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Facts about Bloomsday and Joyce’s Ulysses

Every year, 16 June marks Bloomsday, the day on which fans of James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses celebrate this modernist masterpiece. June 16 was selected for this celebration because it is the day on which all of the events in the novel take place (June 16th 1904 to be precise). Here are some interesting facts, in honour of the event, and the novel it commemorates.

ulysses

Joyce’s novel is by no means the only novel to use the device of setting its happenings on just one day: Herman Melville had already done this in his 1857 novel The Confidence-Man, the first novel to be about the new phenomenon of the ‘con man’ (a term that had only recently been coined). Melville’s novel was published on April 1st 1857, and would appear to take place on this date too (April Fools’ Day – because of the link between con men and fooling people). Joyce’s fellow modernist, Virginia Woolf, also set one of her novels, Mrs Dalloway (1925), on one single day, also in June (though in her case the year was 1923). Other novels to adopt the ‘set over one day’ device are Ian McEwan’s Saturday (set on 15 February 2003, the day of an anti-Iraq invasion demonstration) and, perhaps most famously, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).

Joyce chose this date, 16 June 1904, for the events of Ulysses because it was the date on which he went on his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. In fact, it could be argued that it was their second date, not their first: their first date had never happened, as Nora had failed to make it, and had left Joyce standing (aptly) outside the house of the father of Oscar Wilde, in Merrion Square. But on this second date, things progressed smoothly, with Nora … ahem, manually pleasuring Joyce to orgasm on a park bench in Dublin. As Joyce put it in a later letter, ‘you who slid your hand down inside my trousers and pulled my shirt softly aside and touched my prick with your long tickling fingers and gradually took it all, fat and stiff as it was, into your hand and frigged me slowly until I came off through your fingers, all the time bending over me and gazing at me out of your quiet saintlike eyes.’ Well…!

This gives an insight into why masturbation plays such an important role in Ulysses: not only does the hero, Leopold Bloom, pleasure himself on a beach during a fireworks display, but the novel ends with a long stream-of-consciousness monologue from Leopold’s wife Molly, while she pleasures herself to orgasm, and to the final words of the novel: ‘and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’ Such concerns seemed to be of great importance to Joyce, and he did not shy away from treating them in detail in Ulysses. A stranger in a cafe in Zurich once seized James Joyce by the mitt and said, ‘May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?’ Joyce replied, ‘No – it did lots of other things too.’

Monroe

It was because of such content, among other things, that Ulysses was banned in Britain until the 1930s, more than a decade after it was published. (It was similarly banned in the US until 1934.) However, it was available across the Channel in Paris, where it was published in 1922 by Shakespeare and Company – and those in the know, particularly other writers, got a copy and read it. Some were unimpressed. Virginia Woolf, for instance, likened the novel to ‘a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’, while Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence, said that it was ‘a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel; & until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation & thought can make a work of art without the cook’s intervening.’ But others have been decidedly more impressed: Samuel Beckett, who worked as Joyce’s secretary while Joyce completed his next (and last) novel, Finnegans Wake, was to be hugely influenced by Joyce and by this novel, and that latter-day Wilde, Stephen Fry, has famously praised the novel as his favourite, claiming to reread it every year.

The novel, as its title suggests, is a retelling of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, about Greek hero Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan Wars (a journey which took him ten years). Joyce had been interested in the figure of Odysseus (Ulysses being the Roman name for the hero) since his schooldays, and organised Ulysses around eighteen episodes, each of which is devised to echo one of the episodes from Homer’s epic. Not only that, but each section of Joyce’s novel has its own colour, its own symbol, its own organ of the body. Joyce’s attention to detail was impressive. The opening line of the novel reads: ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’ The first nine words, as Joyce scholar Hugh Kenner observed, mimic the dactylic hexameter of Homer’s Greek verse.

This attention to detail is only part of Joyce’s wider interest in, and skill with, language in the novel. He also gets swearwords in there, sometimes through wordplay. The Prison Gate Girls sing the following piece of verse: ‘If you see kay / Tell him he may / See you in tea / Tell him from me’, where the first and third lines spell out ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’. But he also simply uses the latter word too, when Leopold Bloom talks about ‘the grey sunken cunt of the world.’ This is another reason – arguably the chief reason – why Ulysses could not be published in the UK in 1922. But Joyce was an artist of principle (and also wildly egotistical at times) who refused to cave in to editors’ and publishers’ demands, and would not have countenanced the word’s removal.

