The Comic Genius of Ulysses

In October 1921, James Joyce wrote from Paris to his Aunt Josephine in Dublin: “If you want to read Ulysses you had better first get or borrow from a library a translation in prose of the Odyssey of Homer.” Joyce himself had used the Butcher-Lang translation of 1879 which begins:

Tell me, Muse, of that man, so ready at need, who wandered far and wide, after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy, and many were the men whose towns he saw and whose mind he learnt, yea, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the deep, striving to win his own life and the return of his country.

A few weeks later he asked Aunt Josephine:

Is it possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no. 7 Eccles Street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within 2 feet or 3 of the ground and drop unhurt? I saw it done myself but by a man of rather athletic build. I require this information in detail in order to determine the wording of a paragraph.

Readers of Ulysses will readily recognise that the required information here relates to the penultimate homecoming, or Ithaca episode of the book. Joyce’s Odysseus/Ulysses character, Leopold Bloom, has returned to his home in Eccles Street in the early hours of June 17, 1904. He is accompanied by the younger Stephen Dedalus and he has forgotten his latchkey.

In previous letters, Joyce had asked whether  there were any trees “and of what kind” behind the Star of the Sea church in Sandymount and wondered whether they would be visible from the shore of the sea. Were the steps leading down from Leahy’s Terrace side? And did steps then lead down to the beach? Details, “tittletattle, facts etc” about Hollis Street Maternity Hospital were also essential for the completion of his book.   

It would not be published until the following February, in fact on the second day of that month so as to correspond with its author’s fortieth birthday. We have no idea what Aunt Josephine thought of it beyond flipping through a few pages and experiencing a level of confusion. A perturbed Joyce, given the lack of feedback, had initially written:

I presented it to you seven months ago but I never heard anything more about it beyond a few words acknowledging receipt … The market price in London is now £40 and copies signed are worth more. I mention this because … [I’m] told … you had lent it … and people in Dublin have a way of not returning books … This of course has nothing to do with the contents of the book which it seems you have not read.

A month later Joyce expressed some relief to learn that the gifted book now resided safely in his aunt’s linen press and that several members of the Murray family had at least looked at it. As a last piece of advice, he now suggested not ignoring that previously given:

I told you to read the Odyssey first … Then buy at once the Adventures of Ulysses (which is Homer’s story told in simple English much abbreviated) by Charles Lamb. You can read it in a night … Then have a try at Ulysses again.

Indeed, it was Lamb’s book, first published in 1808, that had first enamoured Joyce himself of the character of Ulysses. At the age of eleven in 1893 he had written about Ulysses as his favourite hero when his Jesuit schoolteacher had asked his class to compose an essay on that topic. In later life he insisted that Ulysses was the most complete human being in all literature.

The English artist Frank Budgen first met Joyce in 1918 in Zurich. Joyce wasted little time in telling him that he was working on a book “based on the wanderings of Ulysses” and explained that it would be set in Dublin and contained within a time span of “no more than eighteen hours”. He then challenged Budgen, a voracious reader, to name “any complete all-round character presented by any writer”. Characters from the books of Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were mentioned, as were some of those from Shakespeare. Hamlet surely! Joyce would have none of it: Hamlet remained a son only. Joyce was adamant there was only one:  

Ulysses is son to Laertes, but he is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover of Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy and King of Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all. Don’t forget that he was a war dodger who tried to evade military service by simulating madness … But once at the war the conscientious objector became a jusqu’auboutist. When the others wanted to abandon the siege, he insisted on staying till Troy should fall … He was an inventor too. The tank is his creation. Wooden horse or iron box—it doesn’t matter. They are both shells containing armed warriors.

One of Joyce’s English-language students in Zurich, the businessman Georges Borach, remembered his teacher telling of how at an early age he had been struck by what he called the mysticism of the Odyssey:

the motif of wandering … And the return, how profoundly human! Don’t forget the trait of generosity … and many other beautiful touches. I am almost afraid to treat such a theme; it’s overwhelming.

Joyce told Borach that while writing Dubliners (1914), he had considered the title Ulysses in Dublin. Indeed, there had been a story intended for inclusion in Dubliners titled “Ulysses” but it was never completed. This was to be based on a personal experience that had occurred not long after the death of his mother in 1904. Inebriated, he had made advances to a young woman—or at least was thought to have done—on St Stephen’s Green late one evening and had subsequently received a beating by the woman’s protective beau. It seems she had been momentarily left alone. Left bleeding in the dirt, Joyce was approached by an older man, a Jew named Alfred Hunter, who had helped Joyce to his feet and made a point of walking him home.

