As Bloomsday approaches, I await the parade of boater hats, striped jackets and lace dresses, as Joycean fans flock to Dublin to celebrate a book that has been said to have ‘changed the face of literature’. The first festival of its kind was in 1954 on the 50th anniversary of the events in the novel; the 2013 pilgrimage through Dublin along the route taken in Ulysses is said to be the largest annual event yet.
I’ve often heard Ulysses described as the most acclaimed and yet unread book in the English language. Though I read Dubliners and The Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man a number of years ago, I skirted around Ulysses, primarily out of intimidation but also a certain amount of laziness. During my time at university I did read extracts, notably Episode 4. Joyce’s description of Leopold Bloom cooking and eating the kidneys had stayed with me, as with most people who’ve read it:
‘Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.’
I did start other episodes but they appeared indecipherable to me. After making various attempts, attacking the text from varying angles, I put the book aside with the thought that I’d likely finish it ‘some day’, though if I was honest, I probably felt I’d go through life without having quite got around to finishing it.
However, this year Ulysses and Bloomsday will have a very different significance to me. Last summer I began working for O’Brien Press and I’ve been part of the editorial team preparing The Dublin Illustrated Edition of Ulysses, in conjunction with The James Joyce Centre.
It was not a usual editorial job. After all, Ulysses isn’t a manuscript that needs to be edited in any literary sense. Rather I’ve felt like a tenth century monk in one of those beehive huts, reading the prose letter by letter, word by word in various currently available versions, attempting to create an edition that is as close as possible to the original 1922 text. Wayward commas and colons were returned to their rightful place. Mixed up vowels, apparently ‘corrected’ in newer editions, were replaced with the original. And what has been created is something loyal to Joyce’s creative vision. After all, there have been many warning examples of ‘corrected’ Ulysses texts; a 1984 edition was eviscerated in the New York Review of Books for taking what it felt were liberties in its edits.
As luck would have it, I was given responsibility for Episode 14 ‘Oxen of the Sun’, described as the most difficult episode in Ulysses. On my first general read, I felt my stomach clench as I thought about the logistical nightmare of correcting a text that was written in a largely phonetic way with a near incomprehensible narrative. In the end, it involved reading each syllable out loud, comparing texts, checking each letter, all ninety-seven thousand of them.
But what did emerge as I read, was the expert skill Joyce had with voice. Like an actor that can shift from role to role seamlessly, so Joyce moves from one dialect to another with ease, from Shakespearian to Victorian to slang. The language is sometimes bawdy, with a mix of alliteration and plenty of innuendo – there’s no denying the richness and texture of the prose.
This new edition of Ulysses will launch this June to coincide with the 59th Bloomsday celebrations. That is why with a measure of pride of I think of my contribution to the 2013 festival and to the general Ulysses legacy, however tiny. Perhaps it’s time to don a boater hat and join the likes of David Norris and President Higgins as they pay homage to one of Ireland’s greatest writers.
(Published on the O’Brien Press blog, June 2013)