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Ulysses and Us, By Declan Kiberd

John Walsh
Friday 12 June 2009 00:00 BST

Next Tuesday marks the 105th anniversary of Bloomsday – the eventful day of 16 June 1904, on which a young aspiring writer called Stephen Dedalus, a Jewish advertising canvasser called Leopold Bloom and his adulterous songbird wife, Molly, played out a bonsai version of Homer's Odyssey in the streets of Dublin. Hundreds of Dubliners throng the streets each year, recreating the characters in costume, on stilts and in carnival floats, breakfasting near Bloom's (now demolished) home in Eccles Street, lunching on cheese sandwiches and Burgundy at Davy Byrne's pub, making the pilgrimage through the day to the cabman's shelter where Bloom and Dedalus converged after midnight.

How many revellers have read every word of James Joyce's Ulysses remains a moot point. The cover of Declan Kiberd's bracing commentary features Marilyn Monroe reading it, evidently engrossed by Molly Bloom's final monologue. But would Marilyn (or Molly) have been able to read the rest? Would Leopold Bloom have understood the challenging first three chapters? Would Ulysses, the apotheosis of the common man, have been intelligible to its own protagonists?

Kiberd raises the question early in Ulysses and Us, and offers to aid the perplexed. His book is the latest in a line of popular exegeses of the great modernist text, such as Harry Blamires's The Bloomsday Book. Kiberd's subtitle seems to promise a guide to the lessons Ulysses can teach the ordinary reader, along the lines of Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life.

So what do we learn from Ulysses about "the art of everyday living"? Nothing terribly exciting, to be honest. We're told that, by focusing on a single day in our lives, we can appreciate "how the hours may be wasted and also how they might be redeemed. A day may prove the very antithesis of dullness," which is pretty inarguable. Stephen's knotty monologue on Sandymount beach warns us that an arts degree may not equip us for the real world. Bloom, the practical man, shows how to conquer depression by taking strenuous exercise. And so on.

But Kiberd's analysis – each of the 18 chapters is given a gerundive essence such as "Waking," "Praying," "Singing," "Ogling" etc – tells us more about the fictional characters than our emulatory selves. Kiberd, professor of Anglo-Irish Literature at University College Dublin, knows Joyce inside out. Devotees of the novel will be intrigued to learn that the author wrote much of it lying on his bed, often in a white suit "so that the light would be stronger and his eyes less tired"; that he seldom ate at lunchtime but drank copious amounts of white wine; that he was a keen supporter of the Dublin Hermetic Society, and that, by the time he was 19, he had lived with his family in 11 different homes.

Literary insights abound. Kiberd remarks that Joyce provides hardly any details of face, body or clothes and argues that, while the interior monologues are analogous to "prayer, the sacrament of confession", they can become "a kind of compulsive blather" to distract the thinker from melancholy. In the "Aeolus" chapter, the characters all touch each other with their hands at some point, but nobody touches Bloom, the perennial outsider. And he waspishly notes the numbers of times a character mentions the need that an Irish "national epic" should be written without delay.

Kiberd's obsession, however, is with the larger political resonance of Ulysses: that it was written in time of war and Irish revolution, between 1914 and 1922, and that Joyce was concerned to confront the prevailing streams of militarism and empire by writing about ordinary mortals, ennobling the emotional small change of everyday life for a world that would survive the war.

This theme, elaborated in his introduction to the Penguin Ulysses and reiterated here, leads him into windy pretension: "The world war raging as Joyce wrote had been made possible by a narrow-mindedness among nations... The openness of form and the multiple viewpoints in a book like Ulysses implicitly challenge the sort of zealotry which had led to the carnage."

He's also keen to investigate a good question: how Joyce, while living through the Easter Rising and its aftermath, could write about 1904 Ireland without hinting at the coming cataclysm. Kiberd calls it "the great unmentionable fact that hovers behind so many episodes in Ulysses." But his attempts to infer Republican sympathies from tiny scenes or random phrases in the Dublin streets smack of special pleading.

Ulysses, says Kiberd, is a book filled with "missed or undeveloped encounters." While his commentary is full of incidental delights, you can't help feeling his local obsessions have made him miss a full encounter with its tantalising mysteries. But it should still sell like hot cakes among the pilgrims thronging the Irish capital on Bloomsday.

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