Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey, by Daniel Mulhall, New Island, 324 pp, €15.95, ISBN: 978-1848408296
There are many reasons why James Joyce is considered to be an extraordinary writer. The energy, rigour and scope of his creative imagination continue to astound us, and, unlike many artists once hailed as avant-garde, he is still able to challenge our expectations. That may help to explain why so much continues to be written about the man and his work. It may also explain why dedicated Joyceans – both professional and amateur – often identify themselves as part of a distinct community. Indeed, there is so much written about Joyce every year that this community is often described (without irony) as an “industry”.
Quite apart from the full-scale critical studies that regularly appear, there are numerous academic papers that investigate arcane and unexpected themes in Ulysses. I have just been reading an essay that compares Joyce’s novel with the the Báb’s Qayyúm al-asmá: while one refers to Homer’s Odyssey and the other reflects on the Holy Qur’an, they both raise questions about the complex and sometimes fraught relationships between tradition and innovation, text and commentary. Another essay on my desk compares “the modern urban stroller” in Ulysses with the role of the narrator in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin: a connection, I must confess, that had previously eluded me.
Joyce might have welcomed this degree of critical scrutiny: in Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography, he is quoted as saying that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles (to Ulysses) that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the best way of insuring one’s immortality”. This quotation has often been cited by subsequent critics, but its authenticity has been disputed: Joyce did not, after all, care much for the opinions of “professors” when he was alive and counted few academics among his close companions.
This year’s centenary of the publication of Ulysses has seen several new annotated editions and guides to Joyce’s text. Some include maps that trace the precise routes taken by Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as Joyce described their movements across Dublin on June 16th, 1904. For other guides, the primary goal is to shepherd new readers as they make their way through the text in each of the book’s eighteen episodes. In such cases, it can sometimes seem as if a parallel book is being written: one that renders the episodes in Joyce’s original text into more familiar narrative structures and more conventional forms of expression. The tacit assumption is that these new readers may need some assistance from interpretative sherpas if they are ever to scale the heights of Joyce’s towering achievement. This concern has a genuine basis in reality: more readers start Ulysses than ever reach its end. (Of course, the novel is so multi-faceted that, perhaps, no one ever truly reaches the end – just an end.)
One of the most interesting of the new books to appear is Daniel Mulhall’s Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey. As a long-time Irish diplomat, its author brings a unique perspective to bear on Joyce’s text and at times the book seems to be as much about his own journey as that of his reader. In his prologue, Mulhall describes the “Diplomatic Odyssey” he has undertaken over the course of four decades with James Joyce as his constant “travelling companion”. When he began his career in Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Mulhall’s first assignment was to New Delhi, and he brought a copy of Ulysses with him. Since then, he has regarded the book as an essential part of his “diplomatic baggage” and has carried Joyce’s novel to postings in Vienna, Brussels, Edinburgh, Kuala Lumpur, Berlin, London – and, more recently, to Washington where he is currently serving as Ireland’s ambassador.
In all these postings, Mulhall has used Ulysses, along with Yeats’s Collected Poems, to “present Ireland to people of different backgrounds whose interest in [Ireland] often stems from an affinity with our literature and our history”. According to Mulhall, his personal interests have “combined quite neatly with [the] professional responsibility to promote Ireland around the world”. He has deliberately used what he terms “the lure of Irish literature” as a resource to create “vital affinities” with Ireland, and, in that process, to promote Ireland’s economic and political interests. Mulhall believes that our rich literary heritage is a form of collateral wealth that allows Ireland to exert “soft power” diplomacy on a world stage. “What other country of our size,” he asks, “could hope to have such a following for its literature?”
Mulhall offers one instance of this “soft power” at work. In October 2009 he was posted to Germany “just as the economic clouds were darkening for Ireland”. He decided to launch a small exhibition about the life and death of Yeats and travelled around German universities lecturing on that subject, making sure to preface each lecture by expressing his confidence that, despite its current woes, Ireland would recover strongly from the economic crisis. Yeats’s poems became “a door-opener” that allowed him “to spread the message about Ireland’s performance and recovery prospects”. He may be overstating the impact his contributions made, but this might be the first time that Yeats has been used to generate confidence in the financial markets.
