When I was young, growing up in Dublin, Ulysses was considered the greatest novel in the world and the dirtiest book ever written. I bought a copy as soon as I had money and it was taken away from me when my mother discovered me reading it – though Lolita, for some reason, had passed unnoticed in our house. I was 14. I was outraged, and delighted with myself, and a little confused. Ulysses contained something worse than sex, clearly, and I did not know what that could be.
“It is very scatological,” my mother said and then, “Look it up!” which is certainly one way to develop a daughter’s vocabulary, though the definition left me no further on. What could be so terrible – or so interesting – about going to the toilet? After much argument, I put the book up in the attic, to be taken down when I had come of age. Four years later, I retrieved it and read the thing all the way through, though I think I skipped some of the stuff in the brothel, which seemed to contain no actual information about brothels, or far too much information, none of which was real, and which managed all this at great length.
Clearly I was missing something. It was sometimes hard to tell if a character was doing a thing or only thinking about doing it and this constant sense of potential gave Joyceans a very peering look. Meanwhile, he was a very great genius, so discussions about what Joyce meant by one or another line were airy, pedantic, and so properly masculine I found it hard to join in. Reading Ulysses made a man very clever, clearly, and a woman not clever, but intriguingly dirty. For some of these intellectual types at least, there was something a little creepy in the way they said: “Fourteen?”
The irony is that the freedom Joyce brought to the Irish tradition has been more useful to female writers than to male. His heretical legacy has been welcomed as a gift by writers such as Edna O’Brien, Eimear McBride and Mary Costello, while his innovative genius is more often declared a burden by the men.
Here’s a thing: there is no sex in Ulysses – it is all remembered or anticipated sex, all jam tomorrow and jam yesterday and no jam on the single long day of the book itself. A novel that is interested in love and fascinated by the body contains no passionate union, unless you count Molly Bloom’s afternooner with Blazes Boylan, which is intuited by her husband, but which happens off stage.
Things do happen in the book, as they do on any ordinary day but, like most of our days, Ulysses contains very little plot. Two men, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, wander around Dublin, bump into each other and form a connection. Bloom is mild, ruminative, maybe a little masochistic: he is happily present in his body, comfortable in his own skin. Dedalus is more cerebral, and very unhappy: he is mourning his mother and deeply ashamed of his blaggard of a father (the always amusing Simon Dedalus) who leaves his own family short of money for food. Both men are caught by tragic betrayals and impossibilities that are made less impossible, less burdensome by their meeting each other. This seems very little to happen in such a large book – but it is also an amazing thing to happen and in order to effect it, the book does heroic and remarkable things.
They begin the day with breakfast. Bloom’s is now famous, and served up every year in Dublin on Bloomsday, 16 June, the day on which the book is set. After setting a tray for his wife, Molly, he nips out to buy a pork kidney for himself; “a moist tender gland” with its – after decades of Bloomsdays, slightly tiresome – “fine tang of faintly scented urine”.
The streets the men walk were obsessively researched by Joyce, who then declined to describe them for the reader in any conventional way. As the hours pass, their minds become more porous to the world. Voices interrupt, thoughts intrude. We don’t know who is telling the story any more, or from what point of view.
At dusk, an oddly romantic scene turns out to be about Bloom masturbating on Sandymount Strand, to the apparent delight of a young woman sitting on a rock. This was the episode that got the book definitively banned in the US, perhaps because the style was so clear there was no doubting the content.
“But it is all a parody!” the clever reader cries, perhaps a little uneasily. Fireworks explode. The prose becomes fragmented, heaps up, becomes maximal, turns psychotic. In Bella Cohen’s brothel, Bloom is accused, crucified, turned into a woman, violated. Dedalus sees the ghost of his mother, Bloom sees the lovely apparition of his long dead son. Dedalus wrecks the joint, gets into a fight, is briefly knocked unconscious. After which, the two adventurers go back to Bloom’s place for a quiet cup of cocoa and the book falls asleep completed in the mind of Molly Bloom.
So, apart from everything that you could possibly imagine, nothing much happens in Ulysses.
Joyce wanted the book to be “encyclopedic”. As well as high thoughts and fond emotions, it contains much that is small, or small-minded; from Dedalus’s frayed cuff as he looks out over the vastness of Dublin Bay, to the hairpin Molly runs down the page to find the word “metempsychosis”. He is also fascinated by things we revile or find disgusting. Despite Buck Mulligan’s wonderful evocation of the sea, “Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother”, a hundred years later, it is the “snotgreen” that sticks.
