“Who ever anywhere will read these written words?” Ulysses turns 100 today!
“Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921”. These are the last words after the famous last words of Molly Bloom (aka Penelope) in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published on February 2nd 1922. 100 years ago today. Joyce’s fictional Odyssey is set in Dublin, although he writes about this ‘imaginary homeland’ from abroad, namely from Trieste, Zurich and Paris. While living in these other urban settings has enabled him to give a precise picture of the “Hibernian Metropolis” (Ulysses, “Aeolus”) with all its modern significance, one may ask: what does that have to do with anything today? Why does Ulysses (still) matter?
I have previously highlighted the connection between Landau and Ulysses elsewhere on this blog and I can only recommend the following short clip on Why you should read Ulysses by the renown Joyce-expert Sam Slote. And even if “[i]t has this reputation that it’s almost impossible to read”, Joyce’s novel mines many themes that lie at the heart of our contemporary experience and – therewith – also at the heart of Cultural Studies: identity / national identity, racism, gender and popular culture. For, the detailed account in Joyce’s book of a Dublin in 1904 with all its music, advertisements, fashion, enigmatic phrases and latest inventions (camera, gramophone, telephone, etc.) gives us a glimpse of pop culture around the turn of the century while also making us aware of the fact that many things remain strangely unchanged. This pertains to the idea of loneliness, anonymity in the city, our deepest intimate thoughts and the transgression of various moral boundaries.
Ulysses has become a mystery – literally the book of seven seals – and a yard-stick for complexity at the same time. Amongst its many varied appearances in popular culture, the 2009 Simpsons-episode “In the Name of the Grandfather” should be mentioned, featuring a visit to Ireland in which seemingly everyone reads the novel. In 2010 it even entered the Marvel universe by being quoted in the movie Ironman 2. Apart from pop cultural references it was also referred to in the recent political discourse of the US in 2019 and 2021.
It also exhibits a striking presence in Irish history: as the author of Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín, recently remarked it was “first published in 1922, just over two weeks after the British handed over the keys of Dublin Castle to Michael Collins and his new Irish government”. While Joyce’s novel takes place in 1904, the tendency towards an independent Ireland and the Irish Free State of 1922 reverberate throughout his text.
Ulysses is also known as the first novel in literary history to feature chapter written (nearly) entirely without punctuation. The chapter in questions is called “Penelope” and features the complex stream of consciousness of Molly Bloom that closes the novel. While this is not the only experimental feature of this Modernist paradigm, it is one that seems to have established a tradition within contemporary Irish literature (see Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones).
Thus, the ties between Ulysses and the here and now and more than evident. The book comes to life on many occasions, not just on the 16th of June, when Joyce-enthusiasts around the globe celebrate the day the novel charts: the 16th of June, also known as “Bloomsday”. So get in the spirit, check out the various events surrounding this centenary or why not start reading the book yourself?
P.S.: Suggested Joyce-hack: begin with Chapter 4 and you’ll find it easier to access!
P.P.S.: If you are considering reading Ulysses in German, why not try this podcast (featuring myself in Episode 11)?