Mulhall’s book is primarily designed to appeal to readers who are not familiar with Ulysses, and he makes it clear that his book is “not intended to be scholarly.” In that regard, his approach differs from, say, that of the late Adrian Hardiman, a Supreme Court judge whose (posthumous) Joyce in Court drew upon his professional expertise to present detailed and original research into Joyce’s near-obsession with the Irish legal system and to explore the ways in which his fascination with real and apparent miscarriages of justice surfaces repeatedly in Ulysses. In contrast, Mulhall characterises his own book as a mere “turning of the sod” rather than “a deep academic excavation”, and “a palatable taster” rather than a “full scale scholarly banquet”.
He also describes himself as “a learner and a searcher, rather than a master”, but perhaps those claims are too modest and self-effacing. In some respects, Mulhall might be thought to fall somewhere between being a professional and an amateur Joycean: he may wear his learning lightly and disclaim any special authority, but he clearly knows Joyce’s novel extremely well. He has also read extensively around his subject ‑ even though he professes to be somewhat sceptical of academic analyses, believing that they “tend to complicate rather than clarify”. And, of course, he has also treated Ulysses as a valuable source of “soft power” in his profession as an Irish diplomat.
By his own reckoning, Mulhall brings a historian’s eye to Joyce’s text, rather than that of a literary critic, and he writes about Ulysses with exuberance and evident enjoyment. The tone of his book is conversational, and he addresses his reader directly (as “you”) throughout the text. His goal is clearly to convey his own enthusiasm for the novel in order to encourage others to read the book for themselves. However, he is acutely aware that some of the demands of Joyce’s text might deter those who are encountering Ulysses for the first time.
His suggestions for dealing with such difficulties are robust and bracing. He reassures his readers that “it is not necessary [for you] to understand all of [Joyce’s] references”. He is even happy to identify some episodes that can be avoided completely “if you do not have the stamina to read the entire book”. In the case of the “Oxen of the Sun” episode, he advises his readers: “if the going gets too tough, don’t be afraid to hit the skip button or skim through these pages and move on through the remainder of the novel”. He also identifies those episodes that new readers are likely to find less challenging: he recommends the “Lotus Eaters” episode, for example, as one that is “thoroughly readable, with little (…) to befuddle the attentive reader”. He believes that “being exposed to the more accessible and immediately compelling parts” of the novel will allow readers to gain enough confidence to tackle its “more taxing portions” at a later stage.
In this regard, Mulhall appears to be writing from some personal experience. Although Joyce was on his course in literature when he was a student at UCC in the mid-1970s, he only studied A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses was apparently not included on the course he took. He speculates that its absence may have been because the book was deemed to be “too daunting” for young Irish undergraduate students, but it seems like an astonishing omission to me. (There was a copy of Ulysses in the library of the school I attended a few years previously ‑ and we were not advised to approach it with caution.)
Mulhall did not start reading the novel until he was working one summer in the USA on a J-1 visa. When he reached the demanding “Proteus” episode – something of a Becher’s Brook for Ulysses novices – his reading began to go “off the rails” and eventually he cast the book aside unfinished. Some years passed before he returned to Joyce’s novel, but, on that occasion, he read it “from cover to cover with admiration and enthusiasm”. Since then, the book has become central to his understanding of Irish history and literature. In that context, he also considers it to have become an integral part of his job as a career diplomat.
Mulhall’s book is intended as a practical aide to those reading or about to read Ulysses, and much of it consists of his accounts of what takes place in each successive episode. To those who are already familiar with the book, that exercise may seem a little redundant. However, Mulhall’s descriptions of each episode are very well-written and interspersed with informed commentary and some vivid memories of his personal history in reading and promoting the novel. Over the years, he has organised many Bloomsday celebrations around the globe ‑ such as the “makeshift choir” he formed in 2004 which performed in the atrium of the huge Petronas Twin Towers complex in Kuala Lumpur. He has also marked the occasion by sampling the same lunchtime menu as Leopold Bloom did on that memorable June day: a gorgonzola sandwich washed down by a glass of Burgundy.
In the “closing statement” of his book, Mulhall reiterates his fundamental goal: “to be helpful to readers attempting to come to terms with the twentieth century’s most famous novel”. It is clear, however, that his own odyssey through Ulysses is far from over. Indeed, he describes the book as “a bottomless well, whose hidden depths requite assiduous plumbing”.
In a few months’ time, Daniel Mulhall will retire from Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. He will move from his position as Irish ambassador in Washington to take up a new post at New York University as a professor of Irish Studies. I have no doubt that Ulysses will feature prominently in the course he will be teaching this autumn on “Literature as History”, and I would not be at all surprised if his enthusiasm for Joyce’s epic novel leads some of his undergraduate students to open the book and turn its pages for the first time.