Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life
Faber and Faber, 2009
If Marilyn Monroe can read Ulysses, so can you. The 20th century’s archetypal blonde sits on the cover of Ulysses and Us, gracefully curled on a playground bench, attired in colourful stripy beachwear. Her eyes focus intently on the heavy tome balanced upon her knees; her mouth hangs slightly open; she is engrossed.
The connection between the cover photograph and the content of Declan Kiberd’s book is never spelt out. Although this is not ideal, it is probably for the best: to explain the link would be to risk implying that a blonde bombshell provides the best possible example of the ordinary reader. For Kiberd’s book is all about the common or average reader—that is, the reader who approaches Ulysses without academic incentive or guidance. Kiberd’s view, repeated with mantra-like regularity throughout this episode-by-episode guide to James Joyce’s masterpiece, is that Ulysses was written for precisely this kind of reader.
Ulysses and Us has two principle aims: to explain why Ulysses has missed its target audience, and to give that audience the means to enjoy and reclaim it. Kiberd argues that Ulysses is for ordinary readers because it is primarily about ordinary people. The novel’s minimalist plot revolves around a single day in the lives of three Dubliners: Stephen Dedalus—erudite young man and aspiring writer; Leopold Bloom—middle-aged Jewish man, advertisement canvasser; and Molly Bloom—Leopold’s wife, a concert singer.
While Molly waits for her lover to arrive, Leopold ambles about the streets of Dublin, trying in vain to keep his wife’s dalliance out of mind. Meanwhile, Stephen follows his own meandering trajectory through the city, thinking abstruse thoughts about life and literature. While Stephen is haunted by memories of his mother’s recent death, Bloom’s thoughts often return to his son Rudy, who died in infancy ten years earlier. The two men’s paths eventually cross as Bloom follows Stephen and his riotous drinking companions to Dublin’s red-light district. In the early hours of the morning, the two men amble back to Bloom’s kitchen for a cup of cocoa.
There may not seem much to this storyline, but Joyce’s masterful and revolutionary use of interior monologue infuses his protagonists’ experiences with emotional resonance and psychological complexity. The book derives additional meaning and structure from an external source: the title is a reference to Homer’s Odyssey, with which it entertains countless correspondences—Stephen is a modern-day Telemachus, Bloom a contemporary Odysseus, Molly an updated Penelope.
Ulysses and Us convincingly portrays Bloom as a representative of civic bourgeois virtue. Kiberd aptly and engagingly captures the tenderness and tolerance with which Joyce endows his everyman: it is in Bloom’s well-intentioned concern for others and kindness in action that Ulysses’s everyday wisdom resides. However, Kiberd’s contention that Bloom’s values are Joyce’s own—that Bloom is in some way privileged over other protagonists as a mouthpiece for Joyce’s opinions—is more controversial. It is on this premise, however, that Kiberd’s overall interpretation of Ulysses hinges.
Literary critics tend to think of Ulysses as a modernist triumph (the book was first published in 1922) that can surely delight any reader who attends to its demanding prose, but only yields true intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction—as arguably do all works of art—when submitted to close scrutiny. Kiberd maintains that Joyce wrote with everyday readers in mind. Accordingly, he laments the fact that “a book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them.”
A university professor himself, Kiberd thinks Ulysses has been “wrenched out of the hands of the common reader” by the ivory-towered academy: the canonical status bestowed upon Ulysses from within these intellectual enclaves cements the book’s reputation as an abstruse and indecipherable work of genius. Ulysses and Us is an impassioned clarion call to allow the book to “reconnect” with “the everyday lives of real people.”
Its author, however, does not help Kiberd’s case. Joyce famously stated that “I have put in [Ulysses] so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” Of his ideal audience, he quipped that “the demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” Such comments need not discourage the average reader from picking up the book, but they help explain why generations of critics have emphasised Ulysses’s apparent opacity.
Indeed, not all share Kiberd’s sense that Joyce needs to be returned to a mass ordinary audience-in-waiting. In 2004, prize-winning Irish novelist Roddy Doyle railed against Ulysses’s monumental standing, deploring its inflated length (the book, he said, “could have done with a good editor”) and its failure to engage with real human concerns: “People are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books”, he said, “but I doubt any of those people were really moved by it.”
