James Joyce’s Ulysses has been celebrated ’round the world since its release in 1920, to such acclaim that the date upon which it is set, June 16th, is known as Bloomsday, after protagonist Leopold Bloom. Sláinte!
If you know nothing else about this modern classic, you’ve probably heard it was banned, at least in England and the United States, though not in Joyce’s homeland Ireland. Banned not for being difficult, confusing or even Irish, but for its apparent sexual content. For years here in NY, there has been a tradition of a marathon reading of the book on this date at Symphony Space uptown, one of many marathon readings of the ugly, delicious book some people call the best book on Earth in English. Sláinte!
Maybe it’s the little bit of Irish in me, maybe its the naughty book thing, but I have always had a thing for the voices in the book – it just screams to be sung aloud. I first read the book in Benjamin DeMott’s “Big Books” class at Amherst in which we slammed through a huge, important novel a week. Kind of like driving a Triumph at top speed through the Metropolitan Museum. Sláinte!
Though I later inherited my mother’s hardcover copy — I guess they studied big, juicy, lyrical books at Indiana University in the late 1950s — for years I carried around a beat up Random House paperback (Founding publisher Bennet Cerf was instrumental in defending Joyce from obscenity charges in the U.S.) Sláinte!
“And Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”James Joyce, Ulysses
On a fall Saturday my freshman year, four fellow students climbed nearby Mount Tom to enjoy New England autumn color. Perhaps it was the wine. Perhaps it was the lively conversation. Somehow, by the next morning a faculty restroom on our English professors’ home turf in Johnson Chapel was transformed into a wraparound homage to the opening words of the novel.
I didn’t know till years later that this celebration was committed by friends. Sláinte!