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Two centenary books that make perfect sense of Irish novelist James Joyce’s notoriously knotty Ulysses

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The Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses

The Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses

Ulysses, James Joyce: Illustrated by Eduardo Arroyo

Ulysses, James Joyce: Illustrated by Eduardo Arroyo

James Joyce, celebrated author, whose famous novel, Ulysseswas only recently permitted to enter the United States after ten years of ostracism, pictured with his family in their Paris home. Mr. Joyce and his wife are standing. Seated are Mr. and Mrs. George Joyce, the author's son and daughter-in-law, with their child, Stephen James Joyce, between them.

James Joyce, celebrated author, whose famous novel, Ulysseswas only recently permitted to enter the United States after ten years of ostracism, pictured with his family in their Paris home. Mr. Joyce and his wife are standing. Seated are Mr. and Mrs. George Joyce, the author's son and daughter-in-law, with their child, Stephen James Joyce, between them.

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The Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses

The Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses Patrick Hastings Johns Hopkins University Press, €19.99

Ulysses, James Joyce: Illustrated by Eduardo Arroyo
Other Press, €66.99

On February 2 the Contemporary Music Centre in Dublin and Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris will mark the centenary anniversary of James Joyce’s Ulysses by simultaneously screening six new music and film projects that have been specifically co-commissioned for a cross-cultural global festive celebration, entitled Ulysses Journey 2022.

It will then travel to Belfast, then later to Budapest, for Bloomsday 2022 on June 16 – eventually concluding in Paris two days later. It’s a fitting journey for the cosmopolitan international symposium. The first complete 1,000 copies of Ulysses, after all, were originally published on February 2, 1922, under the imprint of Shakespeare and Company: a Parisian bookshop owned by American expatriate Sylvia Beach.

Ulysses was initially published in serialised form, as 23 instalments, between 1918 and 1920 in The Little Review, a Chicago-based magazine. A complicated legal censorship battle followed. But the ban was eventually lifted in a Manhattan district court in 1933.

Once the novel was out in the world without restriction, Joycean scholars got to work deconstructing a universe of meaning, hidden within layers of esoteric codes and cultural symbols. Most of which stemmed from two of the literary traditions Joyce was most familiar with: Greek and Hebrew.

“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles [into my novel] that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” the Dublin writer famously explained in a letter he wrote to the French journalist and author Jacques Benoist-Méchin in 1921.

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Patrick Hastings is just the kind of committed academic Joyce had in mind, while thinking about his literary immorality. Six years ago, the English Department Chair at Gilman School in Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States, set up UlyssesGuide.com. The Guide To James Joyce’s Ulysses shares the same purpose as Hastings’ online project: to make Joyce’s novel accessible to a non-specialist reading audience. The book will be published on February 1 to coincide with the centenary celebrations.

Stylistic tricks and complex word puzzles notwithstanding, Ulysses tells a fairly simple story. It takes place in just 19 hours, around Dublin, on June 16, 1904. We witness most of the novel’s key events through the thoughts, tastes, smells, and senses of its three main anti-heroes.

Stephen Dedalus is a 22-year-old insecure and impoverished intellectual, with grandiose ambitions. He begins his day by having breakfast with his roommates. He then teaches a class, goes for a walk, engages in a conversation about Shakespeare, gets drunk in a bar, goes to a brothel, and gets punched in the street by a British soldier.

Thirty-eight-year-old Leopold Bloom is the ultimate outsider. The Jewish advertising agent also begins his day with a hearty breakfast, which he shares with his wife, Molly, an amateur opera singer. Bloom then runs some errands around Dublin, attends a funeral, jumps on a tram, has lunch, gets insulted by an Irish nationalist in a pub, masturbates on Sandymount Strand, and visits a maternity hospital.

When Bloom eventually crosses paths with Stephen, he invites the young man back to his home at No 7 Eccles Street for a friendly cup of cocoa. Molly, we also learn, has a secret sexual liaison in the afternoon with a concert promoter, Blazes Boylan. Bloom doesn’t confront his wife’s infidelity directly. Although he spends most of his day anxiously thinking about it.

