Ulysses Unbound

Why does a book so bad it "defecates on your bed" still have so many admirers?


This June 16, fans, hecklers, curiosity seekers, and others with an interest, pro or con, in James Joyce's Ulysses have a new treat to chew on. A lush period adaptation of the problematic novel, with Stephen Rea playing the title role of Leopold Bloom, Joyce's amiable, put-upon hero, is playing at gatherings for the 100th anniversary of "Bloomsday." That's the day in 1904 on which Ulysses, originally published in 1922, takes place.

Director Sean Walsh's Bloom marks the second time Ulysses has been brought to the big screen. Joseph Strick made a modest, modern-dress version of the story in 1967. That a book universally considered unfilmable should already be on its second movie is testimony to Ulysses' powerful attraction and decidedly mixed luck.

History has not been kind to efforts at popularizing Ulysses. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange and other brilliant works, proselytized tirelessly for Joyce's work, producing television documentaries and a musical, The Blooms of Dublin, to little avail. Calico, Michael Hastings' recent play about Joyce's troubled daughter Lucia, was pronounced unconvincing by The Guardian and termed "a dud soap about artists" by The Daily Telegraph.

Ulysses recently has drawn the fire of literary iconoclasts. "I will say it once and for all, straight out: it all went wrong with James Joyce," writes the dyspeptic critic Dale Peck, who condemns the book's "diarrheic flow of words" and applauds himself for having spoken "heresy" against a canonical work. "Ulysses could have done with a good editor," the acclaimed novelist Roddy Doyle recently told an audience of crestfallen Joyce fans. "You know, people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written, but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it." Concludes the writer Stefan Sullivan in a recent Washington Times appreciation: "Ulysses is a pretty awful novel."

In the customer comments at, readers express bitter hostility at a book they suspect has been rammed down their throats by academics. "This is one of those classic novels that gives classic novels a bad name," writes Eric L. Sparling. "Joyce is blind in one eye because he read Ulysses and then the eye hung itself," writes nebber1214. "I'm contemplating traveling back in time and murdering James Joyce, in the face…For Ulysses to be any worse of a book, it would have to break into your house and defecate on your bed." Another disgruntled reader announces, "Its only function is to keep blinkered academics busy trying to wring another drop of meaning from a text already exhausted from analysis." Another says, "I feel sorry for English majors who are forced to read it."

Such protests would appear to be on the right side of history. As the cultural standing of literary modernism has eroded (when was the last time anybody at a cocktail party cared whether you were familiar with Ezra Pound's Cantos?), the monuments of the early 20th century increasingly appear to demand too much work and provide too little enjoyment. And none of these monuments is larger or more assailable than Ulysses, a dense, allusive, 300,000-word blend of stream of consciousness, multiple narrators, genre parodies, Irish history, and a long, farcical dream play.

"Bloom himself would never and could never have read Ulysses or a book like Ulysses," John Carey writes in his book Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. "The complexity of the novel, its avant-garde technique, its obscurity, rigorously exclude people like Bloom from its readership. More than almost any other 20th-century novel, it is for intellectuals only."

And yet 50,000 tourists, many or most of them with little connection to academia, are expected to flood Dublin on June 16. Bloomsday has become the world's de facto literary holiday, when devotees in Edwardian costume re-enact the book's salacious scenes, sing Irish music hall melodies, and tramp out for 18-hour pub crawls with a zeal more reminiscent of a Star Trek convention or a Renaissance Fair than a salon of academic snobs.

Astrologers, well-read doctors, prisoners, and fly fishing experts have all taken a crack at applying their areas of expertise to Joyce criticism; the James Joyce Quarterly in its next issue will publish an article by a high school student. Prominent fans have included Jerry Garcia, John Lennon (an early Quarterly subscriber), Mel Brooks (who named the hero of The Producers "Leo Bloom"), Woody Allen, and Slacker filmmaker Richard Linklater (whose movies are replete with Ulysses allusions and stylistic riffs).

Of the many riddles Ulysses presents, the toughest may be that the legendary Most Difficult Novel in Literature (or Second Most Difficult, if you count Joyce's catastrophic follow-up Finnegans Wake as a novel) attracts a wide, dedicated, nonacademic fan base. This may not be particularly unusual in literature (in the last three years we have all seen J.R.R. Tolkien fans inherit the earth), but it is unique in the field of difficult modernist art and literature. "It's hard to imagine much of a celebration for the Arnold Schoenberg 100th anniversary," says Scott Klein, a professor of English at Wake Forest University.

