Entertainment Books

Tuesday 18 June 2019

'Ulysses is easy... I've read it 59 times - you can too' - PJ Murphy

With Bloomsday next month, PJ Murphy shares tips to mark the novel off your bucket list, writes Niamh Horan

Joycean tips: PJ Murphy, managing director of Sweny's Chemist on Lincoln Place, which featured in James Joyce's 'Ulysses'. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Joycean tips: PJ Murphy, managing director of Sweny's Chemist on Lincoln Place, which featured in James Joyce's 'Ulysses'. Photo: Steve Humphreys

US presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg made headlines around the world recently when he claimed James Joyce's Ulysses was his favourite book.

Deemed the hardest book in the English language - many bibliophiles merely pretend to have completed it, while those who have managed it, speak as though they've conquered Everest.

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Now meet the man who has surpasssed them all and claims to have read the epic novel an amazing 59 times.

Not only has Dubliner PJ Murphy read it so many times, he has done so in several languages including Italian, French, Spanish and German.

And far from joining those who tapped out after staring at the pages without absorbing a word, he claims "it is the easiest book in the world to read - you just have to know how".

Sitting behind the counter of Sweny's chemists in Dublin's Lincoln Place, he said: "I first picked it up when I was 19 but I didn't finish it. Then many, many years later, in my fifties, I went back. It's never too late. Now, every time I read it, something new pops out that I hadn't seen before."

Far from boasting about his achievement, Murphy plays it down, saying anyone can follow in his footsteps if they give themselves the chance.

"It's wrongly seen as an academic book, but Joyce made Ulysses accessible to everyone," he says.

"In fact one of the very first copies he handed out was to the local concierge. He wrote it for ordinary people."

Murphy, whose store features in the novel, says people just have to know "there's a knack to it".

In fact, he usually reads it from cover to cover over a few short weeks.

His first piece of advice for those hoping to conquer the iconic tome is to "read it aloud".

He says: "Joyce wrote it phonetically, he loved playing with languages and words, so if you read it aloud you will grasp the actual words, whereas if you read it silently, they will seem to disappear."

His next tip goes against the well-worn advice to take a page or two at a time. Instead, he says: "Read it until your mind starts to wander - and then put it down. I would never limit myself to a goal."

Like eating a nice piece of cake until you're just satisfied, he says: "I read it until I have had enough."

But he says his favourite reading sessions are with a group of people taking turns "with a glass [of whiskey] in one hand and the book in the other.

"When you read it with friends, the words just dance off the page."

Asked if he has shed a tear between the covers, he says "of course! Everyone cries in it. Sometimes the fact that I have finished it again, I cry with joy."

Imparting his best Joycean tip for writers, he says: "Joyce doesn't describe anyone in detail. He just gives you hints about how the character is or moves, like the slight turn of their wrist or a simple glance.

"Everyone falls in love with their own idea of a hero, so he just gives a hint and lets the reader fill in the blanks."

But Murphy quips that his literary obsession might be the reason he is still single.

The 69-year-old says: "I haven't found a wife yet. Maybe it's the reason," he laughs.

Far from his passion of impressing women, he says: "I think it might put them off, maybe I shouldn't tell them," he laughs, "They wonder 'has he not got a life?'"

Famous for its pornographic content, the novel has been likened to sex, with one critic commenting how "although sometimes unpleasant, there's a big pay-off at the end".

The final page even ends in a climax and Murphy says no one writes about sex like Joyce: "Nobody writes with a sexual impact as well as he does. He doesn't mince his words. He goes straight for the jugular."

Murphy recalls during one reading with a number of high-profile guests from the Argentinian Embassy, passages were chosen that were particularly pornographic.

After finishing the reading, he looked up to a shocked room. "Anybody have any questions?" he asked. He was met with dead silence.

On another occasion, a well-heeled woman in her 60s and her daughter in her 30s came to take part in one of the reading groups.

Murphy says the mother "read the raunchiest verses with tremendous panache and enthusiasm".

As soon as she finished, her daughter, still staring at her, mouth agape, could only utter the memorable line: "I've only ever heard you read your prayer book like that."

Mr Murphy insists that the book is for every type of reader and should be viewed as such, "there is something in it for everyone".

On the best life advice he has taken from it, he says: "The entire novel takes place in Dublin on a single day. The best advice I can take from that is that you just have to enjoy life one moment at a time."

Group readings are held in Sweny's chemists, Dublin, between 1-2pm seven days a week in five languages. No pre-booking required. It's free but donations are welcome. Tea is served and evening readings conclude with a pint in Conway's pub. On June 16 the group will enjoy a breakfast which recreates the meal served in Calypso, chapter four of Ulysses.

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