Three days from now, thousands of scholars, collectors and readers of James Joyce will gather in Dublin to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, probably the most famous single day in modern fiction. On June 16, 1904, at 8 a.m., "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" greeted the morning with exuberant clowning, much to the annoyance of his friend, the "displeased and sleepy" Stephen Dedalus, just as Mr. Leopold Bloom, of 7 Eccles Street, was beginning to prepare breakfast for his wife, Molly. During the next 18 hours or so these people -- and hundreds of others -- will leap to blazing life in the pages of the greatest novel in English of the 20th century. During the final 50 or so pages, 33-year-old Molly Bloom will lie awake, unable to sleep, and gradually disclose her most intimate thoughts in the most celebrated soliloquy since Hamlet muttered "To be or not to be." The last words of the novel, her memory of Bloom's marriage proposal, mimic the rising ecstasies of love; they also bring to a climax one of the most beautiful prose arias ever written:
" . . . and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."
When Ulysses was first published in 1922, on Joyce's 40th birthday, it set forth on its own legendary odyssey. The first edition was produced by the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company in fragile blue-paper covers and was quickly banned in England and America as obscene. (To buy a copy of that iconic first printing -- so often purchased surreptitiously, then smuggled across borders, though now available in facsimile at every Borders -- will cost you between $50,000 and $150,000, depending on state and condition.) Nonetheless, from the start the novel elicited praise from those able to judge an artistic achievement comparable to Dante's, both in a tightly mortised structural integrity and a breath-taking verbal loveliness. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound rejoiced early on, but so did the great German scholar E.R. Curtius, the French writer Valery Larbaud (who eventually translated much of the novel into French) and the American critic Edmund Wilson (who devoted a chapter to Joyce in his 1930 study of modernism, Axel's Castle).
In 1934, after a landmark judicial decision, Random House finally brought out the first American edition of Ulysses, and since then there has been no stopping the Joyce industry. As far back as 1930, Stuart Gilbert drew up -- after consultation with the author himself -- the semi-classic Ulysses: A Study, which laid out the Homeric parallels of the 18 chapters, as well as their color and body symbolism; it also quoted heavily from the novel and gave would-be readers a sampling of the work's linguistic and narrative richness. In 1934 Frank Budgen published James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, a charming memoir of this English painter's friendship with the Irish author in Zurich, coupled with a commonsensical account of the book's action. By the time Joyce released Finnegans Wake (1939) -- containing the most linguistically original and daunting prose ever written -- and certainly by the time he died in 1941, Ulysses was firmly established as the Mount Everest of modern literature, its only rival being In Search of Lost Time, (though Proust's masterpiece hasn't provoked anything like the same degree of exegetical fervor). Apparently these two literary gods once met briefly, at a dinner party, and -- according to William Carlos Williams -- Joyce complained about his eyes and Proust about his stomach.
Nowadays, every word in Ulysses has been cross-indexed, etymologized and contextualized. There are biographies of Joyce, of his wife, Nora, even of his mentally troubled daughter, Lucia (no doubt son Giorgio will get his own book, sooner or later). Arguments have now raged for years about the quality of various editions: Most scholars tend to use the 1986 "corrected text" of Hans Walter Gabler, though many early commentaries are pegged to the 1934 Random House printing, and Gabler's critics maintain that the 1961 revised Modern Library Ulysses is actually the most reliable version currently available. Succeeding the relatively humane early scholarship of Harry Levin, Richard Kain, Hugh Kenner, Don Gifford and Richard Ellmann (all their biographical and critical work is warmly recommended), Joyce commentary has increasingly grown tediously specialized. In America Ulysses again is no longer read, it's only studied.
Except on June 16. Then, in Irish bars, at community centers and on college campuses, marathon recitations of the great book start at 8 a.m. and run until Molly Bloom utters her final Yes. Such celebrations remind us that this is a story -- for all its consummate, subtle virtuosity -- about ordinary people and that ordinary people do enjoy its humor, language and glorious excess. The Irish, in particular, have continued to regard Joyce as a living writer, rather than treating him as an embalmed author: See Constantine Curran's portrait of the artist as a young man (James Joyce Remembered); Anthony Cronin's important essay, "The Advent of Bloom," which points out how deeply the novel reflects the raffish world of Joyce's improvident father; or Roddy Doyle's recent complaint that Ulysses would have benefited from judicious cutting and editing. Come this Bloomsday in Dublin, thousands of plain old James Joyce fans will linger over a pint of Guinness at Davy Byrne's pub, visit a Martello Tower like the one in which Stephen resides with Mulligan and stroll along Sandymount Strand where Bloom eyes up Gerty MacDowell as she leans back and exposes her scanties. To start the day, many will order Bloom's favorite breakfast viands, "the inner organs of beasts and fowls," especially "grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine."
