Ulysses is set on 16 June 1904, when Joyce first dated his future wife, Nora Barnacle. The virtuoso comic epic maps 24 hours in the life of two Dubliners, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, on to the episodic plan of Homer's Odyssey. On Monday, the day will be celebrated by Joycean covens around the world. Enthusiasts will trace Leopold and Stephen's route across Dublin, while a mass in Sydney will mark the passing of the fictional Paddy Dignam, whose funeral Bloom attends.
Disputes over the book's text have dogged it from the moment that Joyce's American patron Sylvia Beach issued the first edition of 1,000 copies in Paris in 1922. Typeset by a printer in Dijon, it had more than 2,000 misprints. Joyce constantly meddled with his various manuscripts as he wrote the book in Zurich and Trieste from 1916 onwards. Even publication failed to stop his tinkering. The result has proved to be a minefield - and also a goldmine - for academic duellists ever since.
Novelist and academic David Lodge comments that "Joyce said he had written a book that would keep the professors busy for 100 years. There's a pedantry of genius in Ulysses. That's why it attracts rather obsessive, tunnel- visioned scholars. It's rather like a gigantic crossword puzzle in three dimensions." The critic Valentine Cunningham says that non-religious critics can "find a post-theological satisfaction" wrangling over commas and full stops. "Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have become the Bible of modern literature."
So why should non-believers care? Lodge maintains that "no other book of the 20th century has got so close to rendering in words what cognitive scientists call qualia - the minutiae of feelings, sensations and emotions". To later writers, he argues, Ulysses bequeathed its "superb stream-of- consciousness method" and its use of myth as "an underlying narrative structure for what seems like a rather shapeless slice of modern life". And, as Joyce himself lamented to Ezra Pound in the aftermath of the early critical furore, "If only someone would say the book was so damn funny." It is.
Lodge warns that "there will never be a Platonically perfect text of Ulysses, any more than there will be of Shakespeare". Danis Rose himself aims for a reader-friendly "people's Ulysses". He tries "to free up the flow and pace of the text". For example, he restores normal apostrophes to Molly Bloom's monologue in bed in the final, "Penelope" episode. However, Rose the "people's editor" includes no explanatory end-notes to help out baffled newcomers. In contrast, Jeri Johnson has 200 pages of them in her Oxford World's Classics edition, which reproduces Sylvia Beach's 1922 text. Johnson comments that, for all its mistakes, the 1922 version "is the text that Joyce was directly involved with, the one that he saw through the press" and counts as "a historical document in and of itself".
For critics such as Rainey, Rose navigates too much by his own cavalier idea of common sense. Rose admits that he would rather "maximise the pleasure of the reader" than pinpoint the elusive "final intention" of such a whimsical character as Joyce. Hence the charges of crowd-pleasing populism. Rose believes that book-production is a kind of "social contract" with many participants, whose contributions matter almost as much as what might have been in the author's mind. As a result, the fractious world of Joyce studies is set for its fiercest battle in years.
In 1984, the Munich-based Joyce scholar Hans Walter Gabler published a critical edition that set aficionados at one another's throats for years. Using computers to create a "continuous manuscript text" of all Joyce's drafts prior to the first printed edition, Gabler claimed 5,000 improvements on the old Bodley Head text that (for example) owners of the Penguin Ulysses will know. Even the New York Times hailed this feat of German textual engineering. A case of Vorsprung durch Technik? Not quite. Over the next two years, under relentless fire from the American Joycean John Kidd, bits of Gabler's shiny new model fell apart.
For instance, the German's heavy-duty scholarship had changed the name of a Dublin cricketer called Captain Buller to "Culler" and a cyclist called Thrift to "Shrift". But Buller and Thrift really existed. Gabler even left the accent off the Gaelic toast Slinte - part of what John Kidd condemned as his high-handed indifference to Irish culture. Conferences and journals hosted furious exchanges between rival camps. As Danis Rose recalls, "Everyone had their own point of view, although not everybody knew what they were meant to be looking at." Gabler was vilified, but never entirely defeated.
Most famously, the doyen of Joyce studies - his great biographer, Richard Ellmann - first endorsed and then rejected one crucial change. Late in Ulysses, Stephen sees an apparition of his dead mother and asks her to name the "word known to all men". In a much earlier passage from the so- called "Rosenbach Manuscript" - a fair copy that Joyce sold for ready cash to a wealthy Irish-American lawyer, John Quinn - that pivotal word is identified as "love". At a congress in Monaco, Ellmann backtracked from his previous support for this addition.
Many experts treat the Rosenbach version as an "authorial fake" which was dashed off by the congenitally broke writer to earn a quick buck (actually, about pounds 7,000 in today's money). Rose considers it legitimate, "within the line of direct descent of the text". That judgement alone will have many Joyceans spluttering into their Guinness in Irish bars across the globe this month.
Paring his fingernails in some writer's heaven with a close resemblance to Davy Byrne's bar, Joyce would enjoy the latest spat. Pedantry amused him, and he even slipped a puzzle with no solution into Ulysses. The mysterious "man in the brown macintosh", a "lankylooking galoot", crops up 13 times. Speculations as to his identity have ranged from Death to the "lankylooking" Joyce himself. Along with scraps over hyphens and apostrophes, they will no doubt continue among the faithful - and the obsessive - for the next 75 years. The rest of us can simply raise a glass of stout on Bloomsday and say Slinte - with an accent, of course.