'In Bed with Ulysses:' A masterpiece's twisty roots ★★★

LiteratureArts and CultureWit (play)Kathleen Chalfant

"My husband wants me to go with other men so he'll have something to write about," the former Nora Barnacle said of her partner in life, James Joyce.

She didn't go, as far as we know. But Joyce did, in fact, have much to write about: The reedy Irishman's gnawing paranoia regarding his wife, among other factors, fed the seven-year creation of the novel "Ulysses," whose protagonist, Leopold Bloom, is celebrated annually on "Bloomsday" with staged readings and other events worldwide, along with countless renewed vows to actually read the damned book — the most musical novel in existence — in its daunting entirety.

Consider the documentary "In Bed With Ulysses" a friendly nudge in that direction. It's playing this week as part of the Siskel Film Center's "Stranger Than Fiction" series. In a trim 80 minutes, directors Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna survey the whirling circumstances of Joyce's creation, as the author dragged his family from country to country, mooching, making do, imagining Nora's infidelities at every turn. Molly Bloom of the novel came straight out of Joyce's conception of Nora — a fictional character based on a pre-fictionalized, taunting specter.

The novel, with so many obscenity charges and censorship battles ahead of it, was published in Paris by Shakespeare and Company bookstore owner Sylvia Beach in 1922. Random House won a key court battle in 1934 and suddenly Joyce, the disreputable smut-peddler, was on American bookshelves. "In Bed With Ulysses" does a brisk job of tracing the literary history. Rehearsals and a performance of a "Ulysses" staged reading, featuring actress Kathleen Chalfant (who originated "Wit" off-Broadway), provide the through-line here. The voice-over narration spoken by co-director Adelson isn't one of the documentary's strong suits; Adelson brings a gee-willikers air to the material. But his movie gets over it. And Bloom may well prove to be what "In Bed With Ulysses" says he is: as "eternal a character as Falstaff."

mjphillips@tribune.com

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1:20

Plays: 6:15 p.m. Friday, 3:15 p.m. Saturday, 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, 6 p.m. Thursday at the Siskel Film Center.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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LiteratureArts and CultureWit (play)Kathleen Chalfant
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