restricted access Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece (review)
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Reviewed by
Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 416 pp.

Kiberd has a way of reading Ulysses that mixes simplicity with boldness — a way of understanding the novel that, he hopes, will extend its reach into the minds of those who would resist reading it. His bold simplicity is that of a scholarly evangelist, and his teaching is that “Joyce’s masterpiece” is a compendium of wisdom about life as it should truly be lived. Ulysses is not a puzzle to be solved but a handbook about civic and familial virtue. Never mind its learned commentators, this book is about honesty, fidelity to family, humility, modesty, and democratic deference.

Leopold Bloom — unassuming, married but cuckolded, partially educated about many things, the son of a Jewish suicide in Catholic Dublin, a father with a dead son and a distant daughter, a wanderer who yet knows the way home, and a man who is no more proud of his strengths than dismayed by his weaknesses — is the hero of the book. Stephen Dedalus — a friendless, homeless, grimy, opinionated young wanderer, whose wide reading affords him no pleasure and who possesses no grounds for pride about anything — exemplifies a life lived devoid of the virtues reposing in Bloom and everywhere championed by Ulysses. Follow Bloom; spurn Dedalus.

Every teacher of Ulysses, including Declan Kiberd, inevitably accepts the role of docent: first look at this and don’t pay attention to that; these are crucial matters and those are marginal; this should be understood before that. As docent, Kiberd wants his would-be readers to know foremost that Ulysses is a book about and for the common man. It was written, he says, by someone who had little commerce with sophisticated intellectuals but liked those who waited tables and knew about turnips. Hence it is time for the book to be put into the hands of the “ordinary reader.” In support of this commendable thesis, Kiberd’s reading is as levelheaded, sensible, and illuminating as any there is. Loving the book, he shows his devotion on every page. He knows, moreover, a great deal about many things but keeps technical matters in the background, lest they divert attention from [End Page 192] Joyce’s humane wisdom. The only rivals in the genre of Ulysses and Us are Harry Blamires’s The Bloomsday Book and C. H. Peake’s James Joyce: The Citizen and the Artist. But Blamires is dry and colorless; Peake is without Kiberd’s calm, open confidence. If Ulysses is to be brought to the common reader, Kiberd has become its best messenger.

But while Ulysses may be about the common man, there is scant evidence that Joyce wrote it for him. Talking to a prospective French translator, the author is reputed to have said, “I’ve put in 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 insuring one’s immortality.” Whether Joyce ever said this (Richard Ellmann reports the statement, but it has an odd ring about it, for professors did not touch the book for years, the first being Harry Levin at Harvard in 1941), enigmas and puzzles do abound. For instance, take page 1, line 26, where we find the word “Chrysostomos” — a word in cryptic isolation, bare of explanation, and with an aura of confrontational challenge for the common reader. Kiberd explains that it means “golden-mouthed” in Greek and that Dedalus employs it against his loquacious adversary Buck Mulligan. The common reader accepts the instruction and moves onward to further challenges.

The wait is not long. Reaching the third episode (“Proteus”), we find on its first page:

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against...