Some people contend that James Joyce's Ulysses is the best novel of the 20th century. I'm not jumping into that debate. But as the annual worldwide literary holiday known as Bloomsday celebrating Ulysses rolls around again, I've made one more attempt to understand the book.
Not by reading it, but by speaking to some local experts.
I'll confess: I have an English degree, but I could never get through Joyce's 800 pages about Leopold and Molly Bloom and Stephen Dedalus and (what the synopses and summaries and Cliffs Notes say are) their travels around Dublin on the average day that was June 16, 1904.
After talking with Renata Rua, who teaches languages at the Kansas City Irish Center, I feel less guilty.
"I picked it up numerous times, started, couldn’t get past the first three pages," Rua admits. "I was frustrated, I didn’t get it. Then my back went out and I was on the couch for a long time. And I read it in four days."
It wasn’t pain meds that helped her comprehend the quarter-million-word book in which each chapter is written in a different style – "One's in the form of newspaper adverts. Another is a play. Another is a catechism, yet it all holds together," Rua notes.
What helped was that by then the Irish Studies major had lived in Ireland for 10 years.
"The difference was I heard the Dublin voice on the page, heard the rhythm of the speech, heard the sense of humor," she says. "Suddenly it came alive. And it was funny, and I laughed and laughed."
Tom Shawver, who owned a Brookside bookstore called Bloomsday (yes, heavily stocked with Irish literature), was the one who started Kansas City's June 16 holiday back in 1995.
"I had read Ulysses, and I loved the book," Shawver says. "Well," he confesses, "it took me four tries."
So what’s weirder: that there are any worldwide literary holidays, or that there’s only one, and it’s devoted to a book that so few people have read?
"With St. Patrick’s Day, the parade, all that stuff, very little is given to Irish culture itself, other than the beer swilling and that kind of thing," Shawver says. "I felt it was important to be an ambassador for Irish literature and, as part of that, Irish culture itself."
In the beginning, Shawver had people come to his bookstore and take turns reading Ulysses all the way through, fortified with stout and Irish whiskey. Then they added a play based on the book’s final chapters, and held bigger celebrations under a tent along Brookside's Trolley Trail.
In the early days, the play was read by "enthusiastic ungifted amateur actors," Shawver says.
"As years went on, we got professional actors who were very gifted indeed," he says. They also added music by veteran Irish performer Eddie Delahunt.
"Everyone was in costume and walked around the Plaza, and they were in front of Victoria’s Secret doing the Nausicca scene on the beach, which is kind of naughty. And Kirwin and McCourt did a skit in O’Dowd’s, so we had real New York City talent doing readings for Bloomsday."
The celebration found an even more fitting home since the Irish Center of Kansas City opened in Union Station, and then moved two years ago to its own space in Drexel Hall.
Shawver and Rua emphasize that Ulysses is a profoundly "life-affirming" book. It’s easy to come to that conclusion because of the book’s "yes"-filled famous last pages, which build to Molly Bloom's climactic final words:
"...I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes."
"It’s a woman who’s having an affair against her husband throughout the day," Shawver says of Molly, "and yet he (Leopold) comes home to her and she realizes her love for him and he realizes he’s found his love. And more importantly, he sets out that morning on his journey, on his quest like Ulysses of old, and goes through all these perils, yet finds home again," he explains.
"It’s the end of a 45-page soliloquy," Shawver adds. "I don’t think there are any periods or paragraphs in it for 45 pages. It's a total stream of consciousness for Molly Bloom."
"You don’t really have to like Molly," Rua notes. "Molly’s unfaithful to Leopold and I have a lot of sympathy for Leopold. But she’s a force of nature, she’s earthy and she loves him," she says.
"The chapter’s hard to read," she adds, "because you’re pushing towards the end of the book and you get to this chapter and you start and maybe you have get up and make yourself something to eat or go to the restroom but you can’t because there’s no punctuation so you just read it straight through until you’ve got it done."
All of which makes the idea of just watching a play based on the final chapters instead of trying to read them sound pretty good.
Aside from the linguistic challenges, though, there’s something simpler in the book’s appeal.
"I think it’s about: These are real people. These are anti-heroes, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus," Rua says. "And it’s one day in Dublin, and it’s everything crammed in — from lofty thoughts to the bodily functions."
"It’s the most humane book, I think, in the English language," Shawver says. "I really believe that."
That's highly debatable. Just not on June 16.
Bloomsday, June 16 at the Kansas City Irish Center, Drexel Hall, 3301 Baltimore Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111. Novel reading begins at 10 a.m.; a documentary film about Bloomsday screens at 4 p.m.; Eddie Delahunt and Gabriel Reyes sing at 5; the play begins at 6:30 and will run for 80 minutes. Admission is free.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.