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Re-Joycing: Celebrating the writer of Ulysses on Bloomsday's centenary

Bloomsday, 2004: Tweedy men and women gather together to read aloud for hours from a consecrated text; exotically attired masses drink and shout and sing and roam, eager to act out publicly the exploits of their favourite characters; and the name of Ireland's most famous exile is on the wet lips of anyone who cares to give the appearance of caring about that civilizing thing: capital "L" literature.

Even for a person with an ego as enormous as James Joyce's ("I want to keep the university professors busy for the next 100 years"), what has become the yearly commemoration of his mammoth literary celebration of the minutiae in one day in the life of a Dublin advertising salesman and his promiscuous wife would have be seen as, at best, a mixed blessing.

Literature, particularly of the style-obsessed sort that is Ulysses, is an essentially private act. The every- year-louder-and-louder bells and whistles that mark June 16, 1904, the day that Joyce chose to set his 18-hour Irish odyssey, is a party, a memorial, an opportunity for university professors to drink too much and not feel guilty.

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Like big-prize, high-publicity literary awards, it's good for the business end of art, but has absolutely nothing to do with its reason for existing: to move, to unsettle, to -- one hopes -- even transform individual readers. The loudest revolutions always take place in the quietest rooms.

Joyce himself was an exceedingly private man. His life revolved around three rarely varying things: writing, his family and alcohol. Like his much-adored Daedalus, he was a master constructor, manufacturing a world for himself where he could do the things that he loved to do surrounded by the people that he loved and cared for. Richard Ellmann's James Joyce (Oxford University Press, 1959) is not only easily the definitive chronicle of this expertly crafted life, it is arguably the best literary biography of the last century.

Ellmann tells us perceptive things about the books we need to understand if we are to know the man ("He was a musician surrounded by preachers and generalizers, and forced to plead for himself because they did not tolerate his kind of music") as well as illustrative things about the man we need to know if we are to better understand the books: "One day he invited Ackermann and another boy [two of his language pupils]to his home. They were eager to know what the habitation of a real writer looked like, but were disappointed, for it looked exactly like their own flats, and had neither rifles nor swords on the wall. It even smelled of cooking as their own homes did."

One can't help but recall Stephen's epiphany in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when "the faint sour stink of rotted cabbages came towards him from the kitchen. . . . He smiled to think that it was this disorder, the misrule and confusion of his father's house and the stagnation of vegetable life, which was to win the day in his soul." Genuine artists don't flee the everyday world, no matter how malodorous or carnal; rather, they embrace it, transform it through their heightened craft into the very essence of their art.

Ulysses is one of those books that everyone knows about and has an opinion of, but few have actually read. For a change, this isn't entirely the fault of the world. As Anthony Burgess observes in Re Joyce (Norton, 1965), his typically elegant, trenchantly reflective study of the entire Joyce canon, "No face shines through the novels of James Joyce, and this is disturbing" for most readers.

"[The majority of novel-readers]agree in finding many novels too wordy; words, a necessary evil in the days of primitive art, are rendered supererogatory by the new, mostly visual, media. . . . Most novel-readers want to get at the content of a novel without the intermediacy of a kind of writing that seems to obtrude, rivaling the plot in its claim to be looked at."

To begin to understand -- and, more important, enjoy -- Ulysses is to realize that its main character is not Leopold or Molly Bloom or Stephen Dedalus, but the English language itself, both what it can and cannot be made to do. Burgess's brief, eminently readable study rightly emphasizes this vital fact throughout.

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Joyce loathed nationalism, eschewed politics and even spurned most attempts to ally him with other writers (refusing, for example, to join the Academy of Irish Letters when asked by no less than W. B. Yeats). He believed in the sanctity of the individual, the power of art, the importance of family.

In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- being almost entirely indifferent to his books (except for whatever money they brought in), Nora, Joyce's life-long partner, was, in her manifest earthiness, his spiritual ballast. Brenda Maddox's Nora is a fine biography, but even just to skim the Selected Letters of James Joyce (Faber & Faber, 1975) is to understand how utterly Nora helped transform a nearsighted, bookish boy into a mature man willing to reject his country and all prospects of bourgeois respectability for the opportunity to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race.

"You remember the day you pulled up your clothes and let me under you looking up at you while you did it? Nora, my faithful darling, my sweet-eyed blackguard schoolgirl, be my whore, my mistress, as much as you like (my little frigging mistress! My little fucking whore!) you are always my beautiful wild flower of the hedges, my dark-blue rain-drenched flower."

Nora gave Joyce the gift of his own body. Without it, he never would have written Ulysses, never would have changed the course of 20th-century literature. Bloomsday isn't about parades, commemorative plaques or Dublin pub crawls. It's about the body, the word, the mystery of the holy mundane. That's a trinity that even Joyce, the renegade Catholic, would have approved.

Contributing reviewer Ray Robertson's most recent books are the novel, Moody Food, and Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing.

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