FOR OVER 50 YEARS, June 16 has marked a curious mix of celebrations. Revelers pack into Dublin for a breakfast of kidneys and Guinness stout. Tour groups course through the streets, looking for buildings that no longer exist. Perhaps most significantly, ordinary people gather in pubs and on street corners to read from James Joyce's infamously difficult, highly experimental, and stream-of-consciousness novel Ulysses (1922). More familiarly known as Bloomsday, June 16 marks the day in 1904 that James Joyce--one of the most influential writers of the 20th century--set his fictional protagonist Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising canvasser and a contemporary Odysseus, on a daylong walkabout of Dublin. Equal parts challenging and rewarding, Ulysses is generally regarded as the seminal work of literary modernism, which reached its height between 1900 and 1940.
Joyce, along with Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and others, pioneered the modernist novel of the post-World War I era. Melding his Irish experiences with his wanderlust, Joyce rejected realist sensibilities and broke with the ordered Victorian worldview. He heralded a modern, experimental technique that included interior monologue, the disruption of linear narrative flow, a moral relativism, and the use of symbolic parallels with other periods in history, as well as with literature and mythology. In Dubliners (1914), he delved into human consciousness with characters who experienced epiphanies and thereby achieved a deeper understanding of their lives. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) used interior monologue to depict a character's personal reality. Ulysses, which appeared the same year as T. S. Eliot's modernist poem, The Waste Land, explored Dublin life through stream of consciousness and presented each chapter in a different literary style. Finnegans Wake (1939) forsook all plot for literary allusion, free association, extravagant wordplay, and a dreamlike logic. Not easy reading, Joyce's stories and novels are worth pondering for their fractured sense of modern life.
Although most authors would be delighted by such a lasting legacy of merrymaking in their hometown each year, Joyce had a healthy distaste for Dublin. Like so much in his work, there was ever a battle between opposites. His fiction is charged with finely filigreed sensory details of Dublin; yet throughout his life he lobbed insults--"old sow that eats her farrow," "center of paralysis," and "afterthought of Europe"--to express his aversion to Dublin and Ireland. One might assume his loathing of his mother country had its genesis in a horrific childhood. In fact, but for the profligacy of his father and some strict Jesuit priests, Joyce's upbringing was unexceptional.
Born in 1882, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was the eldest of ten siblings. Educated in the Catholic tradition at Clongowes Wood and, later, Belvedere College (the source for much of 1916's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man), he was an excellent student, particularly in the literary arts. His first poem, "Et Tu Healy," which celebrated the life of Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, was published when Joyce was just nine. He continued to excel in school, prompting hope in his mother and the Jesuit priests that taught him that he might find his calling as a man of the cloth. Instead, as his father suffered the first of many severe financial reversals, Joyce renounced Catholicism at the age of 16 and found a deeper devotion in literature.
Joyce's "Nicely Polished Looking-Glass"
Though many early 20th-century authors took to expatriate life, none did so with as much conviction as Joyce. Nor did any author remain so steadfastly fascinated with the homeland he had left behind. With hopes of studying medicine and continuing his writing, Joyce moved to Paris in 1902 after completing his studies at University College, Dublin. He quickly abandoned medical school, preferring the Parisian bohemian life. For the next decade, he returned to Dublin occasionally, drawn back by familial, financial, and literary obligations. In 1904 he visited his ailing mother's bedside, and, true to his staunch anti-Catholicism, he refused her request that he pray for her before she died. He made subsequent visits to argue over the publication of his short story collection Dubliners, which had been accepted by publisher Grant Richards but almost immediately became the subject of controversy for its realism and "indecency." Joyce marked his haughty obsession with his birthplace in this letter to Richards:
"It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs around my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by...