Not a Review of Daniel Mulhall’s Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey

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The tab you landed on says, “Reviews of Books, Articles, etc.” but this could not be a review because I have only read thirty-eight pages of the book; it must be an “etc.” I recently updated the notes for the Hades episode that you could also find on this site, but that was completed without the careful reading this Reader’s Odyssey deserves. I’m saving the book’s other 276 pages to remind me of Ulysses’ purpose as I update Aeolus through Penelope.

I am just a reader of Ulysses and some other books. I am not selling anything or counting the vowels in our greatest novel. Not a vendor nor a counter; I am just a reader. I’ve been told that if I say anything more than twice (as I sometimes do), people begin to say: “Here comes Crazy Old Don.” So here again approaches crazy old me. But isn’t the crazy old reader the most important element of the reading anyway? 

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Daniel Mulhall, Irish Ambassador to the United States, is a Ulysses reader too. Certainly, he says, academic research illuminates the text, but he proves “by algebra,” as Sunny Jim Joyce might say, that the reader is the grandfather of Leopold Bloom. My pretentious claim is that readers’ backgrounds and experiences bind ordinary days to Stephen’s, Molly’s, and Poldy’s in extraordinary expressions of humanity. 

Ambassador Mulhall’s days might have been less ordinary than mine. He has served at the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Bloom’s father, Rudolph Virag began. He also served in the exotic East, the focus of Bloomish daydreams and hallucinations. Daniel Mulhall also directed humanitarian efforts of a kind that Mr. Bloom would sanction. He has made a career of making human connections in cultures strange to his upbringing. But every reader who has been an outsider, who earns the bread he eats, spares some of it to feed the gulls, suffers losses, finds a way for love to persist, or lives the Beatitudes can find themselves in Ulysses.

The Irish Diasporants are now so assimilated in America that they have fairly ceased to have an identity. I am unlucky enough to be of vintage and lucky enough to still remember the funereal rites that crossed in the coffin ships. The Irish Wake was a distraction but also comforted the grieving family. Mulhall speaks of Dublin’s “homespun ruminations wrapped in graveyard humour.” There is also food and drink and snuff to mask the scent of omnipresent death in Hades. But everyone, inside Dublin or out, lives under the specter of death. Bloom, it’s noted, experiences the pain of reliving the deaths of tangent generations, Rudolph and son Rudy. Bloom’s sensitivities are Protestant; he recommends a quick demise, stunning his Catholic companions who hope for the sacraments before departing. There are also references to Jewish rites for the deceased. Every religion prepares its faithful for death and living with death. Paddy Dignam suffers an Irish death and a Catholic burial, but every reader of any faith or none can throw a fistful of earth into Paddy’s grave.

C.S. Lewis has a character say, “We read to know we are not alone.” Joyce gave us the itinerary of the most mundane day to guarantee that every reader can’t help but recognize the perfect relevance of her own life. I am grateful to friends in academia for ensuring that after thirty readings about 16 June 1904, there are still new puzzles, new perspectives, and new jokes. There’s also a human connection that A Reader’s Odyssey offers, the knowledge that we are not alone even in reading Ulysses.

Crazy Old Don also mutters that this website exists to guide the first-timer and to build a beachhead for the global community of Ulysses readers. He mumbles that is the only way to enable the book’s bi-centennial, through engendering new readers in many nations. Daniel Mulhall’s Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey serves that end.

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