Before I sound hoity-toity about noting that it is a day of celebration — Bloomsday — honoring James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” I must confess that this English major has not yet read the master work. I am not among the worthy celebrants today, the date on which the novel takes place in 1904. The world over, Joyce fans are drinking Guinness and eating liver for breakfast. The Washington Post saluted this “nerdiest of all holidays” today by proclaiming that “Ulysses” is “either the bane of readers everywhere or the best book ever written, depending on who you ask (though sometimes those thoughts are also voiced by the same person).”
I decided to ask the opinion of expert Scott Klein, associate professor and chair of the English department known for his great sense of humor. He’s firmly in the “it’s both” camp. He has taught James Joyce every other year since he arrived in 1991. Wake Forest undergraduates know it as English 366, while grad students step into the classroom to experience the deeper literary trip through Joyce’s Dublin in the course known — tee hee — as English 666. The course starts with the short story collection “Dubliners,” moves to the novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” and the last half is devoted chapter by chapter to “Ulysses.” Occasionally Klein has shoehorned Homer’s “The Odyssey” into the semester because “Ulysses” is a modern version, he said, “but it’s just too much to do in one term.” Many of us might agree, that is if we had actually read “Ulysses.”
“I didn’t eat liver, just a bowl of cereal,” Klein said when I asked him how he was celebrating Bloomsday. “I don’t really do much on the day itself, I have to admit, if I’m by myself.”
Some years he is among the Joyce scholars at their annual academic conference, which alternates this time of year between Europe and the United States. Today it’s in Pasadena, and if tradition holds to form the days of the conference will be filled with delivery of the highest form of academic papers and plenary sessions, while the evenings will break out into …. We’ll get back to that.
Klein is quick to say “Ulysses” is not a summer read. “It expects all kinds of erudition from one, but what it gives you is not only some of the most spectacular use of language in the whole English tradition and terrifically, pyrotechnically wonderful uses of the English language, but unlike some experimental works it also provides one with an extraordinarily richly detailed and emotional, psychological experience. It’s probably not only the greatest experimental novel ever written, but it’s also one of the most moving realistic novels ever written. I can’t think of any other work of avant-garde art that manages to simultaneously be terrifically intellectual and abstract and difficult but also have a core of really deep human feeling.”
In short, that’s why people celebrate the day, he said.
I asked Klein to give us a synopsis:
Ulysses is about two main characters: One named Leopold Bloom, and he’s an average kind of man in his late thirties, and his wife, Molly, who’s a concert singer. It all takes place on this day — June 16, 1904, on a day when Bloom is afraid his wife is about to have an affair with the business manager. And at the same time, there’s a young man wandering the streets of Dublin named Stephen Dedalus, who had been the main character of “A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man,” something of a self-portrait of the young Joyce. He’s intellectual and he’s disaffected and his mother died the year before, and he doesn’t get along with his father. So he’s feeling adrift. He’s looking in a sense for a direction for his life; he’s sort of looking for a surrogate father figure. Leopold Bloom, who is older than he is, lost a son a few years before and is looking for a kind of surrogate son figure. And so the trajectory of the novel is the whole day — hour by hour of the two of them separately; and then they come together late in the evening. The big question of the book is what kind of bond do they form with one another when they do meet late at night on June 16, 1904.
The Penguin Classics version is 1,040 pages long. As far as Klein knows, not one of the roughly 200 WFU students he has taught in his Joyce classes has dropped out of English 366 (or English 666) because of the book’s difficulty. “I do tell students that once they’ve read it, like with few other books you have bragging rights for the rest of your life when you say, ‘Well, when I read ‘Ulysses ….’”
I feel deflated again by my half-century failure to have even cracked the tome.
Nor can I foresee any chance of joining the revelers at the Joyce academic conferences here or abroad. They sound as though they offer a distinct form of frivolity unseen in these parts unless you count a Renaissance Faire. After the academic matters are conducted during the day, the evenings turn into an over-the-top Joyce-a-palooza. “There are dinners in which people sing parody songs with words taken from Joyce’s work, and I cringe when I think of this. There are very esteemed scholars who play Joyce charades, believe it or not,” Klein said, adding it’s a bit embarrassing, the “cultish” aspect of the conference evenings, considering how some scholars dress as characters from Joyce’s works and act out scenes. “It’s a little bit like being at a ‘Star Trek’ convention. I don’t go quite that far in my enthusiasm.”
Now Klein is talking. “Star Trek”: I can say I have seen that one on TV.
I wish I could say that by next Bloomsday I will have completed the masterpiece, but I think the chances of that are equal to my ordering liver for breakfast at The Pit. Give me a few years.