The Modern Library Publishing House has named Ulysses as the best novel of the twentieth century (with The Great Gatsby second). If you wish to read more about Joyce’s novel, then allow us to recommend this post by friend of IL and blogger extraordinaire, the Argumentative Old Git, who goes into more detail than this introductory smorgasbord has allowed. Happy Bloomsday, all!

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on June 16, 2013, in Fiction, History, Literature, Novels and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 75 Comments.

  1. This is such a fascinating and insightful post about Ulysses; I don’t know much about Joyce, other than that he hated Ireland, so this was a real eye opener!

  2. Why Bloom should get a day when most fictional characters don’t is a mystery to me.

  3. Let me add in this fr–g occasion an anecdote: Once Joyce was accosted by an admirer in Zurich, ‘May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses? Joyce said somewhat like King Lear,’ No it did lots of other things too.'(ack: Oxford Book of Literary anecdotes-ed.James Sutherland.) Buck Mulligan in the book is modelled after Oliver St.John Gogarty, who was a great character himself. I have posted some anecdotes about him in WP.

  4. Aw, Didn’t I spoil that one! you have already covered the anecdote. Please overlook it.

  5. Thomas Mansell

    An even better reply to the complimentary stranger in the Zurich café would have been “Yes – it did a lot of other things too.”

  6. Bloom is introduced thus: ‘..ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards etc., Most of all he liked grilled muttonkidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine..’ Since reading this my joy of kidneys always been Joycean. Often I dip into the book for the sheer pleasure of it. A poet, he juggles with life in such brilliance, wit, schoolboy perverseness what have you. Thanks,

    • I seem to laugh out loud at different places every time I read it, but the one part that gets me every single time:

      Talis ac tanta depravatio hujus seculi, O quirites, ut matres familiarum nostræ lascivas cujuslibet semiviri libici titillationes testibus ponderosis atque excelsis erectionibus centurionum Romanorum magnopere anteponunt.

      (Translation: Of such a kind and so great is the depravity of our generation, O citizens, that our matrons much prefer the lascivious titillations of Gallic half-men to the weighty testicles and extraordinary erections of the Roman centurion.)

    • Oops, did not mean that to be a reply to your comment.

  7. If you wish to read more about Joyce’s novel one of the best (if self-evident) things to do is to read it. As a Dublin local I see/hear so much about Bloomsday events, Joyce walking tours etc I often think ‘does anyone attempt the book itself anymore?’
    Excellent post.

  8. Stuff Jeff Reads

    Excellent! Makes me want to reread it. I need to read Finnigan’s Wake first, though ;-)

  9. i had no idea about the rich background of this. thanks for filling us in )

  10. I hardly know whether I dare own up to starting to read Ulysses and nearly dying of boredom … I found it impossible to finish so I guess modernist writings are not for me …

    I’m a storyteller … I need to read stories that telling something about the human condition rather than obsessing about … er … w*****g. And if you can give a lengthy soliloquy whilst pleasuring oneself (Leopold Bloom’s wife, Molly) then you sure ain’t doing it right! Just don’t ask me how I know.

    I’m afraid I found Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ the same … unfinishable by minutiae. The character of Mrs D. too was, for me, particularly unsympathetic and possibly rather repellant.

    I guess I’ll just never be one of the literati … *sigh*.

    • Don’t worry, I think it is a very different approach from the storytelling approach to fiction (which I admire greatly). I’ve often thought, when reading Joyce and Woolf, that you somehow need to stop and tell yourself you’re not reading fiction when you’re reading them, you’re reading a new sort of prose poetry almost, so that you don’t approach it with the same expectations as you would, of a conventional work of fiction…

      • I think that is a very sound … and unpretentious … way of looking at it, IL … I will certainly bear that in mind and have another go. How tolerant you are of me :)

    • I too never managed to get through Ulysses–but it might be because I tried at the tender age of 20. VW, however, I studied in college, and I love Mrs. Dalloway. Have you tried the modern play on that book? (The Hours by …. Michael someone whose name I have temporarily lost!)

