I had the pleasure of curating a series of readings for the 2018 Bloomsday celebration at T.C. O’Leary’s Pub in Northeast Portland, where members of their Ulysses Support Group (aka book club) read portions of the great novel at intervals throughout the day. I tried to choose passages that not only reflected the prose, characters and themes of Ulysses, but that also captured its humor, vulgarity and surrealism. I chose selections that would give the casual listener a taste of the story if they happened to hear all fourteen selections or feel entertained if they were only to catch one. Additionally, I tried to choose passages that would give readers dialogue to play with as an “actor” and capture some of our club’s favorite lines. I wanted to make sure the spirit of the novel came across more than its reputation for difficulty (although I didn’t avoid all the challenging passages). Most of all, I didn’t want it to be boring.
Below, is brief description of each selected passage and why I chose it along with an approximate page number. I redacted portions of some of the passages since they were just too long (I tried to keep each passage in the 600-800 word range to keep the readings brisk and entertaining). My page numbers are based on the 1990 Vintage International edition of Ulysses.
#1 Telemachus, p. 1
Beginning “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…”
Ending “If he stays here I am off.”
The opening lines, introducing Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan of course cannot be neglected. It sets the stage for the rest of the novel and establishes their antagonistic relationship. Mulligan’s blasphemous rendition of the Latin Mass foreshadows the irreverent treatment of religion throughout the novel.
#2 Nestor, p. 33
Beginning “He raised his forefinger and beat the air oldly…”
Ending “But life is the great teacher.”
Stephen and Mr Deasy, the headmaster of the school where he teaches, discuss a variety of topics, demonstrating Stephen’s intellectual distance from some of the more conservative denizens of Dublin and bolstering his ultimate decision to leave Ireland (since we know Stephen is Joyce’s fictional avatar). This passage contains some of my favorite Stephen-isms – “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and his description of God as “a shout in the street.” There is some fairly bald anti-semitism in this section, so proceed with caution. The reader of this section at our Bloomsday event had some misgivings about reading it aloud for this reason, but ultimately he felt that Stephen refutes Deasy’s bigoted views well enough. The ugliness of anti-semitism is such a powerful recurrent theme in Ulysses that it seems appropriate to introduce it in this way.
#3 Calypso, p. 55
Beginning “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish…”
Ending “Now that was farseeing.”
And of course, the introduction of Bloom. This passage has it all – his love of organ meats, his pseudo-scientific ruminations on his cat (another favorite of mine) and his nagging anxieties surrounding Molly. This passage nicely introduces the rambly stream-of-consciousness narration typical of Bloom’s episodes, in contrast to the dense intellectualism of Stephen’s.
#4 The Lotus Eaters, p. 77
Beginning “He opened the letter within the newspaper.”
Ending “You could tear up a cheque for a hundred pounds in the same way.”
Bloom is not so innocent himself, we learn in this passage. He reads his mildly kinky response from Martha, ending with the line that will echo through his head for the rest of the day: “What kind of perfume does your wife use?” The playfulness of Martha’s threats to “punish” Bloom will later be carried out writ large by Bella in the Circe episode. This passage also nicely captures the disjointed fragments of Bloom’s wandering thoughts as his goes about his day. I redacted the portion where he remembers the two bawdy women in the Coombe because the passage got a little too long, and I definitely wanted to include the part where he tears up Martha’s letter.
#5 Hades, p. 88
Beginning “All watched awhile through their windows caps and hats lifted by passers.”
Ending “It’s as uncertain as a child’s bottom, he said.”
This passage is a bit long, so I cut lots of little bits here and there while trying to maintain the important themes, mainly Simon Dedalus’ commentary on Buck Mulligan and Bloom’s thoughts on his deceased son, Rudy. There is an air of decay and regret here as the boys head to Paddy Dignam’s funeral, even down to the mildewy, crumb-covered seats of the carriage. The ending of this passage, Simon describing the weather as “uncertain as a child’s bottom,” is too good to omit.
#6 Lestrygonians, p. 169
Beginning “His heart astir he pushed in the door of the Burton restaurant.”
Ending “Ah, I’m hungry.”
One of my favorite passages in Ulysses – Bloom’s horror at a bunch of men with lousy table manners. The descriptions of the food and its barbarian consumers is incredibly visceral and gives a reader a lot to work with in terms of performance.