More intriguingly, the book's popular reception grows as its standing declines in both the academy and the wider literary culture. Since the 1970s, modernism's usual gang of idiots—Joyce, Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and a handful of others—has been largely displaced from the position of cultural dominance it enjoyed through most of the 20th century.

To be sure, the bear market in modernists is not complete: Virginia Woolf's stock continues to hold steady, or even climb, and wider studies of the modernist period and movement have made a comeback in the past decade. But the virtue of difficulty, the notion that being hard to understand was a badge of literary honor, has fallen into serious and perhaps irreversible disrepair, and some once-major figures (Blast editor Wyndham Lewis springs to mind) are all but forgotten.

At the same time, studies such as Lawrence Rainey's Institutions of Modernism examine literary abstruseness as a response to specific market conditions rather than (as Eliot and others argued at the time) an indispensable tool for comprehending the chaos of the modern world. The defining aesthetic of the modernist movement—a refusal to compromise with the tastes of the masses—now looks like a liability and a historical accident.

But for all its difficulty, Ulysses is oddly immune to the anti-snob criticism—though you wouldn't know it from most of the verbiage about the book. Of the many wrong things T.S. Eliot said in his day, one of the silliest was his argument that Ulysses' "mythical method" (each incident in the book's 18-hour time frame mirrors, on a microscopic scale, an episode in Homer's Odyssey), is "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history."

It would be hard to find a writer less inclined than Joyce to see the modern world in such tragic terms, or more enchanted by the disreputable cultural products the market produces. Bloom and his faithless wife Molly are enthusiastic consumers of middlebrow erotica (such as the novel Sweets of Sin by M. Paul deKock), popular songs (Harry B. Norris' "Lovely Seaside Girls," among countless others), works of general-interest science and self-improvement (Sir Robert Ball's The Story of the Heavens, and Physical Strength and How To Obtain It by the strongman Eugen Sandow). Nor are these plebian tastes presented to us as ironic class identifiers. They are, along with Joyce's storied "cloacal obsession," the book's lifeblood.

"The paradox is that the book is a giant fart joke," says Diana Wynne, producer of Joyce to the World (ill-advised puns are an unavoidable fact of Joyce fandom), a new documentary about Bloomsday celebrations in Kobe, San Diego, Melbourne, Trieste, Toronto, and several score other cities. "There's this huge vocabulary and complex technique, references to English literature and all kinds of obscure learning. But at the story level there's a lot of low humor, base jokes, and a celebration of ordinary people."

Ordinary people are at the heart of the film Wynne and partner Fritzi Horstman have made. If the amateur criticism, re-enactments, and allusions share anything, it's an inclination to participate in a culture, even if you haven't done the reading. "There's a strange phenomenon," says Robert Spoo, a Tulsa-based Joyce scholar turned intellectual property lawyer. "People will tell you out of one side of their mouths, 'I will never read this book; it's the hardest book in the world.' And then out of the other side they'll say, 'I'm on my way to this Ulysses reading; do you want to come?' It has crossed over in a way that other modernist work hasn't crossed over."

Which is not the same as saying the book's appeal has no relation to academia; sharp-eyed readers will note how many of the sources for this story are college professors. Kevin Dettmar, professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and editor of the book Marketing Modernism, says one of Joyce's cleverest career moves was recognizing the long-term importance of getting your work into the university system. Ironically, though, one of the first negative critiques of Ulysses was not that it was too highbrow but that it was not highbrow enough. The reliably stuffy Virginia Woolf called it the "illiterate, underbred book…of a self taught working man."

The comparison with Woolf (who paid Joyce the more sincere tribute of attempting to ape his technical innovations) is interesting. Eighty years later, the dichotomy between the two remains remarkably intact. Woolf and her Bloomsbury cohorts remain favorites of what remains of the cultural hierarchy: fodder for mid-list novels, frequent subjects of literary histories, an easy Oscar ticket for Nicole Kidman, and so on.

The Joyce industry, by comparison, continues to scrape by. Sean Walsh's no-budget Bloom is playing in Ireland and at some of the Bloomsday events in the U.S. but has no American distributor*; Ulysses' entombment atop so many best-of lists is the sort of tribute that ensures nobody will ever have to read it or think about it again; even the Republic of Ireland has only recently begun to embrace Joyce, after decades of scrupulous neglect, and largely as a means of capitalizing on Bloomsday tourism. The book's academic reputation waxes and (at the present time) wanes, but its more durable appeal among fans is largely a DIY phenomenon. "The fan phenomenon has become a form of carnival," says Michael Groden, a professor of English literature at the University of Western Ontario. "It's a sign of how far the book has gotten into the culture."

