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Ulysses Shmulysses

James Joyce was the first to understand that Jews make the perfect protagonists

Howard Jacobson
November 17, 2022
© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

If there were a prize for the longest day in literature it would surely go to James Joyce’s Ulysses. A novel of more than a quarter of a million words, Ulysses compresses the 10-year seafaring of the Greek hero Odysseus into a single 24 hours in Dublin, most of it spent in the wake of a traveling salesman with a taste for offal. 

It begins in the early morning in a Martello tower by the bay, where a group of insufferably clever young Irishmen effectively say “No” to everything, from God to friendship to fathers, and it ends at night with the faithless Molly Bloom saying the very opposite. “Yes” to her lover; “Yes," in a manner of speaking, to her husband, who tolerates her infidelities; “Yes” to life; and “Yes,” I like to think, in relief, that the novel is finally over—a joke I wouldn’t put past Joyce to have made at his own expense. 

For Ulysses is a novel of indefatigable jokes, puns, pastiches, parodies, and put-downs. It is a gloriously difficult, grandly generous novel, that never punishes you for what you don’t understand. As with any day, you aren’t going to enjoy it all, and the rambling episodic form of the novel—now a drama, now a burlesque scientific treatise, now a catechism, now a monologue without punctuation—enables you to skip with a clear conscience. Miss part of the morning, and that still leaves you the afternoon to enjoy. What about losing the plot? Wonderfully, there is no plot. The great joke at the heart of the novel is that its Ulysses is no epic hero capable of withstanding the greatest privations and temptations, but Leopold Bloom, a peaceable, middle-age, masochistic, forgetfully Jewish advertising salesman, with a voraciously unfaithful wife and an inordinate appetite for the very gizzards of beasts and fowl which he would know his religion prohibited if only he knew anything about his religion.

Bloom wears his Jewishness, as he wears most things, including his masculinity (his wife jokes that bloomers were named after him), lazily and half-heartedly, his mind forever wandering from one encounter, one moment of recall, one memory of insult, to another. A visit to the pork butcher’s leads to Bloom’s eye alighting on a page from a newspaper about a model farm in Palestine on the lakeshore of Tiberias, which he thinks about as he follows a girl with “strong hams” out on to the street, which in turn reminds him of one of his wife’s affairs, which leads him back to thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah, and then it’s back to his wife’s “ample bedwarmed flesh.” These mental absences and digressions, across time and continents, justify the novel’s meanderings, not just in leisurely pursuit of Bloom’s actual footsteps, from bed to butcher to bar to brothel and back to bed, but in and out of his mind, sometimes idle, sometimes feverish, and ultimately to a fantasy lying-in ward where, as a new “womanly man,” “strong to the verge of weakness,” he hallucinates giving birth to eight children of varying colors.

Homeric he is not; but a hero for our time he is. Ulysses is first and foremost a comedy of exile. Joyce wrote it while living in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. That Dublin went on calling to him throughout the years he lived elsewhere is clear from the novel’s intense recreation of the city’s bursting vitality. But novelists thrive on being away, and Joyce needed to be anywhere but Dublin, free from Irish politics, the church, and his own memories of personal and professional failure. Leopold Bloom is not given that choice; Joyce does not buy him a ticket from Dublin to Tiberias. But he is already, in his Jewishness, exile enough for Joyce. Behind the epic figure of Odysseus, in this novel, looms the shadow of the mythical Wandering Jew who, for having jeered at Jesus on the way to the cross, is doomed to roam the earth until the end of human time. Call him a figment of early Christian antisemitism. And while antisemitism isn’t a major theme in Ulysses, it shows itself with some unexpected savagery from time to time as in the figure of the headmaster Mr. Deasy who gets a kick out of declaring “Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews … and do you know why? She never let them in. That’s why.” “That’s not life for men and women,” Bloom responds, “insult and hatred.” Those who are not let in, must find somewhere else to go.

This has been in large part the Jewish story for 2,000 years. And the homeless Jew is the metaphorical undercurrent of Ulysses. Joyce is said to have worked up the the character of Leopold Bloom from the Jews he met in the course of his own wanderings in Trieste and Zurich. He must have studied them attentively, for Bloom is no mere token Jew. In his queer lapses from Judaism, mistaking words and confusing events, he is every inch the part-time, no longer practicing Jew, making the best of the diaspora, more Jewish to others than to himself. 

And in him, unexpectedly but triumphantly, Joyce sees a version of his own rejections and rebuffs. Without going into what we know or think we know of Joyce’s own sexual predilections, it is accepted that there are similarities between Bloom’s submissiveness and his creator’s, and that Joyce chose Bloom’s Jewishness as the perfect vehicle to express the passive, much put-upon and all-suffering openness to life that he needed to drive—or, rather, be driven by—this novel. At home in being far from home, content to be cuckolded and remaining in love with the wife who cuckolds him, pessimistic and yet happy enough, dialectical, pedantic—in one lunatic scene he morphs into “The distinguished scientist Herr Professor Luitpold Blumenduft who tendered medical evidence to the effect that the instantaneous fracture of the cervical vertebrae and consequent scission of the spinal cord would, according to the best approved tradition of medical science … produce in the human subject a violent ganglionic stimulus of the nerve centre”—Bloom makes being a stranger in a strange land an enticing condition.

One of the best jokes made about Bloom is that he was once a traveler for blotting paper. His absorbency might not make him the most forceful husband for Molly, but it is the key to the novel’s plenty. With Bloom around to soak in every misadventure without complaint, there’s no limit to what Joyce might plausibly invent. Ulysses first appeared in 1922. Worse things than exile were still to happen to Jews. And for many novelists in the ensuing years, the Jew would become the perfect protagonist, the very model of humanity in extremis—homeless, tragic, patient, funny. But James Joyce got there first.

This piece first appeared in Radio Times.

Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.