#7 Lestrygonians, p. 174
Beginning “Mild fire of wine kindled his veins.”
Ending: “Stuck, the flies buzzed.”
Ah, yes. The seed cake kiss. One of the sexy parts of Ulysses that I find actually quite sexy. Again, this passage provides a lot of fertile material for a reader performance-wise, as it contains both a reflection on the aphrodisiacal qualities of oysters and a tender, physical moment between Leopold and Molly. Whoa, good Ulysses.
#8 Scylla and Charybdis, p. 194
Beginning “I was prepared for paradoxes…”
Ending “…our notions of what ought not to have been.”
We’re back inside Stephen’s head here as he tries to explain his convoluted Shakespeare theory to the boys in the library. This is one of the more challenging bits included in these excerpts and the one section I waffled over whether or not to include at all, since I’m not sure it meets the requirement of being entertaining. However, I do think it includes some important themes, namely Shakespearean parallels that appear throughout the novel. It also portrays Stephen’s contentious relationship with his young, intellectual peers in Dublin. This section contains the most Latin of any of the selections. Our group found that reading the Latin bits with a vaguely Italian accent makes it sound like you actually understand them.
#9 Sirens, p. 267
Beginning “Hoho, we will, Ben Dollard yodled jollily.”
Ending “Horn. Have you the? Horn. Have you the? Haw haw horn.”
This passage is full of pain and longing. Bloom eats dinner in the Ormond Hotel, unseen by the other men as they discuss his wife Molly unflatteringly. At the top of the passage, Blazes Boylan flounces off to meet Molly for her “music lesson” while Bloom’s heart breaks. This passage is written with a clearly musical rhythm that offers a lot of possibilities to a performer.
#10 Cyclops, p. 331
Beginning “Bloom was talking and talking with John Wyse…”
Ending “And he ups with his pint to wet his whistle.”
Anti-semitism rears its ugly head again as Bloom defends his Irishness to the barflies at Barney Kiernan’s pub, including one of my favorite Bloom-isms: “A nation is the same people living in the same place.” Of course, the boys at the pub are having none of Bloom, and the narration can be quite cruel and bullying, showing the more gentle Bloom in contrast to these patriotic men. Speaking of which, I opted to exclude the long list of Ireland’s most beautiful places that interrupts the narration. It added too many words to the passage and might be confusing to a casual listener. Yet another passage that offers a reader lots of opportunities for creative characterization and even some acting. Best read in a Dublin accent.
#11 Circe, p. 589
Beginning “STEPHEN: (Laughs emptily.) My centre of gravity is displaced.”
Ending “He lies prone, his face to the sky, his hat rolling to the wall. Bloom follows and picks it up.”
As I love good horrorshow, I made sure to include a hefty portion of Circe. This passage includes the climax of the novel – drunk Stephen getting his clock cleaned in the red light district while Bloom tries to protect him. The passage as referenced above is quite long – over 2,000 words if memory serves – so the version I read is heavily edited. I tried to preserve Stephen’s altercation with the English soldier’s first and foremost, as well as the various voices egging him towards the fight and Bloom trying to urge him to safety. I also maintained the prostitutes’ commentary and the Black Mass performed by Mulligan and Haines, basically because I love them and their vulgarity. This passage does contain some very strong language, including the “c” word, so take caution. I gave a quick content warning before I read it, which prompted one random old dude at the bar to cheer.
#12 Eumaeus, p. 643
Beginning “Of course, Mr Bloom proceeded to stipulate…”
Ending “We can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.”
Bloom attempts to bond with Stephen while simultaneously trying to sober him up. This conversation is a nice bookend to Stephen’s discussion with Mr Deasy earlier in the day. Bloom defends the contributions of Jewish people to the larger societies they inhabit.
#13 Ithaca, p. 682
Beginning “What spectacle confronted them when they…”
Ending “…with description: with impediment: with suggestion.”
Back at the ranch, Bloom muses on the heavens. Ithaca is an episode that can get bogged down in jargony language, but also contains some of the most beautiful prose in the entire novel. I heavily redacted this section, but made a point to include Joyce’s description of the heaventree of stars and his parallels between the nature of the moon and women. This is a more challenging reading for sure, but if you’re not up for a challenge, why are you reading Ulysses in the first place?
#14 Penelope, p. 766
Beginning: “I love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses”
It’s Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Yes. Yes. Yes.