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Unwrapping Bloomsday Presence

June 16, 2015


I’ve never been a great one for memorabilia.  I collect books.  When I can afford them.  And I collect them only to read them.  I don’t even collect memorabilia from cultural phenomena that were made for memorabilia, like science fiction.  If I like a book or a movie then I will read and/or watch the book and/or movie, sometimes over and over again.  But I will not collect action figures.  My life is cluttered enough already, thank you very much.

Now the sort of people who are dancing round Dublin in fancy dress today are wonderful people.  They are cultural ambassadors.  Their work is important.  But I won’t be joining them, because dressing up in 1904 costume adds nothing to my experience of the book.  Call me a snob if you like.

I can remember when I first read Joyce’s Ulysses.  I think it was when I was seventeen.  If I wasn’t seventeen, I was not more than a year either side of seventeen.  In my mid teens I had been an obsessive reader of Dostoyevski in translation. He was translated mostly by Constance Garnett from what I recollect.  I’d read Beckett before I’d read Joyce, so the determination to read Ulysses was based on a sense of an enormous looking presence rearing up behind the Beckett.

The first time I read Ulysses, I experienced a sense of energising bafflement.  As the novel wore on, I knew I was missing a bunch of stuff.  In fact, Ulysses is a book that I found myself looking forward to rereading before I’d finished reading it the first time.  And that’s how I tell people to read it.  Why read Ulysses?  So that you can re-read it.

Because once you’ve read it a few times, the experience is still dazzling but far more comfortable.  It’s like revisiting an enormous museum stuffed with treasured landmarks.  But on your way to those landmarks, you will, on each visit, spot something you’ve never noticed before.  You will make a note of these personal nuggets of joy for your next visit.  With each visit to Ulysses, you find that you “own” the text that bit more, and yet the text continues to retreat from you and the museum’s capacity to surprise remains unmatched.

I’m sceptical (no – cynical – on this point at least  – call me cynical) about all attempts to define any “greatest” novel or “supreme” work of literature.  This tendency to insist on putting things in a particular order and slapping numbers on them seems a wholly impoverishing cultural practice.  So I don’t care to say that Ulysses is the “greatest” novel ever written.  But I will say that there is no other novel that I look forward to re-reading as much.

And Ulysses remains the funniest greatest novel ever written – if not the greatest novel ever written then the funniest novel that might be.  I can’t recall rereading it without laughing out loud at least once along the way – usually at something whose comic intent had passed me by during a previous reading.

When you read Ulysses properly, when you can see the epic in the humdrum and the hero in the adman, you find yourself living your life in a state of heightened consciousness.  Part of the best thing about re-reading Ulysses is when you put down the book and go and make yourself a piece of toast and you find that making a piece of toast is suddenly invested with extraordinary warmth, detail and significance.  And then you realise that telling stories, crafting language, building narratives that speak to other narratives, is not some modernist fetish but is part of our common humanity, the only way we can see any truths in ourselves, and the only way in which we can make it through the (long summer’s) day.

So if you like, dress up and join the walking parties in Dublin.  Have a pint in Davy Byrne’s moral pub.  Don’t do what Bloom did on Dollymount Strand.  But reread the happy baggy beast.  Perhaps when the boy no longer believes in Santa Claus I’ll try telling him that the Night Before Bloomsday, Leo Bloom comes down the chimneys of moderately well behaved girls and boys.  He doesn’t bring presents, but he tidies up a bit and makes you breakfast.

(Which is more than Leo Varadkar does.)


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    For the day that’s in it…

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