On my bucket list is to be in Dublin some June 16—hopefully while I’m still ambulatory and in possession of all my faculties—and go from place to place—preferably bar to bar—and listen to James Joyce’s Ulysses being recited. Yes, Bloomsday in Dublin is on my list of things to do before I die.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was worth reading, but definitely not worth re-reading. Dubliners is a master class on the short story form; “The Dead” may be the best short story ever written in the English language, possessed of the force of a novel. So, I was familiar with Joyce when I decided many years ago in my UCLA days to take a seminar on Ulysses. It may have been hubris, or the devil-may-care attitude of youth, but I thought I could tackle what many call, again, the best novel ever written in English, or maybe in any language.
I’ve read the work only once; and it has stayed with me ever since.
When I greet a good friend—male or female—I sometimes do so with the words “Ah, plump Buck Mulligan”. And my philosophy of life can be summed up in this exchange:
—Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
—What? says Alf.
—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.
And of course, the video that begins this essay is perhaps the most sublime expression of love I have ever read. It was in my mind when I wrote the final chapter of The Genealogies. We travel back in time to the first assignation between Marcelo’s mother and father, and the chapter is an explosion of her thoughts as she lies in bed next to the man she will marry. (Don’t worry, it’s not ruining the ending. Again, the lesson is in the journey, not the destination.) Of course, I didn’t copy the style or the matter of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. But its essence, the absolute joy it finds in love and life informed my writing.
The thing about the book is that Joyce infuses it with the joy of being alive and human. Leopold Bloom could have easily descended into a pathetic character: a Jew in 1904 Dublin, a cuckold, uxorious, on the margins of society. But instead he’s one of the most brilliant and simply human literary creations of the 20th century. Stephen Dedalus could’ve been a scapegoat for everything Joyce saw in himself as a failing; but his alter ego grows throughout the novel, getting to the point where he is ready to, like Joyce, write about the condition of his country and its people. And Molly Bloom, an enigma throughout most of the book, erupts with the force of a woman reveling in life in that magnificent final chapter. She goes from being a chain around Bloom’s neck to being the person who gives his existence meaning. Molly confronts the world on her own terms in the “Penelope” episode, as enraptured of her own little king as that other Penelope was of her wandering husband 3,000 years ago.
If you haven’t read Ulysses, I hope this essay encourages you to do so. It may, quite literally, change your life. At least a little bit.