True James Joyce fans don’t need to be reminded that today, June 16th, is the 110th Bloomsday–the day of Leopold Bloom’s fictional wanderings-about-Dublin commemorated in the 732 pages of Ulysses. Though the most traditional way to celebrate Bloomsday may be to follow in his literal footsteps with your own tour of the city, as the Paris Review explains, there’s more than one way to prove your love for Joyce even if you never read his book.
In the latest issue of Harvard magazine, Nathan Heller writes about Arion Press, the last remaining “full-service letterpress in the United States.” Apparently Arion, which has “an in-house foundry where lead is melted into ingots,” sells editions of canonical titles (like Ulysses) that retail for thousands of dollars. (h/t our own Kevin Hartnett)
Ulysses is the literary equivalent of Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu or any of the world’s other great, beautiful, challenging locations. Just as there are guides, travelogues and travel television shows designed to communicate a flavor of those locations while providing the traveler with the tools needed to actually visit them, there are guides and books hoping to create readers of Ulysses while providing those readers with the tools needed to actually read and appreciate it. There are Gifford’s Annotated Ulysses, Blamire’s New Bloomsday Book, Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us, and many more guides, skeleton keys, and potential philosophical structures.
The House of Ulysses by Julian Rios isn’t exactly a guide or skeleton key to Ulysses, though it does offer short summaries of the episodes. Nor is does it provide a direct intellectual structure for understanding Ulysses, though it certainly intellectually investigates Ulysses. Rather, House is a critical novel, or novelistic criticism, or some other mixture of the actions of creation and interpretation. The House of Ulysses is essentially a book club novel with six speakers; “the Circeone” who leads the group, the silent “Macintosh,” a man whose Mac laptop displays information about the episode in question and who is a reference to one of the mysteries of Ulysses, “Professor Jones,” and “The mature reader (did she call him Ananias?), the young female reader (Babel or Belle?), and the old critic. Let’s call them A, B, and C, for short.”
The House moves episode by episode through Ulysses with “the Cicerone” presenting the plot, historical context, and some of the many subtle threads of details that weave through the work, with “Passageways” sections in which the speakers discuss the episodes. Though “discuss” might not be the right term as the speakers rarely directly respond to each other. Instead, they pile observations, critical insights, questions, philosophical flights of fancy, non-sequitorial conclusions, and bombast into a babbling tower of interpretation. At times the “discussion” is almost a vaudeville act; one could imagine the speakers participating in the intellectual equivalent of the exchanging of hats from Waiting for Godot.
Though the discussions never lead to anything on the same continent as a conclusion, they contain some of the best criticism about Ulysses I’ve ever read. Whatever else can be said about House, Rios gets Ulysses at a level that allows him to encapsulate its spirit and core in single statements. “…and it was also a way of referring to the secret unity of literature through ages and culture.” “The revelations and knowledge emerge gradually, said A, as is so often the case in cities.” “Ambiguity through contiguity.” “Imitates and dynamites such enormities, so many delusions of past grandeur.” “Words are the real hallucinogens here.”
One way to describe Ulysses is as a novel of mundane details, like the feeding of a cat, a forgotten tuning fork, and bad advertising copy. Rios uses the “discussion” to elucidate many of the subtle details and connections in Ulysses. “[Stephen] could have used those two pennies to settle the debt with the poor dairymaid.” “We could also imagine as crossed the two keys Stephen and Bloom have left behind; the one for the Martello Tower, the other for 7 Eccles Street.” “Another throwaway—Jacob for Elijah escaping in his chariot.”
The obvious question raised by a book like this is: “What if you haven’t read Ulysses?” What if you don’t know about the dairymaid, the ad for the House of Keyes, or Throwaway the winner of the Gold Cup horse race? Unfortunately, House does not have enough content independent of Ulysses to be read and enjoyed by someone who hasn’t read Ulysses. It has speakers, but no characters, and statements, but no plot. Its jokes are all inside jokes. For his part, Rios seems perfectly comfortable with writing to this particular audience, focusing his prose more on the critical than on the narrative components of his novel.
Ultimately, this means that House of Ulysses should be approached as criticism even if it uses techniques of fiction to convey its ideas. Ulysses is a dramatic expression of the relationship between life and literature through ambitious experiments in narrative style and method. So it makes sense for criticism about Ulysses to experiment with styles of interpretation. Doing so allows the critic to explore and celebrate multiple levels of Ulysses within the same act of interpretation; elucidating details, making connections, and describing themes, while experimenting with the nature of communicating interpretation and thus directly engaging Ulysses’ statements on the nature of style.
I was left with one dominant effect from reading The House of Ulysses; the desire to read Ulysses again. There are readers who have decided they will simply not read Ulysses, and no one will convince them. There are readers who haven’t ruled it out, but Rios won’t convince them. There are those who have it on the list, and when they get to it, Rios and his House will be there to deepen their reading. But the readers who will get the most out of the novel are those whose familiarity with Ulysses will allow them to appreciate Rios’s criticism. Criticism has a number of different goals, and one of them is to motivate a reader to return to the source text with new eyes. In terms of this goal alone, The House of Ulysses is a brilliant work of criticism, one that reveals without dictating, written in the spirit of the source work, with a sense of humor and a profound love of literature.