As far as Ulysses was concerned, he explained to the Swiss writer Jacques Mercanton:

Bloom Jewish? Yes, because only a foreigner would do. The Jews were foreigners at that time in Dublin. There was no hostility towards them, but contempt, yes, the contempt people always show for the unknown.

He also reminded Mercanton that Bloom’s wife Marion (Molly) was half-Jewish on her mother’s side.

For all of that, and while acknowledging the importance of Homer within the overall architectural scheme of Ulysses, to read the book solely as an unravelling of Odyssean allusion—while acknowledging once again how fundamentally important this is—is to miss the point. The book deserves a broader appreciation than what Kevin Birmingham has called “a scavenger hunt for pedants”. T.S. Eliot was among the first to realise the more general importance of the book as early as 1923 in his essay “Ulysses, Order and Myth”:

No one else has built a novel upon such a foundation before; it has never before been necessary … In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. It is a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.

E.M. Forster’s 1927 collection of lectures, Aspects of the Novel, also pondered the idea that, beyond Joyce, “perhaps the modern ‘novel’ is less about a story and more about mythic resonance”.

Despite Joyce’s effusive enthusiasm for Dublin as expressed to Budgen—

what a city Dublin is! I wonder if there is another like it. Everybody has time to hail a friend and start a conversation about a third party, Pat, Barney or Tim. “Have you seen Barney lately? Is he still off the drink?” “Ay, sure he is. I was with him last night and he drank nothing but claret”

—Joyce’s view of the Ireland he had left was uncompromisingly dim. As a nineteen-year-old he had written, “A nation which never advanced so far as a miracle play affords no literary model to the artist.” He added that any serious artist “must look abroad”. During his teaching stint in Zurich’s Berlitz School, passages such as the following were given for his students to recite or transcribe:

Ireland is a great country. They call it the Emerald Isle. The Metropolitan Government, after so many centuries of having it by the throat has reduced it to a spectre. Now it is a briar patch. They sowed it with famine, syphilis, superstition, and alcoholism. Up sprouted Puritans, Jesuits and Bigots.

Quite what Joyce’s students made of this is open to conjecture, but it does point towards another aspect of Ulysses: that of Joyce, the comic genius. A far from complete biographical synopsis of Leopold Bloom—the bulk of which can only be gleaned in the novel from that character’s interior monologues—is only one example that bears this out:

1866: Rudolph Bloom (previously Virag), an immigrant to Ireland and of Hungarian descent and having been received into the Church of Ireland at the behest of the Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews, together with his wife, Ellen (née Higgins), celebrate the birth of an only child, christened Leopold Paula Bloom.

1874: By the age of eight, the boy, who presents as a bed-wetter and an isolate, has already pondered a question that will haunt him for years to come—where was Moses when the lights went out?

1877: The boy makes his first unsuccessful attempt at a prize in a literary competition. His poem reads:

An ambition to squint
At my verses in print
Makes me hope that for these you’ll find room.
If you so condescend
Then place at the end
The name of yours truly, L. Bloom.

1879: Now a youth, Leopold is publicly humiliated at a travelling circus show wherein a performing clown singles him out, in front of a packed auditorium and claims him to be the clown’s father.

1880: Leopold plays a girl in a school class performance of a stage version of a popular novel and this requires him to wear his mother’s corsets. On the school summer excursion of that year, his class travels to the waterfall at Poulaphouca—here he masturbates within the protective shade of several impressive yews.

1881: Leopold begins selling cheap costume jewellery, the first of many unsatisfying jobs.

1882: An attempt is made to square the circle, the prize being one million pounds. Unsuccessful as so many before him, Leopold joins a running club, gets drunk, falls during a race, cuts his head and later becomes convinced of the need for Irish home rule.

1885: Employed by the printers Alexander Thom and Sons, Leopold’s prime focus is compiling the Post Office Directory for the following year.

1886: Ellen Bloom dies in a Dublin nursing home. A week later Rudolph Bloom takes his own life (by poisoning) and leaves a suicide note imploring his son to look after his aged dog, Athos.

1887: Leopold meets Miss Marion Tweedy (Molly) and in June kisses her for the first time after a game of charades at the house of a mutual friend.

