Ulysses, the book everyone knows but no one has read, is 100 years old

“As a work, it really broke the mold in terms of style and content with its stream-of-consciousness writing,” says Irish Consul General in Sydney Rosie Keane. “The notoriety of its ban and the fact that re-enactments have taken off since the first major Bloomsday celebrations by literary figures in 1954 in Dublin have contributed to its popularity there.

“The diaspora element has also taken over the world, because reading the book you can really hear the Irish accents,” she says. “For the Irish it’s a trip back in a book.”

And as we celebrate 100 years since Sylvia Beach, an American in Paris, defied censorship and published 1,000 copies of Joyce’s Ulysses on its 40th anniversary in its Shakespeare & Company bookstore, the other burning question is how many have actually read Joyce’s 18-chapter, 933-page tome?

“I don’t think there’s a 20th century book that’s been so often bought and unread, everyone knows it but no one really reads it,” says McDonald, who will lead a symposium at the University of Melbourne this Bloomsday to dive into the intricacies of the book.

The drama centers on Leopold Bloom, who spends the day in Dublin, wandering off to avoid returning home because his wife Molly is about to start an affair. Each chapter is written in a different style: one chapter is a play, another a bodice romance, and the final chapter is a 22,000-word soliloquy; all with allusions to Homer Odyssey.

Bloomsday celebrations in Sydney in 2021.

“It went from being a novel that no one wanted to publish to being an unparalleled novel that everyone wants to have read, but it’s not…it was serialized and banned in the United States, the UK UK, Ireland and Australia, and now it has a cult following and has been seen as a big festival of Ireland all over the world,” says McDonald, who has attended Bondi Beach re-enactments himself with d other Joyceans, including Carey.

“It is an extraordinary work of literary genius and encyclopedic ambition, with its deeply relatable interior monologue – particularly Molly Bloom’s ‘famously unpunctuated’ soliloquy as she contemplates sex with Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan, a man who is not her husband,” said a fact, adds McDonald, which shocked Irish Catholics around the world at the time.

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Robert Phiddian, professor of English at Flinders University who taught Joyce’s Ulysses for more than 30 years, encourages the reading of one chapter per year in order to appreciate its verbal playfulness.

“It’s a large, difficult book that few readers complete, but the fact that it’s still available in every good bookstore in the world a century after its publication is a testament to its popularity,” says Phiddian. “At a time when extended reading is under threat, the ideal way to read Ulysses is “slow” reading… it’s definitely not “Insta-friendly”.

Sydney Bloomsday Events:
100 years of Ulysses, untold stories, June 16, 6 p.m., Center Seymour.
Ulysses by James Joyce with Gabrielle Carey, Haberfield Library, June 16, 11 a.m.

Bloomsday in Melbourne:
June 15-25, Yesa play on Molly Bloom, will take place at MC Showroom, Prahran.
June 16, Annual Bloomsday Dinner and Seminar, Ines Wine Bar, Chapel St, Windsor.

How To Read Ulysses In Five Easy Steps (According To Those Who Have Read It):

  1. Read it aloud and read it again.
  2. Take your time (years, not months).
  3. Start at chapter four.
  4. Try to read it without trying to understand it the first time. Let go of the pieces you don’t understand.
  5. Skip the boring parts and go straight to the racy final chapter of Molly Bloom’s sexual musings (then, if you’re not too shocked, you can jump back to the chapters on masturbation, fisting, and defecation).