James Joyce is an author more revered than beloved, but readers, small in number though they may be, who take to the works are passionate about them indeed.
A group of about 10 Joyce admirers gathered at the Island Free Library on Saturday, June 16, to read passages from Joyce’s most famous work, “Ulysses,” which was published in the United States in 1933 after prevailing in what at the time was a famous obscenity trial. “Ulysses” takes place on a single day, June 16, 1904, during which time multiple characters weave in and out of the story. That date has since become known as Bloomsday — named after one of the protagonists in the book, Leopold Bloom — a day on which readers gather all over the world to celebrate the novel. In Dublin, tours take place that replicate the travels of the characters in the book, and visits are made to the pubs that still exist.
The challenge to many readers is that the perspective in “Ulysses” often shifts from the first person to the third, sometimes from one person to another, while trying to replicate the often random thoughts that can cross one’s mind, even in a matter of seconds.
Judge John Woolsey, in his landmark 1933 decision allowing “Ulysses” to be published in the U.S., wrote about the challenge of reading the book:
“In writing ‘Ulysses,’ Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the City bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought the while.”
The subject of a nascent kind of pornography is also brought up in Woolsey’s ruling, and his reasoning for not finding Joyce pornographic may be more charming than legal. In his “attempt to be honest,” Woolsey wrote, Joyce was “required… incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters. The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men, and I venture, to many women, and are such words that would be naturally and habitually used… In respect to the current emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season spring.”
The group of 10 or so at the Library went about reading pages from “Ulysses,” often stopping to question what something meant. After a couple hours of talk and reading, the group was on the receiving end of an unexpected surprise. Five visitors joined the group, all originally from Dublin, who read passages in voices that were much closer to how Joyce must have sounded than the Americans in the group.
One of the Dublin readers, Frank McDonald, read the final paragraphs of the famous monologue of Molly Bloom that ends the book, while another reader, Stephen O’Farrell, read from what may be the most recognized story Joyce ever wrote, the short story “The Dead,” from the collection titled “Dubliners.” That story tells of a famous annual dance put on by the Morkan sisters, living in Dublin. The party involves the usual chitchat about popular culture, about politics, but at the end, one of the party’s attendees, Gretta Conroy, listens to an old song and it reminds her powerfully of the only boy she ever loved. The boy died after singing that song to her while standing in a blizzard. When Gretta’s husband sees the look on his wife’s face he realizes they had never been as deeply in love as she had been with that boy. The story ends on a note of melancholy and loss.
The locale may be Celtic but it certainly is not spring:
“It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, and the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”