Daniel Mulhall’s punchy guide to Joyce’s notoriously difficult tome, perhaps controversially, tells us the bits we can skim over
The inventor of Colman’s Mustard boasted that he made his fortune not from the mustard that people ate but from the mustard they left on their plates. Likewise, the James Joyce estate probably gets a substantial share of its royalties from the pages of Ulysses that are left unread by readers who give up after the opening episodes.
The novel is an astonishing work of genius. But if you previously abandoned attempts to scale its linguistic cliffs and reach Molly’s resounding “yes” on its final page, don’t feel too downheartened. You’re not alone. Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann concluded that while WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw both recognised it as a masterpiece, its possible that neither finished it.
But the brilliance of how Joyce reveals one man’s thoughts during a single day — and captures the humour, rancour and political faultlines of 1904 Dublin — is that you never finish reading it, even if you make it from start to finish several times,. Subtle new discoveries and incendiary flashes of wit always lurk to ambush you.
Reading is normally a solitary business, but Ulysses is one imaginative journey where a knowledgeable, companionable guide is useful. The novel contains 265,000 words, divided into 18 episodes in a dazzling array of styles, so there can be great solace in being able to metaphorically raise an eyebrow to someone and say: “Yes, it’s brilliant, but what linguistic three-card trick is he playing now?”
Daniel Mulhall’s Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey is hardly the first book to attempt to steer readers through the novel. Respected academics have contextualised it page by page. And if you wish to superimpose Joyce’s Dublin over the contemporary capital, then The Ulysses Guide by Robert Nicholson, former curator of the James Joyce Tower, is a brilliantly informative “walking tour” of the streets Bloom traversed.
Mulhall’s book is more a “reading tour” of a novel that equally fascinates and frustrates readers. Its release marks the centenary of the Ulysses’ publication by Sylvia Beach in Paris on Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2, 1922. Beach was courageous because Joyce’s works involved controversy and battles with censors. The original publisher of Dubliners grew so scared of its realistic portrayal of Dublin that he burnt the first edition rather than have readers’ souls corrupted.
The opening of Ulysses is as stylistically realistic as Dubliners. But it grows increasingly complex as Joyce delves into stream of consciousness thoughts of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, reinventing the novel in innovative and sometimes bewildering ways.
Mulhall’s guide wisely does not attempt to explain everything. Indeed he offers advice — sacrilegious for some Joyceans — on which overtly complex episodes readers might skim over and rely on his summary instead.
The clarity and conciseness of his commentary stems from its origins. Mulhall is Ireland’s ambassador to the United States. During 40 years in the diplomatic service, he has frequently given talks to explain Joyce and Ireland to foreign audiences. He has done so with a passion for literature but also a recognition that the worldwide interest in Irish writers is a great calling card for our diplomats, creating connections to people who know nothing else about Ireland.
I’m unsure how Joyce would react to becoming part of Irish soft diplomatic power, but Mulhall’s scholarship is at least in contrast to one Irish politician who described Waiting for Godot in the European Parliament as “Beckett’s novel”.
Mulhall notes how the Free State came into being at the same time as Joyce’s novel appeared, but maintains a diplomatic silence about how cagily Joyce and this new state circled each other. The author declined to apply for an Irish passport, which might have made his final years easier in war-torn Europe, and Éamon de Valera’s government declined to be represented to his funeral. But Mulhall’s dual perspective as a diplomat and scholar fuels his book’s uniqueness. It becomes not just a guide for readers but also an account of his own relationship with the novel, ever since he took a copy with him to New Delhi when commencing his diplomatic odyssey in 1980.
His book started as a blog on the Irish embassy website in Washington, written to give readers a way into Ulysses. The product of decades of scholarship, it benefited from being written in short bursts, in whatever free time ambassadors can snatch. It makes his commentary punchy and to the point, while weaving in his own memories.
When succinctly explaining the formidable Oxen of the Sun episode — where Bloom encounters the drunken Stephen among dissolute medical students, and where Joyce parodies 30 writers across the centuries — Mulhall notes how, Joyce is “manifestly intent on displaying his wares, showing off his writing skills”, using language that is both exuberant and exhibitionist.
While Mulhall’s celebration of Ulysses is exuberant, nowhere can his writing be accused of being exhibitionist. He modestly refers to his book as just turning the sod on Joyce’s masterpiece, but it is more than that. An informed, enjoyable guide, it homes in on Ulysses’ emotional core: on Bloom’s subtle triumphs as he endures mockery and humiliation to re-enter his wife’s bed in a state of equanimity; on Molly’s all too human contradictions and Stephen’s isolation.
If you decide to read Ulysses again, Mulhall’s guide won’t guarantee that you’ll reach the end, but you will at least have a convivial companion to confer with.
Non-fiction: Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey by Daniel Mulhall
New Island, 324 pages, hardcover €15.99; e-book £6.49