BLOOMSDAY: Your pick and mix guide to James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses

BLOOMSDAY: Your pick and mix guide to James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses

IRELAND marks June 16 each year as ‘Bloomsday’, in tribute to James Joyce’s book ‘Ulysses’, set in Dublin and now regarded as the greatest novel of the last hundred years.

It was originally seen as shocking – banned in Britain and America, described as “the foulest book ever written” by the English writer Alfred Noyes, and as “a heap of dung crawling with worms” in Soviet Russia.

In 1922, it described subjects previously unmentioned in decent literature – not only sexuality, but bodily functions like urination and even nose-picking.

But it was eventually recognised as extraordinary, pioneering the “stream of consciousness”  – although not always an accessible read.

Even scholars agree that “dipping into” Ulysses at various points can be the best way to approach it.

So, here is my guide to the great Bloomsday book: pick and mix, and feel free to skip, too..

Episode 1: The Tower

Set in Dublin’s Martello Tower, with the renowned opening line: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came down the stairhead…”  Mulligan is based on Oliver St John Gogarty, doctor, writer and foe of De Valera. The character of Stephen Dedalus is autobiographical. The phrase “the snotgreen sea” struck early readers as “coarse”.

Episode 2:  The School

A description of Stephen’s schoolroom experience, in which Mr Deasy, misogynist and anti-Semite, tells him “Money is power”. He quotes Shakespeare: “Put money in thy purse.” And a lot more besides.

Episode 3: The Strand

Stephen’s interior reflections, including remembering the awful telegram: “Mother dying come home father.” He is accused of refusing his mother’s dying request to kneel and pray.

Episode 4:  The House

Enter Leopold Bloom, the half-Jewish protagonist, who “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart….”. The phrase “he liked to read at stool” also shocked.

Episode 5: The Bath

The geography of Dublin is introduced and “flat Dublin voices bawled in his head” as Bloom prepares to attend Paddy Dignam’s funeral, where “some of the old sacred music is splendid”.

Episode 6:  The Graveyard

Bloom ponders on birth, life and death, including the loss of his infant son, Rudy.

Episode 7:  The Newspaper

A lively section composed in popular newspaper style, with an evocative description of Dublin’s clanging trams, departing from Nelson’s pillar “to Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rather and Terenure….” (“The Pillar” was blown up by the IRA in 1966 and replaced by the “Spire”, regarded as post-modern.)

Episode 8:   The Lunch

More peregrinations around Dublin in which “Davy Byrne’s moral pub” (still standing) is mentioned. Bloom eats at Burton’s (now gone) where he observes men “swilling, wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food, their eyes bulging” and recalls that the last pagan king of Ireland, Cormac, choked on “something galoptious”.

Episode 9: The Library

A literary discourse with Stephen and Buck Mulligan, often high-flown: mention of Shakespeare, Mallarmé, Synge, Goethe, etc. The word “masturbated” was thought offensive when the book was first published.

Episode 10: The Streets

Father Conmee, the smooth Jesuit from Belvedere, is described on his walks, and in conversation with Mrs Mary Sheehy, wife of the Home Rule MP. The Earl of Dudley, Viceroy, who owned Ireland’s first motorcar, drives out for luncheon and his entire retinue is listed.

Episode 11: The Concert Room

Two spirited barmaids, Miss Kennedy and Miss Douce, are in agreement: “Aren’t men frightful idiots?” Bloom eats liver and mashed potatoes. Music. It’s remarked that “tenors get women by the score”.

Episode 12: The Tavern

Exhaustive lists from Irish history from Niall of the Nine Hostages to O’Donovan Rossa, including many not Irish (the Queen of Sheba, Lady Godiva). Ireland’s place in Europe is affirmed, and old Irish trade with France and Spain recalled.

Episode 13:  The Rocks

Gerty McDowell, a “jilted beauty”, is watched by Bloom, erotically aroused to solo raptures by the imagined “cry of a young girl’s love”. Poor Gerty has a limp, and so, “left on the shelf”.

Episode 14:  The Hospital

A dense and complex chapter which appeals to the scholars but which I find impenetrable.

Episode 15: The Brothel

A long section written in dialogue. Words like “hairy arse” offended. Bloom imagines his dead son and sees Paddy Dignam’s spirit. There’s a parody of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin.  Some readers find it rambling, but it’s valued by the Joyceans.

Episode 16:  The Shelter

A tour around Dublin’s red-light district (as was), which includes a warning against sexually transmitted disease. A young fellow might get “a nice dose to last him a lifetime”. There’s a recollection of Bloom’s wife giving a virtuoso singing performance at “the Jesuits fathers’ church in Upper Gardiner Street” (still there).

Episode 17:   The House

Bloom and Stephen converse on various subjects including Ireland, Paris, friendships, women…the Roman Catholic church, ecclesiastical celibacy, the Irish nation, music and literature. There’s a long list of parlour games of the period, and Leopold’s budget for the day is noted: a tram fare was one old penny and lunch was seven pence.

Episode 18: The Bed

The celebrated 42-page soliloquy by Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, in which she has erotic recall of earthy experiences. Not a comma or full stop interrupts the flow, which ends in the “Yes”, so often imitated and parodied.

A monumental book indeed – and incidentally, never banned in Ireland, probably because it was too expensive for anyone to acquire, (originally costing double an average weekly wage).