“Who ever anywhere will read these written words?” is a question Stephen Dedalus asks himself early in the action of Ulysses. Coming as it does from the thoughts of James Joyce’s literary proxy, Dedalus’ question may well be an expression of the author’s own insecurity. If Stephen could have looked into the future from the beach on Sandymount strand, to see just what the legacy of Ulysses would be, he might have been less than satisfied. Of course, Ulysses is widely recognized as a great work, and rightfully so, but its appreciation is largely confined to university seminars and intellectual circles. Its winding, densely layered story and shifting, fractured narrative structure makes it a daunting challenge to even the most seasoned and determined readers. Its reputation as a difficult book serves as a warning as dire and dissuasive as the one posted outside Dante’s Hell.
All of this, claims author Declan Kiberd, an Anglo-Irish literature professor at Dublin’s University College, is contrary to James Joyce’s original intentions. He believes that the obsessive focus on the minutiae and hidden references in the text has obscured what makes Ulysses a truly great book. The academic focus on unraveling the alleged mysteries that Joyce laced within the story is like studying the proverbial tree while letting the rich, lustrous forest go unnoticed. Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece is Kiberd’s attempt to reframe the discussion of this profoundly wise novel, and to provide his readers with a method of proselytizing for Joyce, for penetrating that reputation for difficulty, and making it clear that Ulysses is not meant for perusal in ivory towers, but in pubs and parlors as well.
Ulysses is an exceptional book about a common man, Leopold Bloom, tracing his Dublin wanderings over a single day. In Bloom, Joyce glorifies (some might say deifies) the trappings of everyday life, the personal interactions, the meals, the drinks, the emotional entanglements and domestic tremors that reverberate in our thoughts as we live our lives. It’s a Modernist experiment, taking the classical epic (in this case, The Odyssey) and turning it inside out. Instead of following aristocratic kings and warriors, Joyce has selected a normal man as his hero and portrays his daily routine as an epic every bit as powerful and worthy of examination as that of an Odysseus or Achilles. Where modern study of Bloom’s day has gone awry, however, is that it feels it necessary to elevate Joyce’s story, to identify the high-minded elements that could make it worthy of serious critique.
This approach does not truly grasp Joyce’s intentions, contests Kiberd, and proper evaluation of Ulysses must not concentrate on the slivers of intellectualism—personified by Stephen—but rather on the broader (in every sense of the term) lessons of Bloom. In Ulysses and Us, Kiberd identifies the fundamental forces at work in Bloom’s day, the simple, automatic actions he undertakes that can help readers identify with his life. Joyce, in correspondence following the publication of Ulysses, drew parallels between his unnamed chapters and segments of The Odyssey, and those supplementary titles (“Proteus”, “Oxen of the Sun”, etc.) have often driven interpretations of the narrative. Kiberd believes that, while helpful, those headings have narrowed and pre-framed the reading of the text in a manner that Joyce never intended. In his walkthrough of the story, Kiberd instead introduces a broad concept that encapsulates the main action of the chapter, such as “Waking”, “Eating”, “Singing”, and “Ogling”. These titles help bring the story of Ulysses back to the earth, without the lofty implications that come along with the Homeric taxonomy.
Kiberd’s analysis of the text is weighty and definitely requires a rough familiarity with Ulysses, and perhaps Modernism in general. Ulysses and Us, then, is not an introduction to the great book, but rather a postmortem, a collection of insightful essays intended to help readers refine and contextualize their thoughts after a read through of the novel. It’s also a tool to be used by those readers to go forth and spread the word about Ulysses, to be able to convey the importance and universality of the text to others, to help turn the tide against the impression that it is a work untouchable by all but only the most pretentious literary types.
In this, Kiberd is quite successful. Ulysses is a very difficult book, but when one takes the time to identify and understand its broader story, and how it relates to the most common human experiences, what might have seemed like an impossible and frivolous undertaking gains a new importance, a new vitality. Kiberd gives Ulysses new life, and encourages those who have been lucky enough to experience the wisdom of Leo Bloom to spread the good news.