For those who find Joyce endlessly fascinating, yesterday--June 16--Bloomsday as it's called--remains the great day of the year to deal with all things Irish, beyond March 17, which, so far as I have gathered, is hardly celebrated in Ireland save for pleasing tourists. But this was the day--June 16, 1904--Joyce picked to be the time of his great novel, Ulysses. Everything occurs within the 24-hour span. Apparently, it was the day he met his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle.
What is it about Joyce that is so compelling? Ulysses, of course, is the definition of a tour de force. First of all, he sets up a wonderful, often satirical parallel with Homer's original. Joyce, raised a Catholic but an exile both from religion and his homeland for most of his life, understood what it meant to wander as Odysseus did; in Joyce's case it was from Rome to Trieste to Zurich to Paris. It was not a romantic journey, either, as he struggled to make a living while writing his masterpiece(s). So Leopold Bloom wanders through Dublin, encountering everyone from a bile-spouting editor who rejects his ad canvassing (Aeolus), to observing a girl on the beach (Nausicaa) to an encounter with a blind, bigoted old soldier (Cyclops). He befriends a young man in search of himself, Stephen Dedalus, sort of a stand-in for Joyce himself, and who may become a surrogate for Bloom's deceased son, and finally Bloom manages to wind up first in the last night thoughts of his wife Molly, who has committed adultery in their house that very afternoon.
It is the richness of life that Joyce captures, including the ads of the day, references to the art and music of the ages, and even some arcane satire of Irish intellectuals discussing Shakespeare. Some of his parallels with the Odyssey are fantastic--the enchantress Circe appears in the form of bawdyhouse madam Bella Cohen. Nor does Joyce shrink from including all thoughts, many uncensored, including the scatalogical and the sado-masochistic, contrasting the vision of Bloom engaging in voyeurism as he gazes upon a group of young women on the beach while bringing himself to climax with the sublime yet wordly measures of Mozart's DaPonte operas, for which Joyce reputedly enjoyed exercising his tenor voice.
If you couldn't get a bad childhood memory out of your system--consider Father Dolan, who punishes the young Stephen in the preceding set-up novel for Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, only to appear hundreds of pages later in the dream sequence of Nighttown popping out of a jack-in-the-box to remind Stephen that he remains "a lazy little loafer." The quotidian discussions of a group of men put together in a carriage to ride to a funeral become timeless in Joyce's hands.
You somehow keep reading while realizing that the master has been engaging in wordplay among multiple languages. Each chapter is written in a different style--from the headlines describing the scene in the newspaper office to the dramatic events in Nighttown written as a play. In one chapter, he provides a complete history of English language and literature. Another chapter is written in imitation of the catechism Joyce learned as a boy.
While some have told me of the even greater wonders to be found in Finnegan's Wake, where Joyce seems to have sought to invent his own language, I find his last work virtually impenetrable. I know every time I pick up Ulysses, though, at any page I will discover things I never noticed before.