Notoriously Difficult-to-Read "Ulysses" Actually Quite Simple to Understand, Says UB Joyce Scholar

100th anniversary of "Bloomsday" celebrates joy of reading and understanding Joyce's great novel

Release Date: May 27, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The world's most notoriously difficult-to-read novel, "Ulysses" by James Joyce, is really an easy read at its heart, according to the Joyce Scholar-In-Residence at the University at Buffalo.

"For all the talk about the difficulty of "Ulysses," it is actually a fairly simple book," says Sam Slote, who works alongside curators at UB's renowned James Joyce Collection -- the world's most comprehensive archive of Joyce literary artifacts and personal belongings.

"Ulysses," Slote admits, is a very intricate book on one level: "The profusion of styles and the quantity of allusions to Dublin street topography, Irish history, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Dante, and 19th-century popular music makes it seem somewhat inaccessible to many readers," he says.

"However, all these difficulties are really secondary to 'Ulysses,' they are not central," he explains.

"'Ulysses' is about life," he adds. "This may sound trite, and it is trite, but then so is life."

Slote is among scholars invited to discuss "Ulysses" in Dublin during events scheduled for the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, which commemorates the date -- June 16, 1904 -- on which "Ulysses'" main character Leopold Bloom took his fictional stroll through Dublin.

Items from UB's Joyce collection will be displayed during the celebration at the National Library of Ireland, and UB will hold an exhibition of its own, "A Centennial Bloomsday in Buffalo," featuring Joyce's personal notebooks, drafts and other one-of-a-kind artifacts showcasing the creative process Joyce used to write "Ulysses."

In short, Slote says, "Ulysses" is about the lives of a few people in Dublin in 1904. But, he points out, the experiences these people undergo, which are largely mundane, "reflect the trials, tribulations, infidelities, missed opportunities, unfulfilled promises, odd coincidences, small satisfactions, and pleasant joys we all aspire to."

Although Joyce famously said he put so many riddles in his works that they would keep professors busy for three centuries, it's not the ever-proliferating scholarly analysis of these riddles that make "Ulysses" so popular to this day, Slote says.

"Joyce wrote in 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' that the goal of the artist is 'transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life,'" Slote explains. "In 'Ulysses,' Joyce does just that -- everyday experience becomes something more while still remaining everyday."

The joy of living our daily lives -- and the art that James Joyce made out of it in "Ulysses" -- is part of what people around the world celebrate every year on Bloomsday, with readings and reenactments from "Ulysses," Slote says.

"Bloomsday is not about Joyce scholars and their work, it is about the joys of reading, specifically the joys of reading 'Ulysses,'" he concludes. "And as Joyce said, responding to criticism of 'Ulysses' when it was first published, if 'Ulysses' isn't worth reading, then life isn't worth living."

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