Twenty-seven centuries ago, a poem known to us as The Odyssey began to materialize. Set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, fought four or five centuries earlier, it tells of the eventful return home of a little Greek king named Odysseus. Although the distance between Troy and its archipelago of Ithaca is only 565 nautical miles, the journey takes 10 years. However, the battle is worth it, as while awaiting Odysseus, his loyal, resourceful wife, Penelope, is besieged by suitors who try to convince her that he is dead.
Fast-forward to 1914 and the Old City of Dublin. James Joyce, as a child fascinated by the prose version of Charles Lamb The Odyssey, is hard at work telling a journey around the city, a journey that will take not 10 years but a single day. The role of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, plays a disgruntled part-time teacher and aspiring artist named Stephen Dedalus, whose name evokes another ancient Greek tale. And Odysseus is not king of many wiles and much wealth, but instead an impoverished Jewish immigrant named Leopold Bloom.
Bloom’s wife is not Penelope, and at the end of the book, when she is asleep, she moans “yes and his heart went like crazy and yes, I said yes, I will yes,” it’s not with Bloom in mind. Bloom, whom we meet in the fourth book, is on a trip to avoid being home when Molly’s lover calls. Episode after episode, each reverberates The OdysseyBloom stops at the post office, attends a funeral, accidentally tips a racehorse, and endures an ugly barroom encounter with an anti-Semitic nationalist who threatens, “By Jesus…I’ll brain that damn Jew for use.” of the holy name. By Jesus, I will crucify him, so I will do it.” Finally, Bloom encounters Stephen, leading to a drunken visit to a brothel before the two stumble upon Bloom’s house and undisguised evidence of Molly’s rendezvous.
Ulysses, published in Paris by English bookseller Sylvia Beach in 1922, was quite daring for the time, featuring adultery, masturbation and other not-for-polite business topics. But Joyce had a greater ambition: with his account of the events of June 16, 1904, now celebrated as Bloomsday, he wanted to make a Homeric catalog of things and places so extensive that, he said, if Dublin were to be demolished as Troy was , archaeologists could reconstruct it by following his book. We don’t know what Odysseus’s palace looked like, but we know every piece of furniture, every pillow, every picture in Bloom’s house; every detail of Dublin’s streets, the city’s pubs, the places where people lived and worked.
Joyce was working on Ulysses for eight years, wryly noting that he expected readers to take just as long to read it. Published on its 40th birthday, February 2, 1922, it took 11 years for the book to circulate freely, widely banned on the grounds of obscenity. But it took almost no time for it to be hailed as a classic – and so, 100 years after its birth, Ulysses mortal remains.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.