GUEST BLOG — Ulysses Can Change Your Life

[Mike Groden, leader of the Toronto Pursuits 2015 seminar on Ulysses, shows us how a life spent with Joyce’s best-known novel is a life well spent.]

Reading Joyce’s Ulysses can be a great adventure. It certainly was for me the first time I read it. Because this long novel focuses on just a few characters in a single city on one day, its power can be heightened by immersing yourself in it over a short period of time, as I did in an undergraduate course the first time around and as we will do over five days next July. If you are considering joining us, I hope that you will decide to do it.

Ulysses certainly is difficult in places–there is no way around that–but it is also a moving story of three people trying to get by in their lives as they face the kinds of pleasures and calamities we all deal with, an exciting compendium of experimental ways of telling a story, and – more often than you’d expect – one of the funniest novels you’ll ever encounter.

It is a novel that can even change your life–it did mine. I first read it in 1966, when I was nineteen, and I’ve been teaching and writing about it ever since. I’ve taught Ulysses in undergraduate and graduate university courses and also, for about fifteen years now, to adults at New York City’s 92nd Street Y and in Toronto under the auspices of Classical Pursuits. I’ve often been asked why this novel affected me so powerfully and has continued to affect me, and I decided to take the question seriously and explore it as fully and honestly as I could. The result is a memoir that I’ve written called The Necessary Fiction: A Life with “Ulysses.” Here is a very brief summary of the memoir. At the end, I’ll tell you a few facts about who I am and what I have written about Ulysses.

My longest continuous adult relationship has not been with my wife, or a friend, or a cat . . . but with a book. Why did Joyce’s Ulysses matter so much to me when I first read it when I was 19, and why has it continued to interest me as it has for almost fifty years? I know that even though Joyce’s work was designated the English-language novel of the twentieth century, it has settled into a fairly fixed position as both a crucial work and a daunting, even unreadable one. In a saying that I suspect was written by the man who claims to be quoting it, “one definition of a human being describes that being as the only animal that buys books it doesn’t read.” If so, then Ulysses has done as much as any work of art to help a lot of people assert their humanity.

I own many books that I haven’t read, but Ulysses isn’t one of them. Its threadbare plot and seemingly ordinary characters wouldn’t seem to jibe with such repeated attention. Three main characters live their lives in Dublin on one day, June 16, 1904: an arrogant but floundering 22-year-old would-be poet named Stephen Dedalus; a 38-year-old advertising canvasser called Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s Ulysses figure, who walks around the city streets all day and evening, a Jewish man and a perpetual outsider in his native Dublin; and his 33-year-old wife Molly, Joyce’s Penelope, who waits at home for her husband to return but waits even more urgently for the 4:00 arrival of her concert manager, with whom she will enjoy adulterous sex. Nothing of major significance happened in the world on this day. Important events do take place in these characters’ private lives, but mostly the day becomes memorable because Joyce takes us deep into their minds, recording their ongoing thoughts almost as if a tape recorder is capturing them. Joyce gambled that his apparently unpromising story could become a kind of modern epic, and he was correct: this one day, now known as Bloomsday, is surely the most famous single day in literature. As the centenary of June 16, 1904 approached ten years ago, the Globe and Mail in Toronto headlined an article “One Day Turns 100.”

Its styles, references, and allusions are imposing, but the novel brings up important issues: how can people move on from personal sadness and tragedies, such as the death of the Blooms’ eleven-day-old son ten years earlier? how might someone face and respond to bigotry, here anti-Semitism? and what, in a committed relationship, might constitute fidelity? More broadly, Ulysses discovers comedy and humor where you wouldn’t expect to find them and considers whether and how ordinary people can be modern versions of Homer’s classical heroes.

Besides giving us his novel, Joyce left hundreds, thousands of pages of notes, drafts, and proofs for it. These manuscripts are scattered throughout several libraries in Europe and North America, with the newest collection being one I helped Dublin’s National Library of Ireland acquire a decade ago and the largest collection of all located just two hours away from here at the University at Buffalo. Much of my research has focused on these visually stunning documents. They show the various chapters in gestation and development and also the unbelievable way Joyce built up Ulysses by adding words and phrases to the typed and printed pages as they passed under his eyes–up to a third of the words first entered the book in this way.

