Today, June 16, is known to fans of James Joyce as Bloomsday, the day on which the entire action of Joyce's Ulysses takes place. The day is named after the book's central character, Leopold Bloom. Each year on June 16, Joyce enthusiasts from across the world collect in Dublin to celebrate the revolutionary novel: attending readings, visiting sites connected with the plot, and downing quantities of Guiness in pubs mentioned in the book.
I've wanted to make the pilgrimage since my teens, but haven't got round to doing it even in the era of Ryanair. With each passing year, there are fewer locations left intact from 1904. The pace of erosion has quickened in the past decade, during which Ireland leapt to the front rank of Europe's economies. The Celtic tiger may have been wounded by the current recession, but I suspect the mentality of the Irish has changed for ever. Having been exporters of humans for centuries, they've had to adapt to a substantial influx of immigrants. One Irishwoman I know described her wonder at her first sight of a black man walking down the street where she lived. She'd studied in England, so black people in and of themselves were familiar enough; the man just seemed incongruous in the context of her neighbourhood. Within a few years, she said, such sights became commonplace.
There were a few outsiders in Joyce's time as well, and he made one of them the hero of his greatest work. I call Leopold Bloom a hero, but for Joyce's early readers he was exactly the opposite; a man approaching middle age, of no particular academic or financial distinction, a cuckold, a Jew. Surely the comparison with Homer's epic hero, Odysseus / Ulysses, had to be ironic, an indication of how debased modern life was in comparison with the Hellenic past. It was only as the decades passed that readers began to understand how wise, ingenious and tolerant Bloom was, and how much of himself Joyce had put into his protagonist.
There was a second reason for the misinterpretation of Bloom as a butt of irony, aside from him having none of the common attributes of a heroic figure. Joyce's first published novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, had focussed on his fictional alter ego, Stephen Dedalus. Stephen reappeared in Ulysses, and it was easy to assume that he remained a kind of mouthpiece for Joyce. In fact, the author was much more distanced from his character by this time.
There's no doubt that Stephen is more entertaining than Bloom. He brims with learning and is always ready with witty quotes and incisive interpretations. Early in the book he says something I find particularly perceptive. During a conversation about religious belief, an Englishman called Haines says, "You are your own master, it seems to me".
Stephen replies he is the servant of two masters, an English and an Italian.
Haines, puzzled, asks what he mean by Italian.
Stephen says he's speaking of the imperial British state and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.
Joyce idolised Parnell, a Protestant who led the Irish nationalist movement before it was riven by sectarianism. The biggest mistake the nationalists made was to see in the catholic church a refuge from the imperial state, or a locus of protest against it. They were merely choosing one harsh master instead of another. That kind of reductive thinking has infected most 'liberation' movements in the past century. When I see Muslim feminists donning hijab as a protest against neo-colonialism, I say to myself, 'I wish they'd read Ulysses carefully'. Which is strange because the novel is considered one of the most apolitical ever written.