NOTNext Thursday, June 16, is Bloomsday – named after Leopold Bloom, hero of James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, and the day the book is set. Bloomsday is too often an exercise in commercial nostalgia, but it’s worth revisiting, in this 100th year since the book’s publication, exactly why Ulysses was so revolutionary.
If much of what is called modernism is a response to what the poet TS Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy” that followed World War I, then Joyce’s modernism is distinct. It brings order to anarchy, celebrates the richness of modern life, and often strikes a comical note.
Ulysses, a novel of ordinary lives, is organized around Homer’s Odyssey – the publicist Bloom being Ulysses for Molly, his Irish Penelope. It insists on the mundane – bathroom visits, smelly cheese sandwiches – while being extraordinary in its methods: different styles from different literary periods jostle for control. In Ulysses, Joyce redid the English language over and over again (“The scrotumtightening sea”, for example). He “hammered the language into jelly”, as the novelist Elizabeth Bowen put it, but also made it sing. It is notoriously difficult to read and many never finish it.
Bodies were central to Joyce’s argument for the ordinary as a suitable subject for serious art. This applied to women too, but perhaps too much, as some feminists complained, noting that Molly Bloom, and especially her last silent stream of consciousness – “yes, I said yes, I want yes” – is all body, to the detriment of disturbs. Others claim the opposite. This famous monologue, a reviewer recently claimed, is “the funniest, most touching, exciting and truthful depiction of a woman that anyone has written in English.”
Ulysses was written by an immigrant (from Ireland to mainland Europe) about the son of an Austro-Hungarian immigrant (Leopold Bloom); the deliberate diversity of Joyce’s approach can be seen as a continued display of sympathy and diversity.
Ulysses opened the novel, and writers ever since (the Irish in particular) have found themselves counting, whether they like it or not, with the anxiety of its high modernist influence – or with the permission that Joyce’s heresy given to break free from conventions. Novelist Anne Enright has argued recently that the latter has been most strongly felt by Irish women like Edna O’Brien, Eimear McBride and Mary Costello.
Joyce, who researched Dublin extensively before writing her masterpiece, made no apologies for her small town. “I always write about Dublin,” he wrote to a friend, “because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of any city in the world. In the particular is contained the universal. Every once in a while there comes a time when the world has changed so much that art has to redo itself to keep up.
If a novel or artistic creation is to endure, however, any reworking of language and form cannot come at the expense of certain universals: truths about the body, life and love, about who and what we are . At 100, Odysseus still passes this test.