James Joyce was a supremely egotistical, self-centered, arrogant, unforgiving human being, one who was suspicious almost to the point of paranoia. Joyce the person doesn’t matter much to me – he certainly doesn’t appeal to me. But Joyce the writer: now that’s a different story. He had it in him to create Leopold Bloom, one of the most generous, resilient, tolerant, and forgiving characters imaginable, a better human being than Joyce could ever be, a better human being than I could ever be. Joyce the writer was the best of James Joyce, and manuscript scholars–or “genetic critics,” as we now call ourselves – have the unique opportunity to watch that part of him at work.

That’s the “what.” But at one point in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom thinks about Molly choosing him to be her husband and wonders, simply but eloquently, “Why did she me?” I can ask a parallel question about Joyce’s novel: Why did I it? or maybe Why did it me? When I first read it, its appeal was powerful enough to cement my decision to abandon my original undergraduate plan to major in mathematics and switch to English. I had easy answers as to why: I enjoyed the challenge; I liked its puzzles and games; I was immensely taken by Leopold Bloom; I was guided by an inspiring professor. Added to this, three months earlier my high-school girlfriend Molly Peacock had broken up with me, and here was a new Molly. For many years, these explanations satisfied me and anyone else who asked me about my infatuation.

But those are easy public explanations. Fair enough: responses to works of art are indeed public and cultural. But they are also private and personal, and in my memoir I’ve explored this second kind of response, looking at how my personality as well as the working-class Jewish family in Buffalo that I grew up in and other aspects of my background might have contributed to my reaction. I’ve come to realize that Joyce’s novel presented me with crucial, even life-saving, gifts that I wasn’t aware of wanting or needing.

I grew up in a home with a father who was essentially unknowable, a closed door, and, crucially, a mother who ostracized, banished, eradicated various people – not just acquaintances and friends but some of my aunts, uncles, cousins, even grandparents and eventually siblings – for vague reasons like “he doesn’t like us” or “she did something terrible.” In relation to the closed doors, one crucial aspect of Ulysses for me was the open door it offered. All readers who respond positively to Leopold Bloom marvel at the fullness of the mind to which we are given access, but I think Bloom also presented me with a possible window into my opaque father’s mind. Maybe my father’s carefully guarded thoughts resembled Bloom’s. Maybe, unlike in the words he spoke, in his mind my father was reaching out to me, a Ulysses to my Telemachus. I never respond to Bloom as a contemporary of mine or even as someone younger than me but always as he was when I first encountered him, a father figure, something I needed much more than the openly rebellious sibling I could have found in Stephen Dedalus.

My mother’s ostracisms made another aspect of Ulysses vitally important. Could I do something terrible and be cut off? I must have wondered as a child. Without knowing what that something terrible might be, I made it my business to be a good boy, to avoid doing anything that might be wrong. Whether the reasons were nature, nurture, or a combination, I see myself as someone who grew up with little imagination. Being good included not even thinking that there could be a better life than the one I was living – one with more money, more culture, more freedom to complain or be unhappy–or that there could be any explanation for the cutoffs other than the vague ones I was told by a parent I saw as an unquestionably innocent victim. I had no urge to watch any TV shows other than the sitcoms and variety hours that reassuringly entertained my family, and I hardly read anything – other lives didn’t interest me. That my life and my family were perfect was a necessary fiction.

But in the fullness of his thoughts, Bloom seems to spill out everything. Deepest feelings are conveyed, whatever pops into his head is exposed, no one gets hurt or punished for anything they think or feel. No sky comes falling down; no one stops talking to anyone else. Maybe even going beyond thinking about adultery to committing it will be forgiven. I was still buying into the necessary fiction of my perfect family when I first read Ulysses, as I continued to do until I was well into my thirties, but Joyce’s novel was there for me all along to offer a picture of a mind unaware of restraints and willing to grant autonomy and freedom to other people. Eventually, Ulysses became for me a second, and much healthier, necessary fiction.

