Wednesday 23 October 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Never read Joyce's Bloomsday masterpiece? Don't fret. Here's my infallible cheat sheet'

The bluffer’s guide to Ulysses

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Dublin celebrates Bloomsday tomorrow, but it's surprising how frequently people disclose that they've never actually read Joyce's Ulysses. The book has been described as "disconcertingly unreadable", even by admirers.

But the writer Clare Boylan showed me how to approach Ulysses. It's not really a novel - it's a hotchpotch consisting of episodes. You don't read it conventionally: you dip into it, in "post-modern" style.

So here's the recipe: take a paperback copy of the tome, and mark the episodes as separate chapters. Joyce, who sought to "keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant" didn't number his chapters, but the reader must. Then choose which episodes you wish to read, and if you so desire, skip what doesn't engage.

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Episode 1: In which "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" larks around laddishly with Stephen Dedalus and an Englishman called Haines at a Martello Tower. The famous phrase "the snotgreen sea" occurs.

Episode 2: Schoolroom scene, with Mr Deasy, misogynist and anti-Semite. The controversial Galway Harbour scheme is mentioned (Galway was proposed as a major Atlantic harbour, but somehow lost out).

Episode 3: In which Maud Gonne makes her first appearance by name, as does Felix Faure, the French President who died suddenly in the Élysée Palace, over-excited by the ministrations of his young mistress.

Episode 4: The renowned menu scene, in which Leopold Bloom (who is Ulysses) "ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls". Most savoured is grilled mutton kidneys with "a fine tang of faintly scented urine".

Episode 5: A topographic tour of Dublin in which it emerges that Paddy Dignam is dead of apoplexy, though he was in hale health only the previous Friday. Philosophical deliberations on the accoutrements of religion - flowers, incense, candles, the confessional.

Episode 6: From Tritonville Road in Sandymount, in a horse-drawn carriage, Leopold ponders on how life begins and ends - his wife's pregnancy, his dead son Rudy - as he passes by Our Lady's Hospice for the Dying.

Episode 7: An entertaining section written in the style of the tabloid press, with clichéd headlines. And a brilliant evocation of the sound of Dublin trams departing from Nelson's Pillar.

Episode 8: More peregrinations around Dublin, with Joyce's "stream-of-consciousness" technique, capturing the non-sequitur thoughts that sometimes flit through our heads. Leopold enters Davy Byrne's "moral pub".

Episode 9: A long section written in dialogue form, illuminating JJ's interest in Hamlet. Tediously over-written.

Episode 10: Sleek Father Conmee S.J., epitome of the worldly and sociable Jesuit, steps out for a walk, encountering Mrs David Sheehy (Conor Cruise O'Brien's aunt). Lord Dudley, Viceroy, passes in cavalcade.

Episode 11: Stylistic change of key, featuring two barmaids, Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy.

Episode 12: Political discourse. Sinn Féin gets a plug. As does Europe. "Our eyes are on Europe…" Old Irish trade with Spain and France is extolled. A copious list of saints and holy people is appended.

Episode 13: Gerty MacDowell, "jilted beauty", limps on Sandymount Strand, erotically watched by Leopold.

Episode 14: A dense and complex chapter known as "The Hospital". Meditations on birth and death again.

Episode 15: The brothel section. Written in dialogue, somewhat abstract and surreal. Long dream sequence in which Leopold beholds his dead son.

Episode 16: An exploration of Dublin's night-town, which includes a warning against sexually transmitted disease: a young fellow might be presented "with a nice dose to last him a lifetime".

Episode 17: Leopold and Stephen Dedalus converse on "music, literature, Ireland, Paris, friendships, women, prostitution, diet… the Roman Catholic church, ecclesiastical celibacy, the Irish nation", and much more. Very contemporary! The chapter includes a musical score and Leopold's expenditure for the day (£2.19s.3d).

Episode 18: The famous Molly Bloom sequence: 42 pages of "interior monologue" and erotic thoughts, without a full stop or comma throughout, ending in the famous climax of "Yes", so often copied and parodied.

Ulysses has been described as catechism, drama, poetry, music, a topography of Dublin, "an epic of two races - Israel and Ireland", and, at its first appearance in the 1920s, a work of pornography. Even Virginia Woolf thought it "indecent" and "low". Basically, it was unsettlingly candid about the promptings of the flesh in a way which had previously been inadmissible in serious literature.

But it was never banned in Ireland. It was banned in America (prosecuted by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice) and prohibited in Britain under the law of obscenity. But nobody in Ireland ever submitted it to the Censorship Board. A Dublin wag said: "A book that costs 25 shillings (more than the average weekly wage) bans itself!"

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