"Ulysses" Today

On the trail of the world’s most difficult novel

by Anna Cain, editor

When I took “James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’” last year, I had felt confident until I hit “Proteus,” the infamous third chapter. I read the first paragraph. I read it again. I looked up the meaning of an Italian phrase. Then I called my best friend and read aloud the following paragraph: 

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

The line was silent for about ten seconds. “I’m not entirely convinced that’s English,” he said.

By popular opinion, “Ulysses” is considered the most difficult book ever written (1).  On a simple level, the book is about two men walking around. The young intellectual Stephen Dedalus spends June 16th, 1904 wandering Dublin depressed because his dreams of being a great writer have collapsed, and because he wasn’t very nice to his dying mother. The same day, a Jewish man named Leopold Bloom wanders Dublin because his wife is having an affair with her manager, and he wants to give them privacy (2). Their paths cross, and Bloom and Stephen form a surrogate father/son relationship. Also, did I mention that “Ulysses” is “The Odyssey” cleverly veiled in an early 20th century setting? And that it attempts to accurately portray the human mind through printed words? And that it is one of the few works of classic literature with a tasteful masturbation scene? 

“Ulysses” is not an adventure to undertake lightly. At the end, you are either a full-fledged cult member, or you want to poke Joyce in his one good eye. I fall into the former camp.

Less than a month after finishing the final chapter (3), I reread the book at the glacial pace of 10 pages a day. And less than a month after finishing that endeavor, I boarded a plane across the Atlantic. My destination was Dublin, a city that has thoroughly embraced its literary heritage, which is just a teensy bit surprising given the tumultuous history of “Ulysses.” 

Each chapter in “Ulysses” mirrors a scene from “The Odyssey” and is thematically based around a particular color, artistic discipline and body part (4).  To put it delicately, if you model your book off a long list of body parts, it’s only a matter of time before you shock conservative religious authorities. 

Because of the infamous masturbation scene (5),  the book was tried on obscenity charges and banned. Here in America, it was even publicly burned. Copies of “Ulysses” were frequently smuggled out of France and into the libraries of Joyce admirers around the world. 

All that is forgotten now. If anything, Dublin has become a madcap Joycean Disneyworld. Tourists can still eat at the pub where Bloom has lunch. The James Joyce Center, Ireland’s first stop for literary tourists, sells small posters for €15. Joyce walking tours, a Dublin cottage industry, can cost up to €60 per person. And, of course, there’s Bloomsday: a sprawling, two-week festival that Vanity Fair denounces as “a travesty” and “a pub crawl.” 

I applied for a Venture Grant to retrace “Ulysses” in modern Ireland. I followed the journey of Bloom and Dedalus to see how many of the novel’s shops and landmarks still exist. Whenever I found a Joyce location, I hunted for any plaques that advertised its literary connection. The results of this informal experiment were not at all what I’d expected. 

*    *    *

The first day I was so jetlagged that I distinctly heard two Irish-accented voices carrying on a conversation in my head, a disconcerting phenomenon. I set myself the rather low goal of finding the James Joyce statue (got a nice American couple to take a picture of me next to it) and finding the James Joyce Bridge (misread my map and ended up on the wrong bridge, figured this one wasn’t monumentally different, pun intended).

Thirteen hours of sleep did wonders for my competence and travel savvy. Over the next few days, I visited the red light district (6) from Chapter XV and trekked south to the old fortress where Stephen Dedalus lived. I walked around the sprawling cemetery from the “Hades” chapter and hunted for a Joycean connection to see the Book of Kells (7)—and when that failed saw the Book of Kells anyway, because that’s what Joyce would have done. 

Most days, I did my research with the aid of conveniences like city maps and sidewalks and public transportation. But one morning, as I awoke in my actually-not-too-scary hostel, I decided I needed more authenticity. And so I set out to retrace the novel through Joyce’s turn-by-turn directions, even if it meant strutting across eight lanes of traffic. For this grand voyage of discovery, I settled on chapter VIII, “Lestrygonians,” for the sophisticated reason that this involves two restaurants, and I’d exhausted my supply of Luna bars. 

The journey began on the banks of the Liffey, at the foot of the O’Connell Bridge. I set out south, searching for the first landmark in “Lestrygonians,” the statue of a poet named Thomas Moore. Fifteen minutes later, I realized that someone might have moved the statue of Thomas Moore in the last century, and that I was wandering into a seedy area.

Take two: back at the O’Connell Bridge, heading south. I ignored all references to “Tommy Moore’s roguish finger” and focused on the second landmark, “Trinity’s surly front.” Given my history of getting hopelessly lost in foreign cities, it was a real moment of pride to realize that the gray building across the busy street was, in fact, Trinity University, and that there was indeed something grim about its countenance.

On I continued, following not Google Maps, but the directions of a man who had recreated Dublin while living in Italy. It is one thing to sit in a literature classroom and admire the attention to detail this expat showed his home city. It is quite another to stand in the mire of Dublin’s pedestrian traffic, feeling queasy and hungry, trusting Joyce to not misplace a single turn. 

