David Bouchier: Bloomsday Unmasked

Jun 15, 2020

James Joyce photograph by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

One of my quarantine projects has been to catch up with my serious reading, and now I have an unread book on my mind, a splendid and impossible book, "Ulysses" by James Joyce. But why now? Because every year in the middle of June, and uniquely in literature, this book has a special commemorative day known as “Bloomsday.”

Non-English majors may need CliffsNotes here. Bloomsday is observed every June 16 in Dublin, Ireland, to commemorate the life of James Joyce and relive the events in his novel "Ulysses," all of which took place on the same day in Dublin in 1904. There are public readings and dramatizations from the book, guided walks around Dublin, and frequent stops at the historic pubs.

Things are less simple when you try to read the book itself, which is seven hundred and eighty-three pages long, including footnotes. The main character in the novel is Leopold Bloom – hence Bloomsday – and June 16 was the date of Joyce’s own first walk with his, future wife. The novel loosely follows the adventures of Ulysses from Homer’s "Odyssey," with characters representing those in Homer’s epic, with of course Leopold Bloom as Ulysses. The characters explore various sites and happenings around Dublin such as a newspaper office, a brothel, a funeral, and public houses. Beyond this, the book is indescribable. Nothing is made easy for the reader. Joyce changes the order of events in the original story, uses stream of consciousness and other “modernist” techniques, invents brand new words, and includes hundreds of obscure references. This is a novel that you have to read with several academic commentaries in hand, and indeed there are reading groups, clubs, and web networks whose members do nothing but slog through the pages of "Ulysses." It’s a lifetime commitment.

I took my first shot at reading "Ulysses" back in the ‘60s, when I thought I wanted to be an intellectual. I reached about lunchtime on June 16, when Leopold Bloom visits the National Museum in Dublin, before deciding that being an intellectual just wasn’t worth it. A few years later I tried again, this time reading backwards from the end in the hope that the book would reveal its secret that way. No luck. Every year I pick up "Ulysses," turning it this way and that, like a Rubik’s Cube, trying to grasp the reason for its extraordinary fame and influence. It’s amazingly clever, I can see that. But that’s all I can see, which no doubt is my problem.

A book so formidable may be worth the effort, no matter what, because you would get such a sense of satisfaction just from having read it. It would be one of those lifetime achievements to brag about, like climbing Everest or reading the whole of Proust’s "Remembrance of Things Past" in French.

But is there any virtue in reading such a book? Does it tune up the brain, like Mozart’s music or a tricky crossword? Or can it, as I rather suspect, bring on the mental equivalent of a computer crash – black screen, fatal error?

Ireland has suffered as much from the coronavirus as anywhere else, and is still in recovery. So Bloomsday will not be quite the same this year. If you find yourself in Dublin tomorrow, here are the new rules: don’t attend the public readings, don’t walk around Dublin, and <on’t, whatever you do, stop in the historic pubs. It doesn’t sound like much fun. The only thing you can do, or try to do on Bloomsday (and, of course this is the hard part) is to stay safely at home and read the book.

Copyright: David Bouchier