the Irish Jewish Museum on Joyce and the Jewish Dublin of his time (13th June @ 18:30).

Ulysses was actually uncelebrated in Dublin until 1954 when a group of bohemian artists hired 2 horse-drawn carriages and followed the route of the novel in a pilgrimage, and even made an amateur film of it.  This group included the poet Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien.  Almost 10 years later, Norris himself became involved in the scene – performing parts of the novel in the locations where they took place.  He took to wearing what is now considered to be his uniform of Bloomsday – which Norris which put together himself (straw hat, brocade waistcoat, silver topped cane, etc).  People thought he was quite the character.  After that, he began attending international symposiums but believed he could do better.  And he would go on to do better.  In 1982, the first Dublin symposium on Joyce was held.  Horizon Theatre Productions re-enacted “The Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses in costume, and the film of it was shown all over the world.  Ideas like this cemented the idea of Bloomsday as a worldwide celebration of James Joyce and Ulysses.  So don't be surprised to see people in Edwardian dress next Thursday, cycling bicycles and eating special Bloomsday breakfasts. greatly appreciated David taking time from his busy campaign schedule to talk to us this week and we wish him every success in the election.  Hopefully this time next year, I'll be interviewing him in the Áras about the cultural program of his presidency.


  1. Very interesting background information. My attempt at reading it years ago failed. I think I'll buy the audio book.

  2. I'm reading Dubliners at the moment. It's actually an easy read, thanks to being broken into distinct short stories.