Ted Smyth reviews “Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey” by Ambassador Dan Mulhall, published this month by New Island.
Editor’s note: Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States, Dan Mulhall, has also earned a great reputation as a literary ambassador, quoting Irish authors in his frequent tweets and highlighting beloved excerpts from Irish literature. Now he has written a book explaining the importance of Joyce’s Ulysses not only to the literary canon, but also as a means of explaining Irish history and heritage.
Irish Americans and lovers of Ireland will enjoy this new book by Dan Mulhall as it brilliantly illustrates the timeless qualities and charms of Ireland that are showcased in James Joyce’s novel, ‘Ulysses’.
Mulhall, Irish Ambassador to the United States, writes that “you cannot fully come to terms with the origins of modern Ireland without grappling with its fullest representation in literature”.
This year 2022 marks the centenary of the publication of “Ulysses” and the creation of the independent Irish state. These two events mark the end of an old colonial era and the beginning of a new century in which Ireland and Irish artists will assert themselves on the world stage.
Ireland still has a lot of the atmosphere, the spoken word, the poetry and the language so well showcased in “Ulysses”. You might walk into a pub in Dublin and you’ll find people straight out of the novel, talking and discussing the latest race results or politics like Joyce’s characters do in the episode “Cyclops.”
“Ulysses” is a book that many people have on their shelf, but haven’t finished because they’ve been baffled by Joyce’s stream of consciousness, changing styles, and unexplained historical and philosophical references. As Edna O’Brien wrote, “‘Ulysses’ is the epitome of all he had seen, heard, and heard, consecration and desecration, full of consequence and inconsequence.”
Ambassador Mulhall cleverly decodes all 18 episodes of the novel, providing personal and entertaining insights that contextualize and illuminate Joyce’s text, leaving you wanting to pick up ‘Ulysses’ again. It refreshingly gives us permission to skip some chapters and read six for “a few tasty samples” that will whet the appetite for more.
As Mulhall writes, the episodes can be read as more or less self-contained short stories dwelling on the lives, wanderings and inner thoughts of three main characters during 18 hours in Dublin on June 16, 1904: Leopold Bloom, the 37 – year-old advertising salesman and son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, his wife Molly, a lively opera singer, and Stephen Dedalus, a bright, if pretentious, young student modeled on the youngster Joyce.
Irish history and the lives of ordinary Dubliners at the dawn of Irish independence are vividly portrayed through the inner reflections of these three characters and their interaction with a host of other characters.
“The reason Bloom is such a compelling character,” Mulhall argues, “is because we recognize pieces of ourselves in some of his wandering notions.” Bloom and Molly have a complex marriage; he is consumed in the novel by Molly’s affair with her concert manager, Blazes Boylan, but is unwilling to confront either person about it. Molly is still in love with Bloom but is flattered by Boylan’s attention to her body and her singing career. A hundred years ago, “Ulysses” was banned in America and Ireland because of its sexual content, which by today’s standards is quite moderate.
Not only is ‘Ulysses’ a monumental work of literature, it is an important advertisement for Ireland, attracting people from many countries and backgrounds. Mulhall explains that he spent “four decades traveling the world with Irish literature as part of my diplomatic, real and intellectual baggage. My copy of Ulysses, purchased in 1974, and my edition of Yeats’ Collected Poems, acquired in 1976, both traveled the globe with me.
He used both books to introduce Ireland to people whose interest in Ireland often stems from an affinity with our literature, history and music (the affinity diaspora). Indeed, during Mulhall’s first diplomatic mission to India in 1980, where he met and married his wife Greta, a charming Australian diplomat, he discovered that Yeats and Joyce gave him access to the best Indian families such as that of Prime Minister Nehru. who were greatly influenced by the freedom struggle and Irish literature.
Subsequently, he took the two writers with him to Vienna, Brussels, Edinburgh, Kuala Lumpur, Berlin, London and Washington with great success.
Mulhall’s deployment of Joyce and Yeats around the world is a masterful example of exercising “soft power” on behalf of Ireland, a term Harvard professor Joe Nye coined in the late 1980s to refer to the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants. without force or coercion. Ireland may not have a large security force, but it does have an army of fabulous writers, poets, musicians and artists who, together with our talented diplomats, make Ireland stand out on the international scene.
This was amply illustrated last year when Ireland’s successful campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council, brilliantly led by Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney and Irish UN Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, was supported by Bono and by outstanding poets like the late Eavan Boland.
Why has “Ulysses” become more popular 100 years after its publication? The answer may lie in the fact that it is not just an extraordinary work of imagination, but, as Mulhall says, “despite all the adversities that beset him, the death of his son, his father’s suicide, his wife’s infidelity, his lack of commercial success, the resentment directed against him by his fellow Dubliners – Leopold Bloom is ultimately a life-affirming character, and ‘Ulysses’ a life-affirming novel . It is Joyce’s genius that he manages to pull off this feat in a unique and timeless novel.
Our thanks must go to Dan Mulhall for his enthusiasm for the living document Joyce left us, and for making “Ulysses” more accessible to regular readers. “A Reader’s Odyssey” is definitely a book that would make an appropriate gift for friends or family ahead of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Ulysses, A Reader’s Odyssey by Daniel Mulhall. Published by New Island Books, January 2022.
*Ted Smith, a former diplomat and entrepreneur, is chairman of the advisory board of Glucksman Ireland House, the center for Irish and Irish-American studies at New York University.
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