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Mapping the Labyrinth: The Ulysses Guide by Robert Nicholson

Writing.ie | Magazine | Non Fiction
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It was not originally my intention to write a book about James Joyce or Ulysses. More than enough people had already done so, and my impression was that yet another one would be an infliction on people who preferred to read books by Joyce than books about him. What I was actually working on was a map. Way back in 1962, when the James Joyce Museum was opened at the Tower in Sandycove, its founders recognised that the most useful piece of equipment that any Joycean pilgrim could require (next to a copy of Ulysses) was a map showing the principal locations of the book. At that time many readers still had difficulty distinguishing between Sandycove and Sandymount or the Burton and the Bailey, and those unfamiliar with the city had simply no visualisation of the distances travelled or directions taken by the principal characters. The Ulysses Map of Dublin was a simple sheet of paper with a city centre map on one side and a smaller-scale map of Dublin county on the other. On these maps were marked approximately twenty of the principal locations in Ulysses, with a key naming the locations and assigning them to the various different episodes of the novel. It made an informative bookmark and provided an easy first step to erudition. It was still in stock when I became curator of the museum in the late 1970s, but the upsurge of interest in Joyce around his centenary in 1982 disposed of the remaining copies, and it was time for a replacement and a new design.

robert_nicholson140x210The original map had been rather imprecise, with approximate locations marked with large numbers and some quirky inclusions, such as Mulligan’s pub in Poolbeg Street, which does not feature in Ulysses at all. I felt that by now people were using the map, not just for an idea of the geography of Ulysses, but as a basis for their own explorations, and I put in more locations, more accurate directions, and a couple of itineraries with dotted lines. Once I began doing this, it was difficult to stop. I proposed upgrading the map to a brief guidebook with several itineraries in different parts of the city, but budgetary considerations prevailed and we confined ourselves to publishing the map. The idea for the guidebook, however, did not go away, and a couple of years later Edwin Higel, then an agent for Methuen, asked me to write it up as a book and to include a summary of what was going on in the action of Ulysses as it related to each point of the various itineraries.

As I set to work walking the streets with my notebook, the book took on a whole new dimension. Previous researchers had drawn lines on maps, listed addresses and produced photographs in what now seemed a remote and flat approach to the subject. The landscape itself was the clue to understanding Joyce’s work. His famous remark that if Dublin were ever destroyed it could be reconstructed from the pages of his novel appeared to be less and less fanciful. Somewhere behind modern Dublin lurked a shadowy Joycean city which could be seen from certain viewpoints just as he had described it. Patches of gloom and sunshine, sudden prospects at street corners, statues and landmarks silently influencing the moods and movements of the characters; these all served to make evident the idea that Dublin is not just a backdrop but a character in its own right.

Ulysses is an episodic book. First-time readers, dazzled by Joyce’s inventiveness and virtuosity, tend to lose the plot fairly early on. Stephen Dedalus pops up in Sandycove, then Dalkey, then Sandymount, then disappears to be replaced by a different central character, Leopold Bloom. The narrative viewpoint shifts hither and thither. Stephen reappears, then disappears again. People who officially have jobs spend most of their time crossing the city, gathering for conversations or drinking in pubs. Some characters recur throughout the book, others appear only once. One of the tasks of The Ulysses Guide was to show that Bloom and the other characters are not aimless wanderers in the labyrinth of the city and that there is a purpose to the journeys. Plotting their movements around the city revealed a carefully constructed choreography that even continues off stage, outside the narrative or between the episodes. Despite first impressions, no character appears anywhere without good reason (even if it is only to obtain a drink or the means to buy it, preferably at someone else’s expense).

What distinguished The Ulysses Guide from numerous other introductions to Ulysses was its exploration of the action in terms of geographical areas instead of the traditional episode-by-episode approach. Admittedly designed as a convenience for readers who wanted to cover all the locations of Ulysses in a limited time-frame, it opened new portals of discovery by cutting corners in the labyrinth and emphasising the relationship between different episodes set in the same area. And what I also found, as the book evolved, was that it highlighted the role of Dublin itself – its topography, its history and culture, its people and its physical presence – in the pages of Joyce’s great novel.

The work goes on. Twenty-seven years later, Dublin itself has changed. It is like a fading document from which we can still extract information about the city walked by Leopold Bloom more than a hundred years ago. Even as the physical city disappears, Ulysses remains as its embodiment in literature, and we rely on our understanding of Ulysses for our fuller understanding of Dublin. As Joyce said, ‘If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world.’

(c) Robert Nicholson

Robert Nicholson was born and lives in Dublin. He studied English Literature at Trinity College, and since 1978 has been the curator of the James Joyce Museum in Sandycove. The Ulysses Guide was first published in 1988, establishing him as an authority on the locations of Joyce’s novel, and in 2007 he wrote and presented a DVD, James Joyce’s Dublin: The Ulysses Tour. He is a founder member of the James Joyce Cultural Centre and former chairman of the James Joyce Institute of Ireland. He is a regular contributor to The James Joyce Broadsheet.

About The Ulysses Guide

More than just a walking guide, The Ulysses Guide provides a guide to James Joyce’s novel Ulysses by following its eighteen episodes on their original locations, and recreating the Dublin of 1904 against the background of today’s streetscape. It explains the action of the book in terms of its settings and illuminates some of the more challenging sections of Joyce’s work.

This latest edition has been updated to incorporate new additions to the landscape, such as the Spire and the James Joyce Bridge, and changes to Joycean landmarks like the Ormond Hotel, Sweny’s Pharmacy and Barney Kiernan’s pub. New research has thrown fresh light on some puzzling moments in Ulysses and challenged traditional views on Mr Deasy’s school, Bella Cohen’s reputation and Stephen’s morning whereabouts.

The Ulysses Guide is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

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