Books for Bloomsday


Ulysses is a book to own, a book to live with. To borrow it is probably worse than useless, for the sense of urgency imposed by a time-limit for reading it fights against the book’s slow pace, a leisurely music that requires an unhurried ear and yields little to the cursory, newspaper-nurtured eye. Most of our reading is, in fact, eye-reading—the swallowing whole of the cliché, the skipping of what seems insignificant, the tearing out of the sense from the form. Ulysses is, like Paradise Lost, an auditory work, and the sounds carry the sense. Similarly, the form carries the content, and if we try to ignore the word-play, the parodies and pastiches, in order to find out what happens next, we are dooming ourselves to disappointment.

Thus spake Anthony Burgess in 1965. This year as Bloomsday rolls around again I find myself actually reading Ulysses on the day itself. I decided recently that enough time had elapsed since my last Joycean excursion and this time did something else I’d not tried before, reading Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses in sequence. The story of Leopold Bloom’s walk around the city was originally intended as a shorter piece for the Dubliners collection and many characters from Dubliners and Portrait turn up again in the later novel.

I first encountered Ulysses when I was about 17 and despite having read a fair amount of experimental or challenging fiction by that time still found it difficult and frequently nonsensical. A lack of context was the problem; one of the failings of the book—if we have to look for failings—is that it really does help to know something about Joyce’s intentions which otherwise remain opaque to an uninformed reader. So my first proper reading of the novel was helped considerably by the discovery in a library of Harry Blamires’ Bloomsday Book (1966) which goes through the entire novel virtually page by page, examining the symbolism and correspondences layered into the text.

Joyce’s alter-ego in Portrait and Ulysses was Stephen Dedalus, named after the mythological Daedalus who built the labyrinth for the minotaur. Anthony Burgess in Here Comes Everybody: An introduction to James Joyce for the ordinary reader (1965) describes Ulysses as Joyce’s labyrinth and both the Blamires and Burgess books are excellent guides to its literary maze. Blamires examines the minutiae (and occasionally overdoes the reading of religious symbolism) while Burgess takes a superb tour through the entire corpus, often bringing to Ulysses a quality of understanding which Blamires lacks. Here Comes Everybody is an ideal introduction for those curious about Joyce’s work and reputation but who feel intimidated when they pick up the books. It’s a shame that Burgess’s title—a phrase of Joyce’s lifted from Finnegans Wake—has been hijacked recently by a book about internet culture. Burgess’s book also appears to be out of print so anyone looking for a copy is advised to try Blamires’ book is still in print in a revised edition and for another notable writer’s view there’s Nabokov’s lucid exposition in his Lectures on Literature. And if all that doesn’t satisfy, there’s always The Brazen Head.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Finnegan begin again
T&H: At the Sign of the Dolphin

9 thoughts on “Books for Bloomsday”

  1. Giffords’ Ulysses Annotated [amazon] is really the bible of the secondary literature, but there is no shortage of commentary (I too like Burgess). I am most proud that the first of my seven+ reads of Ulysses was done naked – in terms of assistance – save for a little pop-up map of Dublin. I’ll agree to disagree that the book has any failing. You can read it all your life and never completely plumb its depths. It would definitely be my desert island book. Yay Bloomsday!

  2. I’ve thought of buying the annotated version in the past but decided I prefer the text and notes to be separate, at least for reading. A great reference book, however. And yes, Ulysses would be my desert island book too.

  3. I’ve recently came across a translation of DUBLINERS, perusing a used boos store in Rio de Janeiro. I’ve read the original in high school, in 1981, but this translation isn’t bad, since I’m a translator myself, and I know how difficult it is to grasp Joyce’s hidden meanings and even twiting of words.
    Anyway, Joyce is one of my main references in literature, wether reading, translating or writing something. Happy Bloomsday!

  4. John, I offer an alternative explanation for the many-tentacled complexities of Ulysses, in a short story, “The Seer of Trieste”, due out from Dublin’s Swan River Press in a month or two. It draws on an uncanny experience when I visited Trieste, where Joyce started the book (and there’s a Joyce exhibition and statue)…copies will be liberally distributed to anyone interested in Trieste, Joyce, Sir Richard Burton, weird fiction etc.


  5. I read Ulysses without accompaniment, and I think its difficulties are often overstated. It’s a tremendously enjoyable and intelligible book even unglossed. That being said, much of the commentary on it is really good. I think Ulysses on the Liffey by Ellman is a great short companion piece.

  6. Mark – ‘Richard Burton’? You have my attention… please direct me to more information about your fascinating-sounding story, and where it might be purchased.

  7. Ulysses Annotated isn’t actually an annotated version of the text. It is ~600 pages of line/chapter notes. It is a kind of encyclopaedia of Ulysses.

    The other indispensable accompaniment, which fills in some of the puzzles that aren’t addressed by reading Dubliners etc. — but really, there are a trillion quizzical literary, operatic, scientific and historical tropes that only having a very extensive reading background will make properly clear — is Ellman’s incredible biography: James Joyce; itself a masterpiece, irrespective of whether one actually reads Joyce or not.

  8. John

    Will do.


    Let me have your address and I’ll send you a copy when out. But apropos of Burton, see also The Collector of Worlds (Faber) by the Bulgarian author Iliya Troyanov, an epic encounter with the character of Burton.

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