As someone who spends a fair bit of time in the world of words, it is not without a bit of embarrassment, and even something approaching shame, that I admit this: I’ve never made it through Ulysses. The landmark novel by James Joyce, nearly a century old now, is a Modernist touchstone that both looks to the past—specifically to Homer’s epic The Odyssey—while laying the stepping stones to the future. It is also a dense read, filled with challenging experiment, and though I’ve begun it many times, I have always been overwhelmed by the experience of living inside Joyce’s world.
This week, though, a film coming to Amherst Cinema has inspired me to pick up the book again. In Bed With Ulysses is the title of Alan Adelson’s and Kate Taverna’s new film, which promises to tell the story behind what the directors call “a very sexy novel.” Stage actress Kathleen Chalfant (Angels in America) gives voice to the novel’s Molly Bloom, with six different actors portraying different sides of her husband Leopold—the man whose one-day epic is the pounding heart of Ulysses.
At the start of the film, Joyce’s wife Nora is quoted as asking, “Why would I read Ulysses?” One answer might be that her husband chose a very specific day as the setting of his novel. The journey of Ulysses—of Leopold—takes place over the course of June 16, 1904, which just happens to be the date of Joyce’s first outing with his future wife (it is also the day of the Amherst screening, which is free for members; regular price tickets are available to non-members). Still, one can understand her question when the details of her life with Joyce begin to bubble up to the surface; during the writing of his great book, he seemed to be pushing her into dalliances with the couple’s male friends to supply him with writing fodder.
But the toll Ulysses took during its creation was just a ripple compared to the tidal waves it caused after it was published: branded obscene, it was banned in many countries and burned by the U.S. Post Office before cooler heads finally prevailed in the mid-1930s, over a decade after the novel was first released. Adelson and Taverna cover the full range of the story, including the celebrations of what has come to be called Bloomsday—gatherings of like-minded literary types who come together on the 16th of June to read passages from the book, raise a glass, and revel for a moment in the glory of one of literature’s great works. Perhaps next year I’ll be able to join them.
Also this week: If you’d like a look at the Ireland of Joyce’s day, Netflix is currently streaming Ken Loach’s fine film The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, it tells the story of brothers Damien and Teddy O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney) as they join up with the IRA in the struggle for Irish independence from the United Kingdom. At first steadfast in their shared cause, the brothers find themselves on opposite sides after the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed in 1921; while Teddy believes that the treaty, which grants Ireland some autonomy but not full independence, is a good first step, Damien demands true freedom from the British Empire.
As civil war erupts in what they had hoped would be a united Ireland, the brothers must fight each other and themselves, and ultimately ask whether family ties trump their political ideals—and if they can live with what it means should the answer be no.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.