Laureate for Irish Fiction 2022-2024 Blog

Reading Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

When Ulysses is finished after seven years labour (diversified by eight illnesses and nineteen changes of address from Austria to Switzerland, to Italy, to France), I shall need six months rest-not necessarily in jail.’

Joyce to John Quinn, 7 January 1921

I came late to ‘Ulysses’. I read it in my early twenties and liked some episodes – ‘Wandering Rocks’, ‘Cyclops’, ‘Nausicaa’ and Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. But it is only in the last decade that I have come to savour the book itself, the restlessness and energy behind it, the way it changes, its design.

As well as having a large plan, however, the book is filled with tiny flourishes, jokes, repetitions, Bloom’s mind working in a set of sharp little brushstrokes. Bloom notices in detail. His mind darts. In the ‘Lotus-Eaters’ episode, he is walking up Westland Row, passing St. Andrew’s Church, just as the priest is ‘rinsing out the chalice: then he tossed off the dregs smartly. Wine. Makes it more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they are used to Guinness’s porter or some temperance beverage Wheatley’s Dublin hop bitters or Cantrell and Cochrane’s ginger ale (aromatic).’

Bloom is ready to entertain the idea that instead of bread and wine being changed into the body and blood, it might have been bread and ginger ale. He is right: that would never have worked.

In his book ‘Ulysses Unbound’, Terence Killeen writes about ‘Sirens’, the eleventh episode of ‘Ulysses’: ‘With this episode, we embark on the novel’s real “odyssey of style”. The style of “Sirens” is startlingly innovative. From the initial list of disjointed phrases to the concluding “Pprrpffrrppffff” of Bloom’s fart, language is teased, twisted, inverted, perverted in order to create an acoustic surround.’

As Simon Dedalus, with his beautiful tenor voice, begins to sing in this episode, the listeners’ response in the Ormond Hotel is not as much described as suggested: ‘Braintipped, cheek touched with flame, they listened feeling that flow endearing flow over skin limbs human heart soul spine.’

Joyce lets very few words or images go by without playing on them as though the lines of his text were musical instruments. Bloom, for example, is in the restaurant of the hotel and he wants the door to the bar opened a bit so he can hear the song, and so he asks a waiter called Pat to assist. This is how Joyce sets this down: ‘Bloom signed to Pat, bald Pat is a waiter hard of hearing, to set ajar the door of the bar. The door of the bar. So. That will do. Pat, waiter, waited, waiting to hear, for he was hard of hear by the door.’

It is as though Joyce wants to invent his own little song as the real song is being sung by Simon. In the pages afterwards lines from songs are intertwined with more ordinary words. But the song has lifted the tone until, as it were, no tone is left untoned. Simon remembers for his friend Ben Dollard Italians singing in the harbour at Cobh: ‘He heard them as a boy in Ringabella, Crosshaven, Ringabella, singing their barcaroles. Queenstown harbour full of Italian ships. Walking, you know, Ben, in the moonlight with those earthquake hats. Blending their voices. God, such music, Ben. Heard as a boy. Cross Ringabella haven mooncarole.’

It is easy to imagine how those last three sentences might have gone: ‘God, such music, Ben. Heard as a boy. Have never forgotten how glorious it was.’

Joyce wants, however, to enter into the spirit of the sound. Playing with the sonorous names of the two places and then the two words ‘barcarole’ and ‘moon’. And with some knowledge that there will be readers who will stop for a second, getting pleasure from the way he moves the words around, the risk he takes with his narrative as he tries to find a new way to evoke what that memory is like for Simon Dedalus.

What is strange is how many small things like afterthoughts or something just added for no special purpose seem to stay in the memory or become what you love most about a book. The opening two pages, for example, of Chapter 4 of ‘The Great Gatsby’, a novel published three years after ‘Ulysses’, have a list of names of those who attended Gatsby’s parties that begins: ‘From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Dr Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whomsoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrystier (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr Chrystie’s wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.’

It is easy to imagine Fitzgerald’s inner adolescent trying to break out here, thinking about the society pages and then putting in funny names instead of the real ones. It is like drawing a moustache on figures in photographs. Just like Joyce, in the ‘Cyclops’ episode of ‘Ulysses’ when he began to dream up the spectacle that was the execution of Robert Emmet and thought that it would be good if he made fun of it since others held it so dear and sang songs about it. Joyce, too, used the tone of society pages and he too made up a list of those who could not be kept away from witnessing Emmet’s demise. They included: Hiram Y. Bomboost, Ali Baba Backsheesh Rahat Lokum Effendi, Hokopoko Harakiri, Pan Poleaxe Paddyrisky.

Joyce gave the executioner a funny double-double-barrelled English name: Tomkin-Maxwell ffrenchmullan Tomlinson, the Maxwell part a sly nod towards Sir John Maxwell who ordered the execution of the 1916 leaders, but since the book is set in 1904 (but he wrote that section in 1919) Joyce did not want to go any further with this. Among his list of those who lapped up the sights and sounds at the bloody execution, the figure of Anna Chronism is most signally absent. (Her heart was in the present, poor Anna, but her head was in the past.)

Because he wanted ‘Ulysses’ published on his fortieth birthday – 2 February 1922 – Joyce had to move quickly in the last months of 1921 as he made many revisions. Even after the printers in Dijon had emphatically cried ‘no more’, Joyce woke in the night (or he may even have done this in the day) and thought up one more funny proper improper name for his list. But the printers had to tell him it was trop tard. The name never made the book. This character – he was called Borus Hupinkoff – never got his name printed in ‘Ulysses’. Instead, he wandered the earth, the patron saint of almostness. He had to hang out with some very unsavoury figures such as Drykoff and Kronikoff, not to speak of Koffdrops.

In bars, people laughed at Borus Hupinkoff: You are the guy who got left out of that book. At passport control, he was mocked: You will have to be on time in future, Mr Hupinkoff. Literary critics ignored poor Borus. Richard Ellmann had bigger fish to fry (Wilde, Yeats, Joyce). And then, in the 1980s, when Hans Walter Gabler was putting together the new edition of ‘Ulysses’, he realized that justice demanded that Hupinkoff should really have his name in the book, as Joyce had planned. 

Colm Tóibín (2 February 2022)