Recently, I was taken aback by students who knew all about Joyce’s niche sexual interests, and very little about his work. There is a cartoon meme – one lone person at a ticket booth advertising the novels while hundreds queue up to see something called “Fart Letter”. Joyce wrote to his partner Nora when he was alone in Dublin in 1909, and failing miserably to publish Dubliners. He called her his “dirty little fuckbird” and showed an urgent and unholy interest in the contents of her backside. As peccadilloes go, this one lacks glamour. The students certainly thought so, and used the silliness of it to dismiss the writer entirely.
(Oh, my heart!)
“If you can think it,” I said. “Joyce would write it.” The discovery of these letters brought Leopold Bloom’s (very fleeting) coprophilia into focus and stoked the discussion as to how “dirty” Joyce himself was. He lost his virginity to a prostitute at the age of 14, he was interested in threesomes, but never seemed to get one. When is a happily married man to be considered disordered? A recent critical spat debated whether he had syphilis, which was widespread at the time, rather than the autoimmune Reiter’s syndrome, which is usually given as the cause for his failing eyesight.
There is a sly reference to syphilis on the first page, but Ulysses is very far from being pox-riddled. It is, however, excremental, happy to scratch an itch and also to accommodate voyeurism, fetishism and whatever you call Bloom’s covert actions on Sandymount Strand. Something there for everyone, you might say, though enacted in a public space these interests are usually considered predatory and misogynistic.
Women have consistently higher levels of disgust than men. We are, in general, less likely to talk (about) shite. Ulysses is full of men doing just that: bantering with each other in that very masculine, mock-heroic way. All in all, it is a very male book.
And then, at the very end, there is Molly Bloom.
Is she enough? Her soliloquy was hailed as “liberating” for the way it acknowledged, way back in 1922, the power of female sexual desire. And although her thoughts contain the shadow of Joyce’s own fantasies, Molly is very much her own person, a free spirit and nobody’s fool.
“The works of James Joyce are remarkable in their frankness about sexuality and their sensitivity to the value of women’s experience.” In 2018, a letter in the Modernist Review, signed by 100 academics of all genders, described the contradictions in Joyce’s work as they sometimes played out in the real world. These academics called upon the Joycean community “to take meaningful action to reduce the incidents of sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour, abuse, and even assault at conferences, workshops, summer schools and any other events affiliated with the community”.
Ulysses is a living, shifting, deeply humane text, that is also very funny. It makes the world bigger
The writer’s own streak of badness was not unconnected to his grandiosity. More often, we privilege the grandiose; the impossibly high or unattainable. Just last week I got an email asking about “the burden of confronting Joyce for the contemporary Irish novelist”. I replied that I had no interest in confronting anyone (what?!) and that Joyce was not a burden but a great boon. I am also sometimes asked how I can write “in the shadow” of Joyce, as though his work were a kind of darkness, and not a great light to me.
These questions are about Joyce as genius and monument, and not about Joyce as transgressor and disruptor – as such, they do his work a disservice. Joyce was much exercised by the problem of fathers, especially bad ones. Male as it may be, Ulysses is a seriously anti-patriarchal book.
Molly’s soliloquy was a great historical moment for women, but it doesn’t seem especially liberating, these days, to break the big news that women think about sex (really? I didn’t know we could). Female writers are, however, still required to be female at all times – we are relentlessly embodied – so the fact that Leopold Bloom lives so fully in his body feels egalitarian, to me. What I find liberating about Ulysses is not just the way the language gets under the skin, however, it is the way the language moves.
Joyce refused to fix the meaning of the words on the page and left the reader to fend for themselves. So the content may not be actually shocking, but the book feels exciting – as though it might turn shocking any second. Anything might stir in the body or consciousness of a character, in the body or consciousness of the reader. My mother was right to consider it a dangerous text. The thing the censors worried about were the uncensored workings of their own minds.
More than any other book, Ulysses is about what happens in the reader’s head. The style obliges us to choose a meaning, it is designed to make us feel uncertain. This makes it a profoundly democratic work. Ulysses is a living, shifting, deeply humane text that is also very funny. It makes the world bigger.
About a third of those who attempt the book do not finish it, according to a Bloomsday poll on an Irish news website. I never considered this to be a problem. I am not sure you can ever finish Ulysses. I am certain it can never be fully understood. I think I knew this instinctively at 14; a time when I lived inside and not outside the words on the page, a time when many books were beyond my understanding, and that was just fine.
• The anniversary reissue of Ulysses is published by Vintage.