In the Margins

Life with Ulysses

Even if Dublin’s Bloomsday Festival, the annual celebration of James Joyce and Ulysses, is cancelled this year, there’s a good chance the modernist masterpiece may still find its way to new and returning readers. After all, many have responded to the pandemic by formulating ambitious plans: baking sourdough bread, perhaps, or training for a marathon. Why not tackle a famously long and complex book?

Published in 1922, Ulysses centres on two characters as they move about Dublin on one June day in 1904: Stephen Dedalus, a serious, cerebral young man unknowingly in search of a father figure; and Leopold Bloom, an older man, who has lost a son and his own father, and whose wife is about to commit adultery. The novel’s eighteen episodes are loosely based on events from Homer’s Odyssey, and even before the narrative style takes a distinct turn toward the experimental, it is challenging: dense with allusion, grounded in Irish history, and often fragmentary.

Those who pick up Ulysses might find themselves in need of a guide, and few could be better prepared for the task than Michael Groden, a decorated Joyce scholar now retired from Western University, in Ontario. Groden has spent much of his life reading, writing about, and teaching Ulysses, and The Necessary Fiction is his attempt to bring the book’s influence on his life into focus.

Groden grew up in Buffalo and first encountered Ulysses at Dartmouth, where he graduated in 1969. He describes his career developments, multiple cancer diagnoses, and a fateful reunion with his high school girlfriend, the poet Molly Peacock, whom he married in 1992. Groden comes across as candid and thoughtful, yet his account lacks the immersive quality and artfulness of memoir at its best. He acknowledges up front that he doesn’t write like Vladimir Nabokov: “I could never call my book Speak, Memory. If my memory responds to such a command at all, it talks in unpredictable ways, sometimes volubly and fluently, sometimes haltingly and barely above a whisper.”

Instead, Groden relies heavily on puns and quotations from philosophers and poets; he often initiates a recollection or thought with words from a song or from Joyce, but these references rarely add depth. For example, mentioning a scene from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he writes, “Stephen’s mother tries unsuccessfully to calm down the agitated adults and restore peace to the dinner table. If political talk went on too long in our house, my mother simply started to clown around to force a change of subject.” The impulse to note these connections is understandable: Groden likely knows Joyce’s oeuvre as well as the facts of his own life. The effect, however, is that he mines the work for simplistic correspondences. This is perhaps the biggest risk of such a mixed-genre endeavour: balancing the classic book and the scholar’s life, so that each contributes to a greater whole.

Groden published The James Joyce Archive, a sixty-three-volume manuscript collection, in 1978. As he describes this and other aspects of his career — attending conferences, connecting with other Joyceans — he paints a portrait of a dedicated academic. But the scholarly life can be plagued with minutiae. An exception is a chapter devoted to his vexed dealings with Stephen James Joyce, the novelist’s grandson and executor. The younger Joyce, notoriously litigious, irascible, and prone to sending off threatening, cliché-­ridden missives (“in life I have always found that days of reckoning usually come when one least expects them and one of these has now come for you”), provides some much needed colour. At a 1988 symposium, he declared that he had destroyed all of the letters belonging to James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, including those written by Samuel Beckett (William Butler Yeats’s son and Ezra Pound’s daughter were shocked). Stephen James Joyce, who passed away this January, may have caused Groden some professional and even psychological trouble, but his appearance in The Necessary Fiction is ­undoubtedly entertaining.

But those looking for more literary gossip and interpersonal friction will be disappointed; it’s not that kind of book. Groden is eminently fair-minded when it comes to most of the people he discusses — even Stephen James Joyce is handled without much rancour. He’s earnest and passionate, and this enthusiasm shines through the more extensive discussions of Ulysses. And with an accessible gloss and an appendix that summarizes each episode of the novel, this book will no doubt be a useful tool for readers turning to the book for the first, second, or third time.

It’s also a testament to the role of pedagogy and scholarship, as Groden makes clear the debt he owes to his teachers. “My first reading of Ulysses,” he writes, “can seem like the planting of a seed that grew and blossomed — a perennial, it turned out.” If his teachers helped plant the seed, then Groden has unquestionably done the same for others. I, too, fell in love with Ulysses as an undergraduate student; after reading The Necessary Fiction, I was inspired, over a decade later, to pick it up again.