      • Michael Cunningham? Ah yes, haven’t read it but have seen the film which I love, although some of the updating of the Mrs Dalloway story seemed a little tokenistic. Still, we love Woolf here at IL – will have to devote a future post to her.

  11. Storytelling is only a part of literature. Human condition as it is lived is diffuse, jumble of emotions and its impact is lost. Instead it is indeed great service literature does giving pleasure, pain and our perplexity a context, a template to measure from. Literature, as with art connects and we may thus connect to draw fresh insights from an author like Joyce or Woolf.

  12. I have a beat up ol’ reading copy of this book in my collection. It’s on the shelf right next to Tolstoy’s War and Peace of which I’ve never been able to get past page 146 (don’t tell the Argumentative Ol’ Git, though). I suppose one day I should give Joyce a go… just to say that I did it.

    A wonderful article. Oh, and thanks for following my blog. I’m no Hemingway, but there is an occasional good piece there.

    Take care,

    ~Eric

    • My pleasure – it was great to find your blog. And thanks! I haven’t read War and Peace either – it’s top of the list to tackle one day, when I’m feeling bold enough – so you’ve made it farther than I have. I think approaching Joyce expecting to get lots out of it – as you would, say, with a realist novel by George Eliot or a Dickens novel – is what puts many people off. You have to prepare to find it a little confusing and odd and then you get carried along by it eventually. Having said that, I still find Finnegans Wake (of which I’ve read the first forty pages or so) something of an enigma.

      • War and Peace just seems like one of those books I should like. I keep trying. Unfortunately, I find it to be better as a sleep aid than narcotic prescription medications. ;)

  13. Really insightful post about a book about which there are far too many preconceptions! As much as I love literature, I think it is really interesting why people feel they ‘should read’ a book – I am guilty of it myself – and Ulysses is a prime example! thank you for stopping by my blog too, always interesting reads on your site so it’s a true compliment! Happy Bloomsday!

    • Thanks, and to you, Alice! I think you’re right: Ulysses is one which people feel they should tackle just so they can join that select club of people who’ve made it out the other end. Having said that, I think it’s a book which, if you ‘get’ it, can change your life – though I think I’m still adjusting to it in small ways myself. Little by little, as Aesop said…

  14. What a wonderful post! Thanks for following my blog :).

  15. I should also say thanks for the post. I hadn’t known all of this—the anecdote about the hand is particularly amusing. I also wrote a piece for Bloomsday; read if you’re interested: http://dyssebeia.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/imperthnthn-thnthnthn/ — A bit of interpretation of Sirens.

    • Loved it! Thanks so much for linking to your take on the Sirens episode. I need to go and reread it now (well, the whole novel in fact), so will have to do so with your piece in mind and then return to it again afterwards. Great stuff.

      • Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. I didn’t manage to read any more than Sirens yesterday, but the silver lining is that I noticed things I’d never noticed before—much of what I wrote about was new to me.

  16. Your post is interesting. I’ve read Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, but not James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Your review has made me want to read it. Will get a copy.

  17. Naughty James, to tell the truth I´ve heard of this writer as if I heard about some random person who jumped a red light, so he´s one of the greatest and writing about what at the time I´m sure would be tabu, pushing the boundaries. As always I love the little unknown facts that gives much more insight I believe into the writer and his process.

    • He pushed the boundaries in so many ways – his style, his subject matter, and even among the modernists he seems to have been something of an oddity. Great writer – and ‘writer’ really is the only word!

  18. Fascinating- I’ve been ducking ” Ulysses” all my life- maybe it’s time to read it.

  19. happy (now belated) bloomsday to you! thanks for checking out my bloomsday post – it’s nice to know that people everywhere are celebrating ulysses

  20. I’m unreasonably scared of Joyce – my plan is to listen to Ulysses one day on audio book. With the right reader I think it could be a fantastic experience.

  21. Loved the post, but find the book … strangely repellent. Have tried to read Ulysses a number of times, but it just doesn’t do it for me. Maybe it’s time to have another go?

    • I know friends who are on their seventh attempt, so I reckon – yes, give it another try. Maybe the secret is to take it little by little? It’s too vast, too dense, to wade through. It needs to be gingerly dipped in at first, like lowering oneself into cold water…

  22. Joyce’s original manuscript is in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia USA. We do a moderately good job of celebrating the day.

