‘Because it’s there” is the famous reply given to those who ask why one should climb a particularly challenging mountain. Something of the same monumental quality applies to Ulysses. The sheer desire to see what all the fuss is about might be one of the most basic reasons for tackling it.
What are the rewards? And it is better, I think, to talk about rewards rather than harping on about challenges. There is, firstly, an expansion of horizons. One’s idea of what words, what literature can do is massively widened; all kinds of fresh experiences are provided. Grammar, syntax, parts of speech, all undergo extraordinary metamorphoses.
Here, for instance, is the blonde, blue-eyed barmaid Miss Douce eyeing the appealing-looking Blazes Boylan: “Sparkling blonde azure eyed Blazure’s skyblue bow and eyes.” “Blazes” becomes “Blazure” due to the influence of all the blue around: these are the sirens of the sea after all. Or again, as a carriage draws up to the side of the road: “The felly [the iron outer rim of the wheel] harshed against the curbstone: stopped.” The adjective “harsh” is turned into a verb to convey the sound and feeling of the wheel coming into contact with the side of the pavement. Finally, here is Buck Mulligan preparing to eat a scone: “Buck Mulligan slit a steaming scone in two and plastered butter over its smoking pith.”
Then there is the experience of Dublin, its living, breathing texture. Joyce’s attention to the details of the city, its shops, its pubs, its street furniture, surrounds the reader just as it does Joyce’s characters.
It’s an immersive experience, especially for those deeply familiar with Dublin, who delight in tracking Joyce’s geography, checking his occasional deliberate (and very occasionally unintentional) errors. Plus the chance to relish his rendering of Dublin argot: “Eh mister! Your fly is open, mister!”
Most of all, there is the chance to meet one of the most fascinating characters in all literature. Leopold Bloom is not quite the liberal icon he is sometimes made out to be. But in his sheer humanity, his gentleness, his frailties, his patience, his curiosity, his tenacity, he reaches out to all of us. And behind him stands (or rather lies) his formidable wife Molly, with whom, in her closing monologue, we get as up close and personal as it is possible to get in literature.
Aspects of the work may fade from the memory, but this pair, once encountered, are there to stay. One hundred years is but the blink of an eye for characters with such permanent presence.
An updated edition of ‘Ulysses Unbound’ (Penguin) by Terence Killeen is out now