I don’t think I wanted to meet another Molly so soon after Molly Peacock and I had broken up, but here one was, offering a full picture of the emotional, physical, and sexual life of a modern woman. It took me years, even decades, to recognize and appreciate the fullness of that picture, but then, unexpectedly, the story of the Mollys in my life began to mirror the way Molly Bloom’s thoughts elaborately circle back on themselves. After a twenty-year hiatus (the length of time Homer’s Ulysses spends away from his home), Molly Peacock and I reconnected when we were in our late thirties, and seven years later (the length of time it took Joyce to write his novel), the casual drinks and meals to which we had limited ourselves evolved into a love affair. We’ve been married for over twenty years now. In her musical setting of the last words of Molly Bloom’s monologue, Kate Bush sings of Molly “stepping out of the page into the sensual world,” and in living with both a fictional and a real-life Molly I too sometimes feel that I’ve stepped out of the page into the world or out of the world into the page. It’s a nice confusion with which to be saddled. Molly Bloom, dubbed the “second Molly” in our household, says that she doesn’t “like books with a Molly in them,” but in my book, the one I’ve written and the one I’m living, life with two Mollys is wonderful.

And the manuscripts? When I was younger, I interpreted them basically as instruction manuals, or as parts of a puzzle. Each word, sentence, paragraph revealed the novel at a particular state of development, and the challenge was to figure out how the states fit together. Trying to meet that challenge was exciting. There are no secrets in the manuscripts, it turns out, no hidden clues, no key to the mysteries. But in watching Joyce write his novel, a genetic critic can place Ulysses in the context of its own past, its childhood.

Working on the manuscripts, though, was ultimately much more important for me than solving a puzzle. Genetic critics often get mocked for the attention we pay to tiny manuscript details – commas, individual letters–or criticized for rifling through private, unpublished papers or pitied for the dry-as-dust lot in life we’ve chosen for ourselves. For me, however, those details and left-behind papers offered access to the interior of a pulsating, juicy human novel and to the brilliant but flawed, often unlikeable but now also, it seemed, very human person writing it.

This kind of scholarship allowed me to exploit some of my talents and advance our knowledge of Ulysses a little. But crucially, the manuscript details–seemingly dry but in reality so full of sustaining water–let the parched riverbed that my imagination had become refill itself to some extent, drop by drop and textual detail by textual detail. Through the manuscripts, I was able to get part of my imagination back. Recovering the writing processes that led to Ulysses, however incomplete and imperfect the results are and probably always will be, connects intimately for me with that incomplete and imperfect but ultimately immensely satisfying recovery of my imagination.

Like all of us, I still struggle to balance my conflicting legacies of stability and insecurity and of confidence and shyness. But I’ve achieved some understanding of the effects of my parents’ personalities and behavior on me, and I’m very fortunate to have twice found Molly Peacock and to have encountered my undergraduate professor who introduced me to Ulysses and my graduate-school dissertation supervisor who led me to Joyce’s manuscripts. These crucial parts of my life are intimately tied to Joyce’s novel, with its struggling but surviving, very decent ordinary extraordinary characters living their everyday heroic lives. I’m a lot older than both Leopold and Molly Bloom now–at my age, I could even be the parent of either one of them–but then, we can always learn from those who are younger than us. As long as they continue to speak to me, I’ll never put Ulysses down.

About me: I was born in Buffalo in 1947 and graduated from Dartmouth College (B.A., 1969) and Princeton University (M.A., 1972, Ph.D., 1975). I moved to Canada in 1975 to teach at the University of Western Ontario (now known as Western University) and was Distinguished University Professor in the Department of English and Writing Studies there until I retired this past summer. I am the author of “Ulysses” in Progress (1977; paperback, 2014) and “Ulysses” in Focus: Genetic, Textual, and Personal Views (2010; paperback, 2012), general editor of The James Joyce Archive (63 volumes, 1977-79), compiler of James Joyce’s Manuscripts: An Index (1980), and co-editor of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1994; 2nd edition, 2005; Chinese translation, 2011), Genetic Criticism: Texts and Avant-textes (2004), Praharfeast: James Joyce in Prague (2012), and Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: The Johns Hopkins Guide (2012). On Bloomsday (June 16), 2004 I was awarded an honorary D.Litt. degree by University College Dublin, Joyce’s university; in 2006 I was named a Distinguished University Professor at Western University; in 2007 I was elected a Fellow of The Royal Society of Canada; and in May 2011 I was awarded the Hellmuth Prize for Achievement in Research, Western University’s most prestigious award for research. I live in Toronto with my wife–poet, memoirist, and biographer Molly Peacock, author most recently of the biography The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions–and our cat Emma (Lucy R.I.P., May 28, 2014).

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