James Joyce, "The Greatest Jew of All"

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Frank O'Connor, novelist, short story writer, director of Dublin's Abbey Theater, literary critic and historian of Irish literature has called James Joyce, the greatest Jew of all. (1) This is certainly hyperbole, for Joyce was neither Jewish nor would he top a list of non-Jewish notables admired by Jews. Joyce's opposition to the Irish Literary Movement led by William Buffer Yeats, which was immersed in the Irish countryside with roots in Irish folklore and the Celtic language was well-known. According to O'Connor, Joyce, on the other hand, was the most exclusively urban writer who ever lived, and since Jews had been townsmen for close to two thousand years and their literature was that of the town, it was in that sense that O'Connor offered his sobriquet.

Yet, Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses, (2) and his own life testify to his friendly attitude towards Jews and to his Jewish connections. Indeed, that Joyce should have chosen Leopold Bloom, a lapsed Catholic of Jewish origins who is identified and identifies himself as a Jew, to be the hero of his masterpiece has intrigued me and has led to this essay.

Ulysses has been hailed as a leading novel, perhaps the leading novel of early twentieth century English literature, even though it is also famous for making great demands on the reader by its piecemeal depiction of events and by its variety of literary styles. Some styles are meant to mimic or to parody a variety of genres, historic or current, some are in stream of consciousness mode, one, cast as a play, is a phantasmagoria, and there are still other experiments.

Each of the eighteen chapters relates in some way to episodes in Homer's Odyssey (Ulysses being the Roman name for Odysseus), and yet, except for the chapter rifles which were added by Joyce after the novel was first published, there is no other mention of the relevant Homeric episodes. In addition, each chapter is associated, according to Joyce, with a color, a symbol, an organ of the body, an art and a literary technique; it is left to the reader or, at least, to the literary critics to match wits with Joyce in order to make the connections. (3) Responding to complaints of its complexity and in places of its obscurity, Joyce has said, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for generations arguing about what I meant. That's the only way of ensuring one's immortality." (4) Indeed, the number of books and articles devoted to explicating Ulysses is legion. A single university press has published seven books on Joyce in a single year. (5)

Still, whether or not Joyce's experimental style stands the test of time, what will most certainly endure are the characters wandering the streets of Dublin and the image of Dublin itself, on a single day, which has become known as Bloomsday, June 16, 1904. As for Dublin, its streets, its shops, its pubs, its topographical sights and its sounds, these are sketched so thoroughly and so realistically that it has been said should Dublin somehow disappear, this novel could serve as a blueprint to rebuild it as Dublin existed on that day in 1904.

The protagonists of Ulysses are Leopold Bloom, aged thirty-eight, and Stephen Dedalus, probably twenty-two, who encounter a host of Dublin characters, some of whom had been described earlier in a collection of short stories, Dubliners. (6) We also once again meet Stephen Dedalus, based upon Joyce himself, who is the subject of the bildungsroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, (6) in which he develops from childhood to a university student aspiring to great creativity as a writer. By the time he had started work on Ulysses in 1914, these two works had established Joyce as a master of rhetoric, already guaranteeing a lasting reputation. The literary community looked forward to even greater achievements and as Ulysses appeared, first piecemeal and then published in totality in 1922, some were shocked; others were exuberant. …