To many it may seem strange: the costumed people wandering the streets speaking a seemingly foreign language, drinking burgundy wine and eating gorgonzola sandwiches or breakfasting on organ meats, the image of James Joyce everywhere. But to many more the 16th of June has come to be a day they look forward to for its celebration of Joyce’s famous modernist epic Ulysses. These people—not only academics or intellectuals but an increasing number of ordinary folk—know the story well. They will tell you how Ulysses takes place in the whole of one day, June 16th, 1904, and that this day is referred to as Bloomsday after the name of one of the novel’s primary and most memorable characters, Leopold Bloom. They will also tell you that the date had great personal significance to Joyce, as it was the date of his first outing with Nora Barnacle, the woman who was to become his wife.
The fact of it is this is becoming an increasingly well-known story and not only on the streets of Dublin where the novel is famously set, but in places as varied as Buenos Aires, Sydney, Sri lanka, Oslo, New York and Paris, to name a few. Part of the wide-ranging appeal of Joyce’s work can be attributed to his wanderings across Europe—to Paris, Trieste and Zurich—or indeed to his incorporation of so many different languages into his text. Still, for such a lengthy and difficult novel, the wide-ranging appeal of Bloomsday is something of an anomaly. Why the sudden surge in interest in Ulysses? Why do tourists flock to Dublin to follow in Leopold Bloom’s footsteps? What’s the attraction to celebrating Bloomsday worldwide?
When I was studying for my undergraduate degree I took a colloquium on Joyce. The professor told us that the experience of reading Ulysses was a bit like swimming—you can’t think too much about why or how you’re doing it. It seemed an accurate analogy. From then on I tried not to think about the meaning of Joyce’s words and purposely didn’t stop to look them up in a dictionary. I kept reading, picturing the words as water, supporting me and propelling me along, like a stream. Still I felt I was missing something. Our professor played recordings of the novel, insisting we needed to hear it read aloud. A woman I worked with at a café at the time told me that she liked to read Ulysses aloud while sitting in the bathtub—it was the only way she could understand the language—with words bouncing off the walls of the small room, echoing around her. Still the prospect of reading aloud, alone in the bath was not particularly appealing.
It was not until a sweltering Saturday in June 2006 that I believe I finally heard Ulysses read the way it was supposed to be read. On Bloomsday. The year before I’d heard some fabulous actors and actresses reading excerpts from the novel on a Broadway stage. As wonderful as it was, the setting felt too sterile, too much of a performance. This particular year I was invited by Colm McCann to a Bloomsday celebration at a pub in Manhattan’s financial district that was aptly named Ulysses’ Folk house. The pub shared its birthday with Bloomsday.
There, on the cobblestone street, one of the oldest in Manhattan, people from all walks of life took their turns reading from the novel. There were writers, actors and actresses, musicians, students, professors, and directors, to name a few. The most striking thing about the experience was the blending of so many different voices as they echoed around the cobblestone street, fighting to rise above the din of the city. Business men and women walking by with their coffees and sandwiches gave puzzled looks and seemed especially appalled if they happened by when one of the racier sections was being read. Part of the remarkable thing about reading it in this setting was how much the novel was transformed, placed in the middle of everyday life, read in a variety of voices by a wide range of people. It was the way Joyce would have wanted it read.
It must be said, however, that Ulysses is not an easy book to read aloud from. This difficulty stems from the fact that there are so many foreign words, so many bit of Latin and fragments of songs and rhymes. If you want to avoid words you’re unsure of pronouncing, or to avoid singing or chanting then it’s best to not agree to read aloud from Ulysses.
This brings us back again to the question of appeal and why, despite its challenging and often obtuse nature, the novel continues to speak to such a wide range of people across the world. Joyce’s choice to depict an everyman, Bloom, on an ordinary day in Dublin and yet elevate it to the level of epic, or to give it mythic status, may have something to do with it. It may indeed be the difficulty of Joyce’s text, the words that frustrate us as well as enrapture us, and the communal experience of reading the novel aloud that accounts for its renewed popularity. In an age where we can google each word in the text for a definition, it is refreshing on Bloomsday to be able to sit back and listen to the flow of words for its beauty rather than its meaning, as Joyce most likely intended. And that may be the fun of Bloomsday too, to revel in non-meaning for a while.