It has been thought of as many things: an epic, a collection of lyrical, interconnected stories, a rambling, impenetrable puzzle. And of course, the single greatest novel written since 1900.
When I was growing up though, I most vividly associated it with moustached men struggling to retain bowler hats in high wind, and with women stumbling on the hemlines of long pastel skirts. With gorgonzola sandwiches and blood pudding. And with live readings on the red-bricked streets of my native city, Dublin.
Odd recollections perhaps, but this is how it goes on Bloomsday. Us James Joyce nuts think nothing of dressing, eating and walking around like Edwardians to celebrate June 16th 1904, the single-day setting of his infamously unfinishable Ulysses. I have to confess to being one of those nuts. Yet I have never donned a hat.
2012 will be my first celebration in America. I have relocated to New York for a while following my country's economic woes. And I plan to show up at the Madison Theatre in Long Island, sandwich in hand. I love it here, it's the greatest city on earth. But I have found that the greatest novel on earth provides relief during my down days.
Why? It is a novel about a search. One that brings readers through rejection, alienation and fear to new possibilities. Us Irish have been feeling a lot of this lately. And yet Ulysses is ultimately an affirmative journey (the book ends with a "yes"). It is also a deeply Irish book written in exile: Joyce might have worked in Trieste, but one can practically smell and taste Dublin in its pages. Being far from home is something many Irish people recognize, and it makes the novel very attractive to a sometimes homesick heart.
I first started reading Ulysses in the late 1990s, as an undergraduate at University College Dublin. It seemed so vast to me, like something I'd never be able to crack. There it was with its sepia and green cover, with an image depicting the River Liffey. It was almost as if its size and physicality were mocking my love for the instant gratification provided by frivolous computer games (and my comically short attention span).
But I dived in. I read it with expert annotations, read it with friends, read it alone, gave up, started again, laughed, cried, and then gave up once more. It became like a friend, though. One I felt I partially understood, and yet would probably never fully know. To this day, I have not read it through over a continuous period. Instead, I have digested it in parts over about five years.
Some wonder what the fuss is about. Ulysses is often seen as a lofty thing, a piece of posturing high modernist literature, one with little relevance to the everyday. Others see it as a book about nothing at all. But these charges couldn't be further from the truth.
It is surely a vast, all-encompassing, highly philosophical read. It is a retelling of Homer's Odyssey. And indeed, Stephen Dedalus, who we meet at the novel's opening, and who we have previously met in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is a deeply cerebral character: "Thought is the thought of thought. Tranquil brightness. The soul is in a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms," we hear him think in the Nestor episode (Stephen's musings are what made many I knew throw down the book in frustration). But while his character's high-mindedness might mirror the analogy to the Odyssey, he is just a man. One who never met his own lofty goals. He has been called back from Paris (where he was poised to go at the end of Portrait), and now he is just walking around Dublin.
That might sound depressing. But it's not. At its heart, Ulysses is a work of profound ordinariness. In it, the everyday failures and successes of ordinary people are epic.
Taking place in a then regional city on the fringes of Europe, it is populated by characters living on the fringes of the society that surrounds them. Leopold Bloom, regarded by many as the novel's protagonist, is Dedalus's opposite number. He is a Jewish advertising salesman in a predominantly Catholic country. A wandering Dubliner who seems lost in his own city, he puts up with a cheating, opera-singing wife and eventually he returns defeated, knowing that she has just had sex with her lover and manager, Blazes Boylan.
There is nothing special about Bloom, he lacks the confidence to do anything about his wife's affair. And yet everything about him is profound, and out of the ordinary: "I stand, so to speak, with an unposted letter bearing the extra regulation fee before the too late box of the general postoffice of human life," as he says in the Circe episode.
Bloom is a real person, though, not some aimless malcontent we should pity, and not some fragmented character with no identity. Joyce wants us to know this. We regularly read about Bloom's body, often in too much detail ("the dark tangled curls of his bush," for example), and get to know him intimately.
Dublin is both exceptional and everyday in the book, too. We are taken down its streets with an almost forensic level of detail. It is as if no part of the city is left out, and so Dublin becomes the entire world. But to me, now, as a Dubliner abroad, it's not the whole world, it's like meeting an old friend.
"Before Nelson's pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston Park and upper Rathmines, Sandymount Green, Rathmines, Ringsend and Sandymount Tower, Harold's Cross."
Ulysses speaks with an Irish accent. It's hard to miss home when I hear it.