The next instalment of my column for The Sunday Guardian.
Last week, thousands gathered in Dublin and elsewhere to commemorate the Feast of Saint Jam Juice. Bloomsday, as it’s less jocularly known, marks the day during which the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses occur, and given the number of people carousing from morning till night, as Declan Kiberd observes, those celebrating the book probably outnumber those who’ve read it.
It’s a pity that Joyce’s Modernist jigsaw has such an intimidating reputation among readers. Its effect on writers, however, can’t be denied. It’s influenced John Dos Passos, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Salman Rushdie, “and just about every modern writer who has chosen to experiment with the novel form”, as Gordon Bowker, author of a new Joyce biography, points out.
This isn’t restricted to the English-speaking world, as is evident from two recent novels in Spanish. The English translation of one was published last year, and of the second, last week, to coincide with the 90th anniversary of Ulysses’ publication. Both testify to the continuing impact of the novel Joyce called his mistresspiece, his best-loved work.
The first, Julian Rios’ The House of Ulysses, is more a piece of ingenious literary criticism than a novel. Stuffed with puns, it’s set in a museum exhibit titled ‘The Days and Works of James Joyce’. Here, among others, there’s a Joyce-like Cicerone who wears black, has a straggly moustache and “a blind man’s glasses”. There’s also a man with a Macintosh laptop (a nod to the mysterious man in a mackintosh in Ulysses) and three readers, known as A, B and C, who proceed to give us the ABC of the book.
It takes us, chapter by chapter, through what Joyce called in Finnegans Wake his “usylessly unreadable” work, explaining the prose style, references and Homeric allusions. In clearing such thickets, Rios also weaves in information connecting Joyce’s life to the book’s events and characters. Those looking for plot or character-development will have to search elsewhere; The House of Ulysses never pretends to be more than an inventive companion piece to Ulysses, best read in conjunction with it.
The man in a mackintosh also appears in Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque, a meditation on the effects of reading and writing. For the central character, reading is “a way of being in the world: an instrument for interpreting, sequence after sequence, his day-to-day life.” This is Samuel Riba, a publisher approaching 60 who yearns to break free from his pigeonholed days in Barcelona, away from his parents, his wife and his publishing business, in decline in the digital age.
Following a vivid dream, Riba decides to visit Dublin on Bloomsday and, in memory of the funeral in the Hades section of Ulysses, plans to hold a funeral for the passing of the Gutenberg era. The current state of literature apart, the novel can also be read as a journey from the margins towards a nebulous centre, as Dublin and New York become Riba’s illusory lodestars.
Dublinesque favours style over plot and contains many references to other writers and artists – among them, Laurence Sterne, Georges Perec, Dave Cronenberg, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Though Joyce is the presiding deity, it’s also haunted by Samuel Beckett and Philip Larkin. As Riba goes in search of his private epiphany, the novel becomes increasingly dream-like and self-absorbed, “a commodius vicus of recirculation”, as Joyce would have gleefully put it. It’s all held together, though, by the desire of both author and character to explore the space between reading and reality, using Joyce’s book as a staging ground.
Both novels, then, have considerable differences but are united by a seriousness of intent shot through with an antic spirit. As Joyce said of Ulysses in an interview with Djuna Barnes, “there is not one single serious line in it”. The book that Edmund Wilson called “perhaps the most faithful X-ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness” still inspires devotion, which is why tales of vampires and shades of grey will come and go but Ulysses will continue to be celebrated.