Ulysses, the book everyone knows but no one has read, turns 100

Puberty Blues co-author Gabrielle Carey first encountered the last page of James Joyce’s classic Ulysses at her piano teacher’s house as a 16-year-old.

It was a loose page of the most beautiful poetic language imaginable – we set it to music and sang it, she recalls. But it took her another 20 years to read what many call the greatest piece of 20th- century fiction written in English. Reading it took two years, and she had it read aloud to her using a helpful guidebook, the secret, many Joyceans say, to understanding the Irish novelist’s genius.

This Thursday, Carey, a more than 40-year Joyce aficionado, will read the book aloud on Bloomsday – June 16, the day on which the events of Ulysses were set in 1904. It will be part of the centenary celebrations of the novel that was twice banned in Australia, at an event organised by the Consulate-General of Ireland and the University of Sydney.

It was a book that changed English literature and even today I’d encourage everyone to read it and reread it because we are still learning to be Joyce’s contemporaries – he was so ahead of his time in terms of gender fluidity, his voice is so astonishingly female in the final chapter, Carey says.

From Sydney to Santiago, Melbourne to the Martello towers where it begins on the Irish coast, the book will be toasted around the world with readings, dress-up re-enactments, glasses of Irish whiskey raised on the day that is now the key event in the Irish calendar after St Patrick’s Day.

Since 1988, the James Joyce Foundation in Australia has hosted walks, talks and re-enactments in Sydney and Melbourne and now there’s a Stephen Fry calls the most perfectly written book.

No other book has a day named for it – not even Shakespeare, says Professor Ronan McDonald, the Irish-born Gerry Higgins chair of Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne.

A century after its publication, Ulysses is too often on the hole-in-the-bucket list: not those things you really want to experience before you die (snorkelling in the Maldives), but those you feel you should accomplish but probably won’t (fitting back into your wedding clothes), he says.

So what’s the reason for its enduring universal appeal, given its rank as both a literary masterpiece and one of the world’s hardest books to read?

As a piece of work it really broke the mould in terms of style and content with its stream-of- consciousness writing, says the Irish Consul-General in Sydney, Rosie Keane. The notoriety because it was banned and the fact the re-enactments took off since the first big Bloomsday celebrations by literary figures in 1954 in Dublin helped its popularity there.

The diaspora element took it all around the world too, because when reading the book you can really hear the Irish accents, she says. For the Irish it is a journey back home in a book.

And as we mark 100 years since Sylvia Beach, an American in Paris, defied censorship and published 1000 copies of Joyce’s Ulysses on his 40th birthday from her bookshop Shakespeare & Company, the other burning question is how many have actually read Joyce’s 18-chapter, 933-page tome?

People often buy Ulysses, but don’t finish it. I don’t think there is a book of the 20th century that’s been so often bought and not read, says McDonald, who will host a symposium at the University of Melbourne this Bloomsday to delve into the intricacies of the book.

Approached in the right way Ulysses is a warm and welcoming book, an epic of the ordinary and everyday, McDonald says.

The drama centres around Leopold Bloom, who spends the day in Dublin, wandering around to avoid going home because his wife Molly is about to begin an affair. Each chapter is written in a different style: one chapter is a play, another a bodice-ripper romance and the final chapter is a 22,000-word soliloquy; all of it with allusions to Homer’s Odyssey.

It went from a novel no one wanted to publish to the great book of modern times that everyone wanted to have read. It was banned in the US, UK and Australia, but now it has thousands of followers and has been taken up as a great festival of Ireland around the world, says McDonald, who himself has taken part in re-enactments on Bondi Beach with fellow Joyceans, including Carey.

It is an extraordinary work of literary genius and encyclopaedic ambition, which deploys a multitude of formal techniques. Yet its interior monologue is profoundly relatable, as readers identify with a mind in the process of thinking. It goes where the novel has never gone before, and its frank depictions of bodily functions and erotic fantasies can still be confronting, including Molly Bloom’s famously unpunctuated soliloquy at the end, detailing her assignation with her lover Blazes Boylan, McDonald says.

Robert Phiddian, a professor of English at Flinders University who has taught Joyce’s Ulysses for over 30 years, encourages reading a chapter a year as a way to appreciate its verbal playfulness.

It’s a big and difficult book that not many readers complete, but the fact it is available still in all good bookstores around the world a century after publication speaks to its popularity, Phiddian says. In an era when long-form reading is under threat, the perfect way to read Ulysses is ‘slow’ reading . . . it is definitely not ‘Insta-friendly’.

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