Which raises an interesting question: Does high literary reputation put off more readers than it attracts? "The book's academic standing does cut both ways," says Dettmar. "In class, the one thing people know about Ulysses is that it's incredibly difficult. There's a compelling case to be made that that's Joyce's fault, that he set it up that way. But that's also part of the continuing appeal."

It also gives an odd power to nonacademic readers. Sean Latham, editor of the James Joyce Quarterly and author of Am I a Snob?, a study of modernism's exclusivity, notes that difficult texts are by their nature participatory, inviting the reader to complete the book's meaning with his or her own input. "Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in some ways deny snobbery, because nobody reading them has a privileged reading. That's why amateurs are attracted to these works."

On the other hand, people may just like dressing up in costumes and acting out funny scenes from a comical book—an attraction even scholars admit to in their less guarded moments. "Nobody ever talks about this," says Latham, "but one of the fixtures at Joyce conferences is where people gather around the piano and sing songs from Ulysses. There's also a tradition of playing Ulysses charades and acting out scenes from the book." Wake Forest's Klein concurs: "Some of the people at these conferences you'd say look more like Gilbert and Sullivan fans than Joyce scholars."

While it's pretty much impossible to plan fun, an appeal to the book's more entertaining aspects is a shrewd promotional move. Walsh gave his film a title that specifically avoids the book's literary pedigree because, he said, "if you say [Ulysses], people will think they need a degree in English to watch this film." One of the least noted aspects of Ulysses is that it contains jokes on nearly every page. The climactic "Nighttown" chapter puts poor Bloom through a hallucinatory ordeal in Dublin's red-light district, including a mock trial for assorted sexual peccadilloes, a mayoral coronation, and an elaborate incident in which he is humiliated and sex-changed by a mustachioed madam. While this stuff has been studied by Freudians, gender theorists, and others, it's also pretty damned funny.

At the moment, the role of lead Ulysses killjoy is being played by Joyce's last living heir, the issueless, irritable grandson Stephen James Joyce. Thanks to European Union copyright extensions, Stephen Joyce regained control of the author's published works in the mid-1990s. Since then, he has alienated most of his grandfather's fans by charging exorbitant rates to anthologists and artists, putting the kibosh on a host of adaptations he considered inappropriate (including Groden's "Digital Ulysses" annotation project), and reportedly stating that Ulysses is meant to be read, not performed or adapted to other media. (The copyright situation is considerably more nebulous in the U.S. While Random House operates on the premise that Ulysses remains under American copyright, attorney Spoo argues that because of its tangled publishing history, which includes having been banned as obscene in every English-speaking country for its first 12 years in print, the book is now in the public domain. The public domain reprint house Dover Publications has come out with a facsimile version of the original 1922 Paris edition—the most enjoyable edition in terms of layout and design.)

The Joyce estate's protectionist approach shows little understanding of how contingent literary reputation can be. John Donne and Dante were both at various times forgotten by literary history and only came back thanks to various champions. Fifty or even 20 years ago it would have seemed crazy to predict that Jane Austen would one day loom larger than the Romantic poets who were her contemporaries—or that Colin Firth's hunky turn as Mr. Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice would play at least some part in that reversal. To believe that even a great work of literature can survive through only one distribution channel is nutty. "Ulysses was a gamble that Joyce could bridge high and low culture," says Latham. "It's a gamble that initially failed, but you'd have to say these Bloomsday fans are the return….These people who develop such a passion for the book are what we should all hope for as scholars, even if they're channeling their passion in ways that wouldn't fit with scholarly decorum."

And even if all their ancillary products are not equal. The cultural universe is certainly big enough to contain Donal Donnelly's agile, hilarious book-on-tape reading of the unabridged Ulysses, Peter Costello's 197-page biography The Life of Leopold Bloom, the dance hit "Yes" (in which Dutch chanteuse Amber does Molly Bloom's soliloquy over a driving beat), and anything else the book's oddball fans can dream up. I have reservations about Walsh's movie—Strick's underrated 1967 version, I think, gets a better flavor of the book—and I avoid Bloomsday festivities like the plague.

But I salute a fellow fan. May Walsh be the first term in a new series of fan/entrepreneurs, and may a thousand Blooms flower.

* Since this article was published, Walsh has secured distribution for Bloom, which will be handled by Paragon Film Group and CineMuse (theatrical) and MTI Video (DVD).