Under the rafters in a sound old wooden barn, a group of people sit over a glass of red wine or a corona with lime, hearing the rhythms of a newspaper office in Dublin in 1904.
In the tense years World War I and Ireland’s fight for independence, newsboys pounded downstairs with the latest racing tips, reporters imitated politicians, and the printing press shoved drums of paper along its hammer-clanking belts.
In the barn, people read aloud, and the sounds of the city echo in the rhythms of the words. One takes a few paragraphs, and then the next joins in. They inflect the characters’ voices, sounding fussy, frustrated, sad and radiant. They laugh out loud. They begin before dusk, and when they emerge hours later they find, in James’ Joyce’s words, “the heaven-tree of stars hung with humid, night-blue fruit.”
Reading “Ulysses” can be absorbing — and today, the founders of Bloomsday in Williamstown invite the whole world to become absorbed. Joyce’s thunderous novel has inspired an international holiday, Bloomsday, named for one of the main characters, Leopold Bloom.
“Ulysses” takes place over the course of one day, June 16, 1904, the day Joyce had his own first rendezvous with Nora Barnacle, “who became his wife and the love of his life,” said Karl Mullen of Williamstown.
While fans hold readings around the globe, a group of them in Williamstown will share parts of the book in places resembling its settings, from the top of Thompson Chapel tower to the Williams College cemetery, by the grave of professor and Joyce scholar Don Gifford.
What exactly is the book about?
“It’s a love story,” said John Strachan, who has organized Bloomsday with Mullen. “It’s about three people realizing life would be better with love in it.”
A son looks for a father, a wife decides whether to stay with her husband, and a husband with his wife.
“People need people,” Strachan said.
Mullen, moving to Williamstown, found Strachan on Facebook, and their shared interest has attracted others, some longtime Joyce fans and some wholly new to the book, including Leila Crawford, a rising Williams College senior who held an internship last summer at the Joyce Center in Dublin, Ireland, and will return there in July for a
concentrated Joycian summer school program.
As a child in Dublin, Mullen absorbed Joyce in the pubs streets, and he hopes to bring Joyce into Spring and Water streets for fun.
“When you read it aloud, it comes alive,” he said. “We’re not academics or professors. We have people reading the book now who have never read it before … it’s lively, funny and engaging.”
And all three find it acutely moving.
“The book is so rich. So full. It’s funny and tearful,” Strachan said.
They have gathered a group of 15 people who read aloud on Wednesday nights, which is a friendly way for anyone to approach the book, he said.
Joyce writes about an ordinary man and, Crawford said, Joyce intended the reader to be an ordinary person on the street.
“It’s about people on the street,” she said.
Joyce makes the city a living thing, she explained. The city even becomes the main character at times: The narrator will switch from one of the main characters — Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, Stephen Daedelus — to someone walking by on the sidewalk, a sailor singing a chanty.
Why has the book earned a reputation for difficulty?
Joyce wrote about people’s inner lives. “Ulysses” is as layered as an inside joke, and it slows down to look closely at each moment of the day.
“He put everything he knew into it,” Strachan said.
From a sickly boy who loved the Odyssey, Joyce had become an introspective and intelligent outsider writing far from his home city.
And that’s why, Strachan said, reading out loud is the best way to share “Ulysses” — to plunge in with other people who find it as challenging and as rewarding, from the morning on top of the Martello tower to the evening, as Molly Bloom makes up her mind at last.
“It’s life-affirming,” Mullen said, and he touched on her famous open-armed acceptance:
“… yes when I put the flower in my hair like the Andalusian girls used to or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall … yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”