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.
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.’
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!