1888: Leopold proposes marriage following his necessary conversion to Catholicism. The wedding is planned for October (8th). Bloom obtains a job at Hely’s Stationers where he specialises in blotting paper. The couple receive a stuffed owl as a wedding gift from Alderman John Hooper.

1889: The couple’s first child—a girl, Milly—is born on June 15, premarital sex having taken place (once), sometime in September the preceding year.

1893: Normal marital sexual relations cease forever after Tuesday, November 27. A son is born (December 29) and named Rudy. A sickly child, he dies having lived only eleven days (cf. Hamnet Shakespeare: eleven years).

1896–1902: Leopold gravitates between a series of jobs and periods of unemployment before embracing the concept of brighter prospects as a hawker (advertising) for the Freeman’s Journal. More substantial accommodation is now affordable at 7 Eccles Street.

1904: The events of Leopold’s June 16 and the early hours of June 17 are collated by the writer James Joyce (June 16, 1904 being the date that Joyce first walked out with Nora, his wife to be). The reader leaves Bloom lying at the wrong end of the marital bed as he drifts into sleep. He is aged thirty-eight years, one month and ten days.

It remains a great pity that so many potential readers of Ulysses are discouraged by its supposed difficulty. It is true that some sections of the book are undeniably challenging. In 1919 Harriet Weaver, having read the manuscript of the eleventh episode, “Sirens”, felt compelled to inquire after Joyce’s health, while Ezra Pound also wondered whether its author had “got knocked on the head or bit by a dog and gone dotty”. And it is self-evident that only repeated readings of the novel can develop an appreciation of its seeming limitless depth. Curious readers can avail themselves of some excellent guides such as Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study (1930) and Weldon Thornton’s Allusions in Ulysses (1961). Budgen’s James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (reissued with new material in 1972) also provides valuable insights.

The novel itself was seven years in the writing. Joyce estimated that the “Circe” episode alone had demanded over a thousand hours (begun in April 1920, by December of that year he was into his ninth draft). In a discussion with Budgen one evening in 1918, Joyce explained that he had been working all that day on just two sentences for the “Lestrygonians” episode. In the Odyssey, this is where Odysseus is dealing with cannibals, while in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom is needful of some lunch. Joyce reminded Budgen of what he called the “seduction motive” in this episode of the Odyssey that involved the daughter of the cannibal king. For Bloom the seduction element was to centre on some silk petticoats hanging in a shop window. The two sentences in question related to the effect that these undergarments might have had on what he called his “hungry hero”. They would eventually read: “Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.” To Budgen, Joyce had said: “You can see how many different ways they might be arranged.”

Too difficult? In the words of Bello/Bella Cohen, Joyce’s Nighttown whore master/mistress: “Christ, wouldn’t it make a Siamese cat laugh?”

Barry Gillard lives in Geelong. He wrote on the seventeenth-century poet John Wilmot in the April issue

2 thoughts on “The Comic Genius of Ulysses

  • GG says:

    No, sorry. Every few years this turgid book comes up and there are rhapsodic commentaries from obscure quarters. I’ve read it, and it’s a monumental wank.

    • ianl says:

      >” …it’s a monumental wank”

      Perhaps so, but although Joyce did capture well enough “stream of consciousness” in several sequences, he was really only recording a typical Dublin street conversation with 3 or more people involved. I’ve heard such quite a few times; the flow of logic or the continued thread of narrative is not present, just the lilt of people unceremoniously enjoying themselves.

      Example ? I was the car driver in Dublin on one occasion (it’s ok, they drive on the left, don’t they ?) with my wife, sister-in-law and her husband. I had no clue of the street geography but the husband was giving simple directions. On his advice, I turned left into a one-way street, clearly posted with huge signs, and drove to the lights at the T-end of the street. As I was to turn right at the T, I stopped in the right-hand lane, waiting for the lights to go green, blinker on expectantly. Without warning, a very large bus, replete with passengers, suddenly turned left from the T directly into my lane – and directly against the well-signed one-way direction. A few centimetres was all the buffer we had against the bus ramming us.

      After that kerfuffle had settled itself, with my Irish in-laws in the car actually prattling on in true Joycian style about other matters entirely, I asked how the @#$#** that could happen. It seems the buses are permitted to run certain one-way streets the wrong way to keep to their timetable. No street signs identify this aspect of Dublin life.The husband simply said “Sorry, I forgot to tell you this is one of those streets” and then continued the lively flop-about conversation.

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