  23. Illuminating post, and very helpful. I think you have cured me of any desire to fit Joyce into my time-pressed reading list. Maybe in another ten year’s time…
    Thank you for visiting and following.

    • Thanks for the comment, Hilary. That’s true – it’s one of those novels that demand a fair amount of time investment, but then I suppose it’s not quite as formidable as War and Peace, at least!

  24. Great post! Ulysses is one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I know I will get so much more out of it the next time I read it:)

  25. In my humble opinion,the worst way to try to read ULYSSES is the pubho eschelished order of chapters (episodes). A first-time reader of ULYSSES could approach the separate chapters of the novel as stand-alone short stories. Although the chapters do echo each other, during one’s first time through one usually does not recognize such echoing. One may as well make one’s initial odyssey through the chapters in order of increasing difficulty. See if one likes it. Keep on going until either one does not or one elects to consult the guides.

    My subjective ordering of sets of sets of chapters (i.e. relatively easier starting with 10, then seemingly easy, difficult, more difficult, and most difficult) is:

    { 10: Wandering Rocks, 13: Nausikaa, 2: Nestor, 8: Lestrygonians }

    { 4: Calypso, 5: Lotus-eaters, 6: Hades, 11: Sirens, 16: Eumeus }

    { 1: Telemachus, 7: Eolus, 12: Cyclops, 9: Scylla and Charybdis }

    { 15: Circe, 18: Penelope, 17: Ithaca }

    { 14: Oxen of the Sun, 3: Proteus }

    • Really helpful, thanks for this. It seems to me this is one of the chief problems people have with approaching Ulysses – I think people would find this ordering of the relevant chapters highly useful. Cheers!

  26. Hi, thanks for ‘liking’ my Bloomsday post. I was at a talk in Dublin (the NGI) this week by Trevor White of the Little Museum of Dublin where they have a copy of the first edition of Ulysess. He asked for a show of hands of anyone who had read the book. About 7 people put a hand up (of whom I was not one, I have to confess). White then went on to say that the museum’s copy is left open at the last page so that visitors may be able to say they’ve read the ending! I believe, that while the book was never actually banned in Joyce’s home country, I don’t think it was made available here until the 1960s.

    • Ha! You mean it trumps all of those detective novels which people skip to the last page to read, just so they can find out how it ends? Ulysses does have a great ending, though. Thanks for the insightful comment!

  27. I have just nominated your for the Super Sweet Blog Award!
    http://jrbarker101.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/super-sweet-blogging-award/

  28. Thanks so much for the follow, which of course brought me here. Like your literary ‘slant’ – the back-story. Lots to learn and think about. Will be back for more.

  29. Thanks Tish, we hope you enjoy what you find here.

  30. Hi! I nominated you for the Sunshine Award. Please go to http://gettingridofboredom.wordpress.com/2013/06/22/my-ray-of-sunshine/ to get more info. Hope you accept it. :)

  31. I say this in all sincerity: This is the most intelligent blog I’ve ever read. Thank you for giving me hope for the future of the written word.

  32. Excellent post! I’ve always been a Joyce & Ulysses fan and finally toured dear, dirty Dublin two years ago. Ironically, my wedding anniversary is June 16th, to commemorate my first date w/my husband who grew up in Ireland. 🍀

  33. That’s a nice coincidence – do you celebrate Bloomsday alongside your anniversary? Would be great to mark both occasions together somehow!

  34. monocochlearmutineer

    I must say, it’s nice to know I’m in the company of a literary giant when it comes… ahem… to the creative powers of masturbation.

  35. You bring up some great insights, refresh the memory and move me to pick up these great work to re-read! . Fantastic work as always. Clarke

    • Thanks, Clarke! I couldn’t ask for higher praise than that, as it’s the whole reason I run this blog. It means a lot that you find something of value here on these little pages :)

  36. I’m also a big fan of Bloomsday, got to be as I live in Dublin. I’ve written a post about this year’s event when a short of mine was read outside Sweny’s Pharmacy (Sweny’s features in Episode 5 of Ulysses). – see ‘The Bloomsday Boys’ post.

  37. You have filled my head with things I never knew. And here I’ve felt guilty for 20 yrs, never having finished my copy.

  38. What a great blue book in the first picture. That really takes the cake

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