Thursday, June 24, 2010

Listening to Ulysses

Before he was anybody special (well, at least before he had his own show), Stephen Colbert stood on the stage at Symphony Space in New York City and flexed his arms in preparation.  He was about to read two chapters from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Calypso and the Lotus Eaters.

He didn’t get everyone’s attention (although he should have, as he read well), but Bloomsday at Symphony Space has its own rhythms and traditions.  The audience shifts about, like water flowing over stones, little eddies of comings and goings here and there.

There will always be some, head down, poring over their tattered copies, personal flashlights trained on the text, following the readers word by word.  But others get up to stretch, even leaving the building to walk on Broadway, before coming back for another round.  And others still go to Symphony Space’s Thalia Cafe for a literarily appropriate snack or dinner:  lamb stew with Irish soda bread, Molly’s melt in your mouth pear, leek and potato soup.

For many years, I lived only blocks away from Symphony Space, but never managed to get to Bloomsday.  For more years than that, I’d had a copy of Ulysses on my bookshelf, almost entirely untouched.  Again and again, I read the first page:
I’d complete a page or two, set it down somewhere and stare at it for weeks, then finally place it back in the space beckoning for it on the shelf next to Finnegans Wake.

During those years, I began to-ing and fro-ing between Long Island and New York City—always a dodge and weave in a (usually vain) effort to avoid the worst of the summer week-end traffic.  Once, I happened to be heading back to New York City very late on a June 16 and turned on the radio.  The mellifluous tones of Isaiah Sheffer (Symphony Space’s Bloomsday MC), wafted out into the night.  He was introducing Fionnula Flanagan, who would be reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.

I knew that soliloquy!  Or anyway, I knew its ending.  On a drab night some forty years ago or so, I’d ventured to the art house in Hyde Park in Chicago.  In those days, its staples were Fellini, Bergman, and Truffaut, but on this night, the film was Joseph Strick’s Ulysses.  At the time, I found the film incomprehensible—but I did remember Molly’s “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

What I didn’t know was how much more to the soliloquy there was than that.  Forty-five pages, I later learned, with no paragraphs or punctuation.  Here’s how it starts:
Somehow, there in the enclosed space of the car, late at night, with nothing but the long straight groove of the LIE ahead of me, I listened, and I understood every single word.  Flanagan took well over two hours—so long I had to turn on the radio when I arrived—and every bit of it was captivating.

While I vowed to go hear her live the next year, even those few blocks, in the wee hours of the morning, were more than I could gather myself to do.  But I did turn on the radio, this time with book in hand, and willed myself to stay awake.  Flanagan’s reading was, once again, stupendous.  All I had was the text in front of me and that disembodied voice, but, while I could hardly make sense of what I saw on the page, her reading brought the words to splendid life.

That was the revelation, that Ulysses is meant to be heard as much as read.  I put June 16th on my calendar as a recurring appointment, a promise to myself that I would walk those few blocks every year I could to hear some of Ulysses live.  I bought a new copy of the paperback, too—a fresh start at my attempt to actually read the thing.

And I did get through it, the whole book.  Following the mode I’d adopted to read Virginia Woolf, I settled in my hammock one vacation and read and napped and read some more.  My mind wandered off, came back, wandered off again (adding to the stream of consciousness, I reasoned), and now and then, Ulysses came through to me, brilliant and clear     yes     and that gave me the resolve to attend Bloomsday XXIV, at which Stephen Colbert read.

This year, though I didn’t know it at the time I bought my ticket, Colbert was back again.  The theme was “the parallels between Joyce's Ulysses and Homer's Odyssey.”  While I’ve yet to read the Odyssey (yes     the gaps in my education are alarming), I have now listened to it.  Following my model for listening to Ulysses, I used long car trips to listen as Ian McKellen read, through every single rosy-fingered dawn and wine-dark sea, so I was prepared.

Unlike the last time I’d been to Bloomsday, I arrived after dinner to find the place packed out.  No one milled about, and people guarded their seats with jealous fury.  Who were these people?  What had brought them out?  Of course, it was Colbert.  When he appeared onstage to read from the Cyclops episode of the Odyssey, the audience was enrapt.
They even laughed.  It’s hard to find humor in the Cyclops episode, but in Colbert’s version, the laughs were there.

After Colbert’s last bit of reading, the audience thinned out, and the feel of the place relaxed back into an easy chaos.  The Colbert Nation had done its part, filling the hall with ticket-buyers.  Whether they felt they'd got their money’s worth, it’s hard to say.

But they missed out on Molly.  It was after eleven at night when Fionnula Flanagan took the stage, settled in a comfortable chair, propped her bare feet on a footstool, and began to read.  For over two and a half hours she read, without a break, without even a glass of water.  She found in the text every nuance:  she gestured, she chortled, she sighed, she gossiped, she sang, and she dreamed.  We who remained were carried off to wherever she chose to take us, to the last gorgeous Yes.
Back home again, I picked up my copy of Ulysses, and out fell a clipping, a New York Times editorial marking the centennial of Bloomsday in 2004.
Bloomsday is the most capacious day in literature. Only the hours of Lear’s suffering last longer, and there time passes in a stage direction. Language has almost never had a surer substance—a stronger temporal beat—than Joyce gives it in the thoughts of Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly, along with Stephen Dedalus and Dublin’s assembled hordes. . . .

Dedalus may indulge in Latinate fancy, and Joyce may revel in literary mimicry. But the real sound of this novel is the sound of the street a century ago: the noise of centuries of streets echoing over the stones.
If you haven’t yet attempted Ulysses, it’s not too late:  try the hammock, try a long car trip accompanied by “Bloomsday on Broadway” or some other CD or MP3.  Try any method that will get you there, but do     yes     do listen to Ulysses.

To best appreciate the audio on the clips below, headphones are recommended.

Stephen Colbert (Odysseus)and Stephen Lang (Cyclops) reading from the Cyclops episode:

Fionnula Flanagan reading from Molly Bloom's soliloquy:

Beginning Lines:


Wherever You Be:



  1. Bloomsday passed this year and I don't recall hearing much about it for some reason. Of course, I think I was on the road that day, pity that I didn't have a CD of Ulysses to listen to in the car~

    Thank you for making this work more accessible - I don't know that I will attempt to read it in the near future, but I enjoyed your introduction to it and I was glad to have your opinion of the book and the Bloomsday event.

    I admire Fionnula Flanagan - two and a half hours with no break! Wonderful~

  2. Nicely done and that is certainly an understatement! I concur with whoever mentioned in a prior blog that your work should be viewed by a wider audience. Nonetheless, I could hear Sally Kellerman throughout your piece reciting yes I will, Yes! In my search for why a Rodney Dangerfield movie should come to mind while reading your excellent work, I now learn that it was Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, she was reciting. I am off to ITunes to see what I can find to broaden my horizon starting with Ulysses. If only Ann Carson would go audio!

  3. Always wondered what it would be like to attend a Bloomsday and now I know, thanks to your videos of the event.

    Fionnula Flanagan was born to be the voice of Molly Bloom. Flanagan's and the voices of the other readers confirm for me that Ulysses was meant to be heard rather than read.

    What a great entertainment!

  4. Thank you for another absorbing and entertaining post, and thank you for the great sound bites - definitely worth listening to with headphones!

  5. Thank you so much for your comments--I am particularly heartened that others appreciated the inestimable Fionnula Flanagan. And to all who have commented re our deserving a wider audience: we are pleased indeed that you enjoy what you read here and hope you will continue to get the word out. We love to get comments and are pleased as punch when folks think enough of us to sign on as followers!


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