Whether Kiberd or Doyle are right about Ulysses’s ability to touch the hearts of its readers, and surely the heart of the individual reader should be the judge of that, the book has undeniably made it out of the library and into the limelight. On 16 June every year, Dublin and many other cities around the world celebrate Bloomsday, commemorating the day on which Ulysses is set and on which the Blooms face their marital crisis (always one to mark anniversaries in style, Joyce sets his opus on the date he and his lifelong partner, Nora Barnacle, had their first tryst). In 2004, Bloomsday’s centenary year, over 10,000 people took to the streets of the Irish capital to take part in the day’s festivities. Yet such high levels of public visibility are not—as Kiberd acknowledges—a measure of Ulysses’s true readership so much as a reflection of the current trend for the government-funded fetishisation of Joyce’s works: the prime beneficiary of this enthusiasm is arguably the Irish tourist industry rather than Ulysses itself.
Although it is no state-sponsored Bloomsday, Kiberd’s enterprise is at heart a popularizing one. Between introductory and concluding sections devoted to the book’s mission statement (these come under such titles as “How Ulysses Didn’t Change Our Lives” and “How It Might Still Do”), 18 numbered chapters give an episode-by-episode account of Ulysses. The titles chosen for these summarizing sketches epitomise the dangers inherent in Kiberd’s project. Instead of referring to the episodes by the Homeric names that signal their connection to the Odyssey (these are used by academics, as they were privately by Joyce himself), Kiberd resorts to platitudinous gerunds, such as Waking, Thinking, Ogling, Parenting, Loving. To be sure, the basic activities singled out here do feature in Joyce’s encyclopaedic book. But to suggest that any one episode is predominantly about a particular kind of action is to do Ulysses an injustice, for each of Joyce’s episodes muses on all—and a great many more—of the aspects of everyday life that appear on Kiberd’s list.
Kiberd’s overly personal tone is another cause for discomfort. His musings can be unabashedly grandiose (Joyce “excavated the very depths of the self and the world”), embarrassingly corny (“it is the reader who can decide whether to change, the reader who has been made heroic by the act of working through the challenges posed by the book”), and nostalgically moralizing (“If today a twenty-two-year-old graduate would feel quite unsafe in taking up the invitation of an unfamiliar man to come home with him for cocoa and a chat, that may be our loss.”).
Kiberd’s strong point, on the other hand, is contextualisation, both literary and historical. He does an excellent job of resituating Joyce’s works in relation to the Irish Literary Revival, arguing, in a refreshing turn against the status quo, that the author’s aims were not so fundamentally different from those of his more openly political Irish contemporaries. Joyce’s epic of modern life is read side by side with the Bible and the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Whitman. Kiberd also illuminates connections between Ulysses and World War I: in the light of that conflict, he suggests that Joyce’s redefinition of the notion of heroics—largely by way of his endearing, civic-minded bourgeois modern hero, Leopold Bloom—takes on a more prescriptive edge than is usually recognised.
Kiberd’s take on Bloom is key to his thesis: again and again, he praises Bloom as a paragon of the empathetic everyman. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this view, but Kiberd is rather too forceful in his assumption that Bloom functions merely as a vehicle for Joyce’s message. Joyce’s use of interior monologue for all three of his protagonists makes his novel resistant to such a reductionist reading.
While he falls short here, Kiberd acquits himself well on many counts. Popularization is always a tricky business. Indeed, there is an inbuilt paradox in Kiberd’s self-appointed task: if Ulysses was written for the average reader, why does that reader need a guide to enjoy it? The reviewer of Kiberd’s book faces a related double-bind: while the novice reader of Ulysses cannot be expected to evaluate the guidebook’s accuracy, an academic reader is hardly in an ideal position to appreciate how useful Kiberd’s book may be to its intended audience. The best advice to the potential first-time reader of Ulysses may simply be to cut out the primers and take a tip from Marilyn Monroe: get started on the real thing.
Scarlett Baron  received her DPhil from Christ Church, Oxford. She is currently a Prize Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.