Despite the decades of scholarship, in some ways Ulysses still offers challenges to the reader, some of its riddles very basic and perhaps insoluble. Is Leopold Bloom poor or rich? He seems to lose jobs regularly, and he currently works by selling advertising in The Freeman's Journal -- but he owns 900 pounds' worth of Canadian stock and he acts extremely generously toward the family of the late Paddy Dignam. Is Blazes Boylan the most recent in a long line of Molly's lovers? Or is he -- as some critics suggest -- actually her first (or possibly second) infidelity? Bloom, using the name Henry Flower, exchanges naughty teasing notes with a Martha Clifford. Could Martha really be someone else in the novel, possibly even Molly, who has a taste for novelettes like "Sweets of Sin," not to mention the louche fiction of Paul de Kock ("nice name he has"). We know the Blooms stopped having sex after the death of their 11-day-old son. But when Bloom thinks "Could never like it again after Rudy" -- does this refer to Molly or to himself? And who, finally, is the mysterious man in the mackintosh at poor Dignam's funeral?
Setting aside these and other famous cruxes, Ulysses is hardly the well-nigh impenetrable text that bewildered earlier generations. We know too well its scheming ways. In fact, Joyce's masterpiece can sometimes look very like a gritty naturalist novel such as Zola's L'Assommoir or George Gissing's New Grub Street. Even the hallucinations in the Nighttown brothel may have lost some of their dizzyingly psychedelic splendor in the era of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Yet despite a few longueurs -- for instance, those pastiches of English prose style as Mina Purefoy struggles through her labor pains -- the novel still works its linguistic magic. Nabokov once announced -- and who would know better? -- that the pages in which Bloom prepares breakfast and talks to his cat are among the most beautiful in all literature. Single words, phrases, sentences, page after stunning page show us the beauty and possibilities of our gorgeous, infinitely various and supple English language.
I must own a hundred books about Joyce and Ulysses. A couple of months back, I started to prepare for this special Bloomsday celebration -- not by rereading the novel but by listening to it on audiotape. I dipped into three recorded versions: from Naxos (abridged, yet beautifully spoken, in various accents and voices, by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan), from RTE (a radio production that is essentially a performance, with multiple speakers), and from Recorded Books (Donal Donnelly's authorized reading of every blessed word, except Molly's interior monologue, which is the purview of Miriam Healy-Louie). Above all, I wanted to relish the lilt of Irish voices, to register through my ear the narrative's complex polyphony (especially in "Sirens" and "Wandering Rocks"), to make Joyce's text about an extraordinary, ordinary day part of my own extraordinarily ordinary day, as I washed dishes or sorted laundry, picked up a child from school, lay abed in the darkness waiting for sleep. Early on Bloom remembers a bazaar when a band played Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours," and that phrase perfectly evokes Joyce's rigorous orchestration.
While listening to these tapes, I also started prospecting among the commentaries and memoirs already alluded to, mostly for the fun of it. (Start with Budgen, then take up Ellmann's classic biography; after these, the deluge.) I was soon talking to friends and acquaintances about their experience of the novel. The genially learned Guy Davenport told me that he believed there was an owl reference buried in the first sentence of every one of the 18 episodes. Helen Solterer, who teaches French at Duke, casually revealed that her grandfather was Constantine Curran, the old classmate of Joyce, and that her family possessed letters and notes from the novelist. Another friend, Eric Solsten, presented me with a glass mug that he'd bought in Dublin, etched with the visage of the novelist and the wrong date for his death; it now holds my pens and pencils. I quickly acquired a copy of the recent James Joyce's Dublin: A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of James Joyce's "Ulysses," by Ian Gunn and Clive Hart (Thames & Hudson, $45), and pored over its detailed maps, chronologies and turn-of-the-century photographs. A literary hero-worshipper, I even cut out a picture of Joyce from an old magazine and placed it in a frame on my dresser, where each morning I could peer into those half-blind, all-seeing eyes. Then, late in May on a trip to Europe, I visited Joyce's grave in Zurich.
But, alas, I won't be in Dublin on June 16, retracing the peregrinations of Bloom and Stephen. No matter. I will have prepared myself to honor Ulysses in the only way that really counts. This centenary morning at 8 a.m. I will open my pretty 1960 Bodley Head edition -- austere, dark green jacket, with an archer's bow on the spine -- and begin to read aloud in the mild morning air:
"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. . . . "
The owl, by the way, is there, hidden in the world "bowl." *
Michael Dirda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online book discussion takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.