Today, June 16, Leopold Bloom–the protagonist of James Joyce’s revered and often inscrutable novel "Ulysses"–turns 107. Happy Birthday! And, also, so what?
So what–because "Ulysses" is often regarded as one of the 20th centuries greatest novels, and also one of the greatest novels few have ever read.
So what–because Leopold Bloom is one of literature’s most vexing Jewish characters, as he’s born Jewish, but never circumcised and baptized three times in order to marry his Christian wife, Molly.
So what–because Leopold Bloom, a Jewish character, is at the center of one of Western literature’s (very much arguably) best books.
So what–because, if you care at all about literature, you could argue that Joyce was one of the greatest friends of Jews European letters has ever known, or not.
Bold statements, I know. But I’m raising these points in this manner–as four consecutive hypotheses–because I just read a provocative essay on "Ulysses" by Ron Rosenbaum, also a friend of Jews (author of "Explaining Hitler," and an accomplished literary critic). In this recent Slate essay, Rosebaum dissects one chapter of "Ulysses," highlighting the four-question format Joyce uses to open it.
I liked that idea, and since I’m thinking Jewishly now, I felt like making another admittedly superficial observation: Four Questions, doesn’t that sound Jewish? And doesn’t that add fodder to the claim that Joyce really thought hard about why he made his protaganist an M.O.T.?
There’s better evidence for my claim, that Joyce was doing good by the Jews in creating Bloom. The main piece is this: throughout the novel Joyce takes shots at Irish nationalists, many of them ardent Christians, who are constantly berating Bloom for being Jewish. This, even though Bloom has gone out of his way to convert to Christianity and remain an admirable Christian. Though "Ulysses" is concerned, foremost, with the experimenting with the mechanics of the novel, the most touching and humane parts are the ones where we get a glimpse into Bloom’s plight.
His plight–to be a modern, secular, even disavowed Jew–was no easy thing in early 20th century Europe (the novel takes place all on one day–June 16–in 1904). Joyce knew this plight well, modelling the fictional Bloom off his real life Jewish pupil, Italo Svevo, a Hungarian Jew whom Joyce tutored in English when they were both living in Trieste. Joyce later became a champion of Svevo’s work, helping him publish his now classic, "Confessions of Zeno."
But as far as the Jewish question goes, "Ulysses" is also problematic. For while it gives us a sympathetic version of the modern, secular Jew, it still unconsciously plays into anti-Semitic stereotypes. After all, even though Joyce is at pains to show how hard Bloom has tried to integrate himself into Christian society, he still retains the hallmarks of a provincial uncultured Jew. In the famous lines that introduce Bloom, Joyce writes: "Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes." This is shtetl vision, the view of the Jew as a lowly philistine.
But as Rosenbaum points out, you need not love all of "Ulysses" to just like some of it. He calls the novel one of the most overrated in history–"an overwrought, overwritten epic of gratingly obvious, self-congratulatory, show-off erudition that, with its overstuffed symbolism and leaden attempts at humor, is bearable only by terminal graduate students who demand we validate the time they’ve wasted reading it." Well put.
But also worth reading–in part–like the chapter Rosenbaum loves, the so-called "Ithaca chapter." That’s the one that begins with the four questions.