For someone who has spent a good part of his life reading, thinking, writing and teaching about James Joyce and his novel, “Ulysses,” Sean Latham confessed that it wasn’t “love at first read.”
“I first read ‘Ulysses’ in grad school,” said Latham, who is editor of the James Joyce Quarterly and director of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities, both based at the University of Tulsa. “And the first time you encounter this book, it can be literally overwhelming. There’s the sheer amount of information Joyce put into ‘Ulysses,’ not to mention all the guides and explanations and theories that have grown up around it.
“That’s why I say that ‘Ulysses’ is a book you re-read, instead of read,” he said. “It’s a book you have to work your way through, but the process of wrestling with it makes you realize how deeply human a novel this is.”
Since its publication in 1922, Joyce’s “Ulysses” has been one of the most talked-about novels ever written. Originally banned because Joyce’s explicitness about all sorts of human behavior made some think it obscene, “Ulysses” is now considered a masterwork.
It routinely tops lists that attempt to rate the best novels of all time and — as Joyce himself predicted — has spawned a veritable industry of scholarship.
“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” Joyce once wrote, “and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.”
The result, Latham said, is that Joyce’s “Ulysses” is probably “the most purchased and least read book in the world.”
But those who are fans of the novel are fans indeed — the sort who might spend a day wandering around the city of Dublin, Ireland, on June 16 — the date and the place in which “Ulysses” is set — reading aloud the scenes that take place on these various sites.
That is how the celebration known as “Bloomsday” began a few decades ago. And it’s one that has spread around the world, with Tulsa hosting its first Bloomsday two years ago.
The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities will present its third annual Bloomsday celebration Thursday at the Mainline Art Bar in the Brady Arts District.
In the past, the event has followed the peripatetic tradition of the Dublin original, with a pub crawl through the Brady neighborhood. However, other events going on in the district that evening are keeping the celebration to a single locale.
The evening will feature a “James Joyce for Dummies” talk by Robert Spoo, former editor of the James Joyce Quarterly, along with readings from the novel, including actress Laura Skoch performing an extract from the Molly Bloom soliloquy that concludes the novel, craft cocktails and giveaways.
“We call it ‘St. Patrick’s Day for nerds,’ ” Latham said, laughing. “It’s really a celebration of Irish literature, culture and identity. And it’s also a way for people who may have never read ‘Ulysses’ but are curious to know about it, can get a taste of what the novel has to offer.”
“Ulysses” takes place in Dublin on June 16, 1904, and follows the rambles of two men — Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedelus — over the course of 18 hours in a trek that has vague parallels to Homer’s “The Odyssey.”
What elevates the book is Joyce’s attention to detail, from every aspect of city life to the roil of emotions and thoughts, of past and present, of fantasy and reality, that churn within his characters.
“Joyce once said that if Dublin were destroyed, it could be rebuilt brick by brick from reading his book,” Latham said. “To some extent, that was what Joyce himself was doing — Dublin has been bombed during the Easter Uprising of 1916, so he was in away rebuilding the city.
“There is a scene where Leopold Bloom turns on a faucet, and Joyce describes the progress of the water, every pipe that it passes through,” he said. “It’s just one of the ways that this book is really a celebration of the modern city and all the life and activity that is there.”