Hastings’ snappy and lucid guidebook is divided into 18 chapters. Each gives us a comprehensive running commentary about the events that take place across the book’s 18 episodes. The author points to the similarities they share with The Odyssey: an epic poem attributed to the ancient Greek poet, Homer. Considered to be a foundational text in western literature, it recalls Odysseus’s heroic return journey from the Trojan War to his faithful wife, Penelope, in Ithaca. Joyce titled the episodes/ chapters of his novel with names borrowed from The Odyssey.

And the plot of Ulysses roughly corresponds with Homer’s epic poem. But it’s a farcical and humorous reinterpretation. Molly derides her husband in her own thoughts, as she recalls her exhausting afternoon of adulterous lovemaking. And Bloom returns to his beloved as a powerless cuckold, not as a mythical-manly hero. 

The Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses is a perfect reading companion to Eduardo Arroyo’s wonderful illustrated version of Joyce’s novel. The Spanish painter died three years ago, aged 81. But his illustrated version is being posthumously published on the 100th anniversary of Ulysses’ first complete Parisian edition. It contains 134 full-page colour illustrations, and 200 smaller images in black and white.

One of the greatest challenges Ulysses presents to a first-time reader is the sheer density of the text. Sentences often run on for pages at a time, without any formal punctuation, or line breaks. Arroyo closely follows Joyce’s uncompromising, free-flowing ‘stream of consciousness’ style. The dreamy surrealist images he presents to us on the page adds a colourful third-dimension quality to Joyce’s novel. They also provide a much needed bit of breathing space for the reader to occasionally pause and ponder.

Arroyo was best known for his cartoon-like and parodic depictions of figures in a flattened pictorial space. Intensely politically active, he spent much of his life’s work reflecting his opposition to Franco-ruled Spain, in which he grew up and lived under. Arroyo first attempted to publish an illustrative version of Ulysses back in 1991, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Joyce’s death. But James Joyce’s grandson, Stephen Joyce, prevented it.

He was then joint trustee of the Joyce Estate, and claimed his grandfather never wanted the text to be illustrated. In fact, Joyce had asked both Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to do so. But the two world-famous painters turned the project down.

A century on from its original publication, Ulysses still stands as a revolutionary moment in the history of western literature. Partially because of its experimental play with syntax, which was unprecedented in the novel form. So too was Joyce’s unusual approach to both characters, and their actions. For the most part they are unexceptional, unheroic, and, ultimately, very ordinary.

Crucially, Ulysses celebrates the repetitious, ironic, mundane, egocentric, and disappointing nature of modern urban living.

“Every life is many days, day after day,” as Joyce aptly put it in his epic modernist masterpiece. “We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.”

Re-Joyce: Fresh takes on an old classic

“If you ask me what it has to offer... the answer is still ‘Everything, everything, everything’,” writes Booker Prize winner and former laureate Anne Enright in a characteristically perceptive and engaging introduction to Ulysses (Vintage Classics). This handsome new edition is based on the work of Professor Hans Walter Gabler: in 1977, he led a team of scholars who studied manuscripts, typescripts, and proofs to reconstruct an accurate text.

Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, has spent “four decades travelling the world with Irish literature as part of my diplomatic baggage, actually and intellectually”. In Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey (New Island), he explores the 18 chapters of the novel and, using the famous structuring principle of Homer’s Odyssey as his guide, releases the great masterpiece from its reputation of impenetrability. An affectionate, accessible tribute.

Greek hero Ulysses is most famous for his role in the fall of Troy. So why should Joyce write only his half-life – the return home of the Odyssey – when his next work emphasises life’s full circle? In Helen of Joyce: Trojan Horses in Ulysses (Printwellbooks.com) Senan Molony proves Ulysses reflects Homer’s other epic, The Iliad, with dozens of characters revealed as disguised figures of legend, including Cassandra, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

On Bloomsday, Sagging Meniscus Press publishes David Collard’s Multiple Joyce: 100 Short Essays About James Joyce’s Cultural Legacy with a foreword by Rónán Hession. Literary critic Collard discovers many Joyces, often in disguise, wherever he looks – whether at Ally Sloper, Borsalino hats, Anthony Burgess, Cher, first editions, Flann O’Brien, Guinness, Hattie Jacques, John Cage, Kim Kardashian, Lego, Moby-Dick, pianos, Princess Grace, puns, The Ramones, Sally Rooney, Stanley Unwin, Star Wars, waxworks or Zylo spectacles. Joyce: our ubiquitous, indispensable Everyman.
Madeleine Keane


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