James Joyce’s Ulysses at 100

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One hundred years ago this week Sylvia Beach, who ran the bookstore Shakespeare and Company on 12 rue de l’Odéon in Paris, placed a copy of a book she had published, Ulysses by James Joyce, in the window. Ulysses, with white letters on a blue book cover, had been rejected by publishers in English speaking countries. The book takes place during a single day in Dublin, June 16, 1904. It would swiftly become one of the most important novels of the 20th century, at once ancient and modern, drawing its inspiration from Homer’s The Odyssey. Ulysses is the Latin name for Homer’s hero Odysseus. The mythical figures in Homer’s epic are reincarnated in the lives of the Irish working-class. Ulysses, king of Ithaca, mastermind of the Greek war against Troy, heroic voyager, and merciless slayer of the suitors who besieged his wife during his long absence, becomes in Joyce’s hands Leopold Bloom, a 38-year-old ad canvasser for the nationalist newspaper Freeman’s Journal. Leopold, of Hungarian Jewish extraction, mourns throughout the book his infant son Rudy who died over a decade earlier, a loss that severed his sexual relations with his wife Molly. Ulysses’ son Telemachus, who sets out to seek his long-absent father at the beginning of The Odyssey, is reincarnated as Stephen Dedalus, a fictionalized version of Joyce’s younger self. Penelope, the faithful wife of Ulysses, is reincarnated as Molly, the adulterous wife of Leopold Bloom who during the day has a tryst with her lover Hugh “Blazes” Boylan. “Unimpressive as Bloom may seem in so many ways,” writes Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellman, “unworthy to catch marlin or countesses with Hemingway’s characters, or to sop up guilt with Faulkner’s, or to sit on committees with C.P Snow’s, Bloom is a humble vessel elected to bear and transmit unimpeached the best qualities of the mind. Joyce’s discovery, so humanistic that he would have been embarrassed to disclose it out of context, was that the ordinary is the extraordinary.” Joyce’s characters exhibit our common human frailties, inconsistencies, contradictions, and ambiguities, not to mention explicit bodily functions from defecation to masturbation. They evoke our sympathy and respect, offering, perhaps, a new conception of greatness.

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