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The 100th Bloomsday is upon us -- raise voices and glasses

Next Wednesday, for many of us, is the epochal literary feast day of the past century, the one-hundredth Bloomsday. It honors -- if that's the proper term for rituals that often get wet and wild -- James Joyce's novel Ulysses. As a rule, I abhor absolute superlatives, but I will support a widely held assessment that Ulysses is the most important, the most influential, novel written in the 20th century.

All of the events in the book (which was first published on Feb. 2, 1922, and is 735 pages long in the edition I prefer) occur on June 16, 1904. The principal character is Leopold Bloom. And thus for a couple of generations each June 16, beginning the count with 1905, has been celebrated as Bloomsday.

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Bloomsday will happen again this year in Dublin, of course, but also in Baltimore and Trieste, Tokyo and Martha's Vineyard, Auckland and Philadelphia, Toronto and San Francisco, Melbourne and Seattle. In all, there will be nearly 200 publicized (and often pub-sited) Bloomsday celebrations in 60 or more different countries, a number that increases year to year. In Baltimore, in the Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, at 6:30 p.m., there will be a lecture by Dr. Peter Fitz of University of Baltimore. A number of faux-Irish pubs will keep the Guinness and Bushmills flowing through the day and into the evening.

Outside of Dublin, where there are walking tours, pub-crawls and all manner of other festivities, one of the more elaborate markings is at New York City's Symphony Space. Isaiah Sheffer, who has directed 23 of those annual readings, estimates it would take 32 hours to read the entire text aloud -- which they have never completed.

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Sheffer has a delightful and instructive 16-page essay on Ulysses readings in a new book, Yes I said yes I will Yes: A Celebration of James Joyce, Ulysses, and the 100 Years of Bloomsday, edited by Nola Tully (Vintage, 160 pages, $11, paperback). The title is the final seven words of Ulysses itself -- Leopold's wife, Molly's, exquisite affirmation of sexuality, self and life. This estimable little volume is a celebration of the readings, but also of the novel and the pure joy of the whole culture and sometimes mystique surrounding it.

Tully, who wrote much of it as well as editing, has done a remarkable job of pulling together dozens -- hundreds -- of bits and pieces of commentary, explication, outrage and ecstasies about the book.

Born on Feb. 2, 1882, Joyce went to Jesuit schools in Dublin, but later rejected Catholicism. He left Ireland in 1904 and lived in Trieste, Zurich and Paris. He started writing the book in 1915. He chose June 16, 1904, as tribute to the fact that on that day he had first gone walking in Dublin with Nora Barnacle, his lifetime love and the model for Molly Bloom. Joyce and Nora eloped in 1904 and were married in 1931. He died in 1941 at 58.

There is something magically freeing about reading Ulysses aloud. It can be a daunting book, but it sings when it's spoken. That is the point of most of the Bloomsday readings. I vividly remember directing selective readings a decade ago at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, which owns and preserves Joyce's original handwritten manuscript of Ulysses. We had asked several dozen people to read passages we had chosen as entertaining.

One was Edward Rendell, then mayor of Philadelphia and now governor of Pennsylvania. He turned up on time, with an entourage. I met him a half block from the library, on the steps of which we had set up a lectern and amplification system. He told me he had no idea of what the book was all about and had not had time to read the passage we had sent him and thus couldn't perform.

I took him by the arm, more or less manhandled him to the lectern and handed him his text. He was trapped. He began, reading slowly, laboriously, perhaps resentfully. After about 10 lines, he stopped. He looked around to me, and then looked out to the crowd of perhaps 150 people and said, "Hey, this is great stuff." He began again at the top and read through as if he were a born Dubliner.

Much of the scholarship that I have read about Joyce and especially about Ulysses over the last 30 years and more would, I believe, have been taken by Joyce himself to be somewhere between risible and contemptible. I suppose one should not blame the academy for this phenomenon. It is not unusual. Unique acts of genius are much like frogs; you can dissect them, but something always dies in the process.

Art, it can be said (and I tend to say it, perhaps too often) has one main job: to incite revolution; observing a work of art, if it's doing its job, changes the perceptions of the observer. That is what art is.

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With Ulysses, Joyce did that, forever -- to the novel itself, to the concept, the shape, the form and the intent of literary fiction.

In 1975, Farrar, Straus and Giroux' Octagon Books division, in association with the Rosenbach Foundation, published a remarkable package of three volumes of Ulysses. The first is a photocopy of the first printing by Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, marked up to show changes from the earlier, serial partial publication in The Little Review. With annotations by Clive Driver, it is fascinating to scholars, and interesting to the more than casual reader.

The other two volumes are photocopies of Joyce's complete manuscript, written entirely with pencil on unlined paper. Tortured by glaucoma, Joyce obviously labored mightily over every line, many of which run uphill, left to right. Some of it is quite open handwriting, but much more is terribly difficult, if not impossible, to decipher.

I have and treasure a copy of that bound set, and have from time to time compared passages to at least two modern, cleaned-up editions. It's a puzzling game, and gives dramatic emphasis to the astonishing richness of Joyce's mind -- and ear. The final words are, unmistakably, "yes I said yes I will Yes." And after that, the final notation: "Trieste -- Zurich -- Paris 1914 -- 1921."

Raise a glass -- more -- Wednesday. And read a bit of Joyce. Out loud.


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