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Far From Flatbush

Ulysses and Me

Yes, yes, yes, I really have read, from beginning to end, Ulysses, by James Joyce, the book we will be using as an excuse to have a party, on June 16, the day known as Bloomsday, at the Killarney Rose, on Beaver Street.

It was 1977 when I took down the book from my shelf, where it had been gathering dust for many years. Having recently embarked on a writing career, I felt it was a novel that every "serious" writer should read, and I'd managed to avoid doing so throughout college and grad school.

Ulysses is the most difficult book I’ve ever read, and it took me the better part of a year to get through it. There were pages where I literally had to look up in the dictionary every other word. And there were huge swaths where I had no idea what was going on. But finish it I did, dipping into it every spare moment I could find, and reading it on the subway, where it served as a conversation piece. Late one night, as I was returning home to Washington Heights on the Broadway Local, the guy sitting across the aisle from me pointed to the book and said, “It’s a joke book. You’ve got to read it like a joke book.”

Maybe.

Taken more by the idea of Ulysses than the book itself, in 1986 I went to Dublin for Bloomsday, named for the book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom. On the morning of June 16, I visited the Martello Tower, overlooking the Irish Sea, in Sandycove, outside Dublin. This is where the book opens with the words, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

In the afternoon, led by a local guide, I took a walking tour of Ulysses sites throughout the city. The guide, a knowledgeable fellow, probably in his late 60s, kept referring to the fact that Bloom was an Irish Jew. “You’ve got to pay your Jews if you want to sing the blues,” was the line that got the biggest laugh out of the tour group.

In the evening, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I listened to a reading of the final part of the book, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, the one that begins with “Yes” and ends with “yes I said yes I will Yes.” Then, in the finest tradition of Leopold Bloom and his good friend Stephen Dedalus, I went to the local pub and drank my fill of Guinness before stumbling back to my hotel for a good’s night’s sleep.

The next day, I embarked, via ferry, for Liverpool, where another pilgrimage awaited me.
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