Yes it’s June 16th, and that means Bloomsday, the annual celebration of the life and work of James Joyce, and in particular his novel, Ulysses.
This year, it is also the day I embark on Phase 2 of my plan to read the damned thing (and looking for friends who want to read along btw, message if interested). “Phases?” you ask. “Why do you need phases?” Well, I’ll let the author himself explain:
“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
That’s the epigraph of one of the supplementary books about Ulysses I bought to start this project. Yup. I bought books about the book I’m going to read. It’s that kind of book.
Phase 1 was reading Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study. Now, I get a lot of pushback about this. People insist I should just read the book then read the books about the book , but I think that with a little preparation I’ll get much more out of it.
I once started Ulysses cold, so I know there’s tons I didn’t pick up on. Gilbert’s little book (just 405 pages) has a great discussion of themes, literary and historical references, a breakdown of each chapter with extensive quotes (so if you’ve not read it, it still makes sense). There’s even a handy dandy chart. Yay, charts!! THIS IS A BOOK THAT REQUIRES CHARTS. Jays.
It also requires notes, copious copious notes. Apparently. Which is why I also got my hands on Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman, published by the University of California Press (Go Bears!), and which includes that little epigraph above.
So I’m finishing the Gilbert (Phase 1) and starting the novel itself (Phase 2). Hopefully there is no Phase 3. Phase 3 is for people doing doctoral dissertations, I think.
By now you’re thinking, “Karina, I only clicked on this post because the title mentions a hand down someone’s trousers, what’s that about?”
Mostly, it’s me being facetious, but also there’s this: Ulysses takes place on just one day in Dublin, June 16th, 1904. Even a quick Wikipedia search will tell you that was the day of Joyce’s first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. But Wikipedia leaves out the juicy bits. Namely, the fact that Nora was quite the liberated lady and that on their first date she gave him a handjob that still reverberates throughout the literary world, resulting in academic sparring along the lines of:
“Professor Donoghue uses the ‘decent’ word ‘masturbated,’ although as far as I know this verb cannot be used in combination with a direct object; Joyce himself would never sin against the rules of grammar in order to sound decent.”
I haven’t done a lot of biographical research on Joyce at this point, but apparently Nora’s sexual experience was a continual source of insecurity for him (and his own sexual experience at the time of said handjob is fodder for yet more academic debate it seems – see same article above). It is surprising to me that a man who wrote a book that was banned for obscenity still suffered from such conventional hang ups about sex and women. I haven’t read a feminist critique of Ulysses yet, but I’m sure I’ll get to that at some point.
In sum, an aspiring writer falls for a dexterous young chambermaid on their first outing and immortalizes the date in his greatest novel. And that is Bloomsday (named for the protagonist, Leopold Bloom, whose wife, Molly Bloom is, of course, very much inspired by Nora).
Bloomsday celebrations have been going on for a while, but the best one has to be when a bunch of literary admirers, including Flann O’Brien got together for the 50th anniversary (so, 1954) and decided to do a pilgrimage/ pub crawl through Dublin. However, “The pilgrimage was abandoned halfway through, when the weary pilgrims succumbed to inebriation and rancour at the Bailey pub in the city centre.” And, from the little I’ve read about Joyce and drink, that seems perfectly fitting.
And there’s video!! Happy Bloomsday!!