The centenary of Joyce’s Ulysses – a work described in Finnegans Wake as the ‘usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles’ – will rightly be a cause for much rejoicing in Ireland and elsewhere. The publication of the notoriously ‘unreadable’ novel, set around a day in the lives of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold and Molly Bloom, was such a watershed in the history of fiction and reading that we might classify literary experience as either BU or AU: before or after Ulysses. Whether they love or hate it, has anyone who’s even dipped their toes into the snot-green linguistic sea of Joyce’s protean masterpiece ever felt the same again about novels, language or themselves?
Love and hatred for it loom large in Consuming Joyce, John McCourt’s scandalously readable account of how Joyce’s magnum opus has been (again in the words of Finnegans Wake) ‘receptionated’ in his native land over the last century, tracing its ‘long and tortuous journey from oddity to commodity’. The book famously first saw the light of day in 1922, that annus mirabilis for European literature, alongside Eliot’s The Waste Land, Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah. McCourt reminds us, however, that 1922 was also the year of the foundation of the Irish Free State and that ‘Ulysses and the Irish state are exact contemporaries’. In often fascinating detail, Consuming Joyce shows how what the Catholic Bulletin in 1929 referred to as ‘the colossal muck-heap called Ulysses’ went from suffering near-apocalyptic rejection by Church and state in Eamon de Valera’s Ireland to being celebrated as ‘the great Irish book of the twentieth century’. Although Ulysses was appreciated from the outset by a small core of intellectuals, including Yeats, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, public opinion was hostile: in the 1930s the Waterford News and Star tapped the conservative Ernest Blythe over the knuckles for ‘tenderness for that past master in pornography, Mr James Joyce’ and in 1954 O’Brien said there was no need to censor Ulysses, since ‘any person asking for it in a bookshop would probably be lynched’. According to McCourt, it was not really until the 1980s that ‘a proper Irish appraisal of the novel and of Joyce’ took off. By the turn of the millennium, ‘Joyce was the only game in town’. This marked quite a turnaround, given that in the 1920s The Nation said the Irish bookshop ‘was the only place outside Paris in which that unspeakable heap of printed filth, Mr James Joyce’s Ulysses could be openly purchased!’ and Dublin’s Unionist Sunday Express called it the ‘most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature’.
Consuming Ulysses intertwines the story of the book’s reception by reviewers, writers, academics, priests and politicians with the history of the Irish state as it transitioned from the inward-looking, socially conservative, newly independent Catholic nation of the 1920s to the ‘post-nationalist, anti-Catholic, pro-European (but more crucially pro-capital) Ireland of the 1990s’. McCourt argues that the latter ‘found the perfect symbol in Joyce, who had earlier rejected so many of the pieties that the country was now finally beginning to question and demolish’. During and after the boom time of the Celtic Tiger, Bloomsday, a coterie event in the 1950s, became a major national festival and tourist attraction, statues and plaques materialised in the streets of Dublin commemorating Joyce and his characters, once-shunned academic Joyceans were hosted by successive presidents, theatrical readings and adaptations of Ulysses and other Joyce works multiplied, the notoriously financially unreliable Joyce appeared on the tenner, an Irish naval vessel was named after Joyce and a total of €16 million was given to the National Library of Ireland to acquire a treasure trove of Joyce manuscripts. In 1997 the Evening Herald noted that ‘after Guinness and perhaps U2, James Joyce is our most famous export’ (not to mention expat).
From the outset, Ulysses was famous for being both difficult and obscene. Although focused on ordinary Dubliners going about their normal lives on a relatively undramatic day in 1904, following them through the streets, newspaper offices, bars, shops, libraries and houses of the ‘Hibernian Metropolis’, it is also an encyclopedically allusive literary text, incorporating a bewildering range of styles and voices, from epic to kitschy romance, from hallucinatory theatre to the helter-skelter unpunctuated interior monologue of its unconventional heroine, Molly Bloom. The novel goes where few earlier writers had dared to tread, representing its hero, Leopold Bloom, cooking, shitting, masturbating, dreaming and free-associating, as well as exploring in glowing detail his perverse erotic fantasies and those of his unfaithful wife. If this was shocking enough to get the novel censored in the USA and elsewhere, it offered a vision of Ireland, nationhood and married life that flew in the face of the puritanical Catholicism and nationalism of the new state.