James Joyce guided me correctly to Bloom’s first stop, Burton’s restaurant,which in the novel resembles a horror scene from a vegan documentary. Disgusted by the meat and blood around him, Bloom scuttles down to “Davy Byrne’s moral pub,” where he dines on a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy. 

Today, there is a greater diversity of food options: an upscale café, an inevitable Starbucks, even the headquarters of the intriguing “Dublin Literary Pub Crawl.” A travel agency stands on the site of Burton’s restaurant (8), though a sidewalk plaque honors this long-closed home of red meat. Next door, however, Davy Byrne’s moral pub is still in business, and has thoroughly capitalized on its literary heritage.

Unlike most Irish pubs, Davy Byrne’s resembles a clean, well-lit, upscale French restaurant. There is a prominent sign referencing the pub’s home in “Ulysses,” but the waiter seemed confused when I ordered a gorgonzola sandwich and grew only more surprised when the middle-aged Canadian couple next to me (fellow literary tourists) did the same.

If I’d ever met Joyce, I would have recommended a different menu during Bloom’s brief vegetarian phase. Poldy opted not for a nice salad of baby greens and cherry tomatoes, but a giant slab of stinky cheese inside two pieces of brown bread. I managed three bites. The Canadian couple joined forces and, together, finished half their sandwich. The waiter gave us reproachful looks as he cleaned off almost full plates. The Canadians and I struck up a Joyce discussion in a nearby chip shop where, over a well-deserved plate of grease and fat and goodness, they advised me–like every bookstore owner and Joyce tourist I’d met so far–to visit Sweny’s, the hub of all “Ulysses” tourism.

Sweny’s Pharmacy first appears in the “Lotus Eaters” chapter, when Bloom enters the small shop to buy a bar of lemon soap. Later, in the infamous “Circe” chapter (9), the bar of lemon soap transforms into the Sun, with Mr. Sweny’s freckled face peering down from inside. 

So yes, Sweny’s is mentioned in “Ulysses.” Twice. However, you would be hard-pressed to find any location in Dublin that wasn’t mentioned in “Ulysses.” Twice. Yet somehow, Sweny’s has become the headquarters for Ireland’s literary tourists. No longer a working pharmacy, they stay in business by selling guides to the raunchy bits of “Ulysses” and, of course, lemon soap. They host reading groups and appear to be the unofficial home base for cosplayers (10) during Joyce Comic-Con, otherwise known as the Bloomsday festival. 

*    *    *

It is easy to view Dublin’s literary heritage in a cynical, one-dimensional light. There is a strong tendency to condemn the city for tearing down famous sites, even if this brought real progress. It is hard to rant that Leopold Bloom’s house is gone when a children’s hospital stands in its place. Conversely, a literary tourist could stand on a removed pinnacle and scoff at how the “Ulysses” scene has sold out to a relatively illiterary mass of non-Joyce readers. However, commercialization is not always evil. It was a band of dedicated Joyce fans who saved from demolition the historic hotel where Bloom has an intense political debate. 

Tourism gets a bad reputation, but it is more nuanced than it might first appear. Yes, Davy Byrne’s has become so slick and over-priced it no longer resembles an Irish pub, but Dublin being a Joyce Disneyworld may have just been my personal daydream. Although thousands of people make a pilgrimage to the city for a Leopold Bloom cosplay, the Guinness Storehouse still gets 1.2 million visitors a year.

Thanks to Professor John Simons and the Venture Grant Committee. 

1. A later Joyce novel, “Finnegan’s Wake,” is almost certainly more challenging. My theory is that “Ulysses” gets the fear and praise because it is the most difficult book a mere human is capable of reading. “Finnegan’s Wake” would shred your mind.

2. Very obliging chap, our Leopold “Poldy” Bloom.

3. Which contains one of the longest sentences in the English language, at 4,391 words. Admittedly a run-on.

4. For example, Chapter VII equals Odysseus’s encounter with Aeolus, the god of the winds and also the color red and also architecture and also the lungs.

5. Most readers probably had no idea there was a masturbation scene. The incriminating passage is: “And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind blank and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!”

6. Now a pleasant neighborhood with an unusually high number of art galleries per capita.

7. A ninth century illuminated Bible. You can view high definition photos on the Trinity College Dublin website, or you can see two pages on display in a dim basement while three German-language tour groups crowd around you. Everyone chooses the latter method.

8. Perhaps because of Joyce? “Ulysses” gave this place the literary equivalent of a bad Yelp review.

9. Imagine what would happen if you took a fourth week nap before your Joyce final and had all the elements of “Ulysses” merge into an hour-long fever dream and you’ll have a decent idea of the “Circe” chapter.

10. Short for “costume play” and quite different from Halloween. People sew their own costumes, meet up with fellow enthusiasts and build a mad fandom wonderland.