James Joyce set Ulysses on June 16, 1904, and the novel—perhaps the greatest of all time—chronicles the day-long odyssey of Leopold Bloom around Dublin. Bloomsday, of course, celebrates Joyce and Ulysses. Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum, which is home to the original handwritten manuscript of the novel, hosts one of the most elaborate and best-known Bloomsday celebrations. That’s where I’ve been.
As you may remember, I spent much of the last year reading Ulysses as a part of the Rosenbach’s annual reading group. The group met only once a month, and—as I intimated a few months ago—it sometimes seemed like a real chore. Our last class was on Wednesday. When I finished that reading, the last episode in the novel, I felt absolutely liberated.
Some of that, I suppose, might have been because that last episode, Penelope, is a daunting bit of text, er, unencumbered by punctuation or much paragraphing. But the last episode didn’t actually torment me all that much. In fact, I think the liberation I felt was more about conquering the novel, which had always just seemed downright unreadable to me.
Of course, I didn’t really conquer the novel at all. I’d have to read Ulysses dozens of times, I think, to feel any sort of competency about it. During the year-long course, I quickly realized that I’d just have to settle, on this first reading, for understanding a small percentage of the text. I read every word, to be sure, but I came away with only a fairly macro understanding of the text. It was so helpful to be reading Ulysses alongside other group members, too, because we could frequently provide one another with plot details and hints. (Our instructor, Janine Utell, a Joyce scholar, discusses this support-group approach a little bit in a one-hour WHYY radio piece that aired this week prior to Bloomsday.)
One of the, um, perks of participating in the Rosenbach’s reading group was that I was entitled to read at the Bloomsday celebration. From noon until 7 p.m. on Bloomsday, “notable” Philadelphians—and schlubs like me—take turns reading noteworthy passages of the book. (You can see a list of this year’s readers here.) The celebration takes place on a lovely, residential-ish street setting, just in front of the Rosenbach. The city closes the block to traffic, and the museum sets up microphones and a couple of hundred chairs. This Bloomsday was gorgeous—warm but not hot, mostly (but not too) sunny—and there was always a healthy crowd in attendance.
Having survived the previous night’s Irish pub crawl, I first wandered over to the Rosenbach about 12:30 to hear the first of my fellow class-members. She got to read the justifiably famous opening of Calypso, the book’s fourth episode, which (finally!) introduces the reader to Bloom:
Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
She read wonderfully, for several minutes, even managing to pull off a variety of cat sounds that punctuate that episode. I stayed on for a couple more hours, providing support for several other class members (and to the notable Philadelphians, too?) for their readings. After that, I wandered off, on my own odyssey, to get some coffee, lunch, and—to be entirely candid—a well-timed black Russian to steel my nerves.
My great fear is public speaking. I’m shy, and my voice sometimes trembles when I have to speak in front of a small group. Even when I know the small group. So the thought of reading in front of a couple of hundred strangers, over a microphone, terrified me. And that’s not even factoring in the difficulties of Joyce’s text.
But I try to be open to new experiences, and I signed up. I picked a fairly short reading, one that made sense and made me smile. My reading was from Eumaeus, the sixteenth episode of the novel, when Bloom and the young Stephen Dedalus are heading home from some scary experiences in “nighttown,” Dublin’s red-light district:
They thereupon stopped. Bloom looked at the head of a horse not worth anything like sixtyfive guineas, suddenly in evidence in the dark quite near so that it seemed new, a different grouping of bones and even flesh because palpably it was a fourwalker, a hipshaker, a blackbuttocker, a taildangler, a headhanger putting his hind foot foremost the while the lord of his creation sat on the perch, busy with his thoughts. But such a good poor brute he was sorry he hadn’t a lump of sugar but, as he wisely reflected, you could scarcely be prepared for every emergency that might crop up. He was just a big foolish nervous noodly kind of a horse, without a second care in the world. But even a dog, he reflected, take that mongrel in Barney Kiernan’s, of the same size, would be a holy horror to face. But it was no animal’s fault in particular if he was built that way like the camel, ship of the desert, distilling grapes into potheen in his hump. Nine tenths of them all could be caged or trained, nothing beyond the art of man barring the bees. Whale with a harpoon hairpin, alligator tickle the small of his back and he sees the joke, chalk a circle for a rooster, tiger my eagle eye. These timely reflections anent the brutes of the field occupied his mind somewhat distracted from Stephen’s words while the ship of the street was manoeuvring and Stephen went on about the highly interesting old.
— What’s this I was saying? Ah, yes! My wife, he intimated, plunging in medias res, would have the greatest of pleasure in making your acquaintance as she is passionately attached to music of any kind.
He looked sideways in a friendly fashion at the sideface of Stephen, image of his mother, which was not quite the same as the usual handsome blackguard type they unquestionably had an insatisable hankering after as he was perhaps not that way built.
Immediately following a local radio personality, I went on. I didn’t focus on the crowd. I tried to think about nothing but the text. My voice quavered a couple of times, but I remained steady on my feet (that’s sometimes the real challenge!). I got through the whole damn reading without getting tongue-tied or slipping up. I think it even made sense.
By the way, living with these few lines for the past month has been something of an experience. As I said, I picked that passage because it was short, but it had also been memorable to me. I laughed when I first read how Bloom wished he’d had a lump of sugar but knew “you could scarcely be prepared for every emergency that might crop up.” So true.
To give you a sense of some of my troubles with Ulysses, though, there’s also this: Having read the passage from Eumaeus dozens of time, many of them aloud, I only realized a couple of days before Bloomsday that the text included a comparison between how animals, such as the camel, were built and the way that young Dedalus was “perhaps not . . . built.” I’m (despite this story!) a fairly smart man, but there’s just so much in any given part of Ulysses to absorb. You could spend a lifetime reading Ulysses, over and over again.
But I’m not going to do that. Life’s too short. And there’s so much I haven’t yet read. Still, after a year of feeling abused by Ulysses, I’m feeling sort of nostalgic about the whole thing now.
Update (6/28/07): Here’s a collection of photos from the Rosenbach’s Bloomsday celebration. The t-shirt, by the way, was signed by all the readers, including me.