McCourt combs through newspapers, articles, scholarly books, public records and biographies to trace the gradual emergence of Ulysses as a major work of Irish as well as world literature. Pound, one of the cosmopolitan backers of Ulysses, found it ‘surprising that Mr Joyce is Irish’, provocatively celebrating the novel in a piece entitled ‘The Non-Existence of Ireland’, and McCourt notes that the ‘European’ Joyce dominated the ‘Irish’ Joyce for several decades. Nonetheless, McCourt argues that ‘a very different “Irish” Joyce lingered in the undergrowth’. It is sobering to realise quite how ‘non-existent’ official recognition of Joyce was in the Ireland of De Valera, which refused to send a representative to his funeral in Zurich in 1941 (ironically leaving it to a British minister to deliver a eulogy). Similarly, neither of Joyce’s schools deigned to record his death in their annuals. He quotes Elizabeth Bowen’s challenge in discussing Ulysses in 1941: ‘The English can never know us – and are we ready to know ourselves?’ Early in Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, confronting a mirror, says, ‘It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant.’
Consumption, as McCourt’s title implies, is a theme throughout. Ulysses opens with Buck Mulligan blasphemously parodying the moment of Eucharistic transubstantiation in the Mass (‘For this, O dearly beloved, is the genuine Christine: body and soul and blood and ouns’), while a little later Leopold Bloom is introduced preparing Molly’s breakfast and eating ‘with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls’. The text inwardly relishes both consumption and transubstantiation. It demands to be consumed as both the tastiest and meatiest materialistic novel of everyday life and as a formally challenging affirmation of the transformation of all kinds of linguistic and physical material into art, in which ‘all sides of life’ are substantiated by a Shakespearian ‘lord of language’. As readers we are consumers of the text and may in turn be consumed by it. It has also become an object of rampant consumerism, being exploited not only by businesses and the Irish tourist industry but also by the author’s grandson Stephen Joyce, the dragon-like custodian of the James Joyce flame (and estate), and those critics and academics who make a living from it. As this book shows, Ulysses continues to provoke all-consuming debates among Joyceans and others, inviting anti-nationalist and nationalist readings, colonial and postcolonial, feminist, queer and post-feminist ones. McCourt memorably reviews the fights over Hans Walter Gabler’s ‘authorised’, synoptic edition of Ulysses in 1984, which was accused of having been produced to provide ‘a new and lucrative copyright’ for the estate (the original was set to expire in 1992); he also covers Bruce Arnold’s The Scandal of Ulysses (1991), which brought the ‘Joyce wars’ of the 1980s to a wider audience, and Danis Rose’s even more scandalous ‘Reader’s Edition’ of Ulysses (1997), which was pilloried by scholars and the Joyce estate alike for ‘rectifying’ the author’s style and punctuation.
McCourt also documents the responses of contemporary Irish writers to the book, quoting John Banville’s description of ‘kneeling speechless’ before ‘a great looming Easter Island effigy of the father’ in ‘filial admiration’ while ‘gnawing his knuckles, not a son, but a survivor’, and Eimear McBride saying, ‘Reading Ulysses changed everything I thought about language, and everything I understood about what a book could do.’ The novelist Joseph O’Connor, after hearing a man on the number 8 bus in Sandycove berate Joyce as a ‘dirty little tinker’ who never did ‘an honest day’s work’, wrote in the Sunday Tribune in 1993: ‘In other countries, they commemorate battles and victories and death. But we in Ireland, for all our faults, celebrate the work of a dirty little tinker who … made our small insignificant city glorious everywhere, and turned the lives of ordinary people just like ourselves into the most spellbindingly beautiful prose ever written in the language.’
As Wilde said, books reflect their readers as well as writers. Books like Ulysses read us as much as we read them, and McCourt brilliantly shows us the ways Joyce’s multi-dimensional comic text not only mirrors a day in 1904 and 1922 but the rapidly changing Ireland of the last hundred years