Toasting James Joyce’s celebrated ‘Ulysses’

To lovers of James Joyce and Irish literature, June 16 has a special significance. It’s known as Bloomsday, named for Leopold Bloom, the main character in Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

The notoriously challenging novel blasted through formal conventions and become an iconic work of modernist fiction; its 600-plus pages take place in Dublin over the course of a single day, June 16, 1904. And on Saturday, Angelenos can celebrate the occasion by attending dramatic readings, listening to Irish music and naturally raising a glass of Guinness.

At the Hammer Museum in Westwood, which hosts L.A.'s premiere performance-and-participation Bloomsday event, actors will be reading the book’s “Aeolus” section — the part of the novel set in the Dublin newspaper office of the Freeman’s Journal. The Hammer will be offering happy hour Guinness from 6 to 7:30 p.m., accompanied by Irish music.

Although it has now become the focus of public celebrations, “Ulysses” was at first the stuff of hushed words and darting glances. Joyce’s novel was serialized by an American literary journal in the late teens, and part of it was ruled obscene in 1921. Expatriate Sylvia Beach, owner of the famed Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, published the complete “Ulysses” abroad in 1922, yet it was officially banned in America. In 1933, Random House’s attempt to import copies of the controversial novel were at the center of a major court case; “Ulysses” won, forever changing U.S. censorship law.


But it took years for the novel to become widely accessible, and only more recently has it been the subject of widespread public adulation and celebration.

“The really big breakthrough was in 1982, celebrating the centenary of Joyce’s birth with a large Joyce symposium in Dublin,” Vincent Cheng, co-editor of 2009’s “Joyce in Context,” emailed from this year’s conference in Ireland. “Bloomsday 2004 in Dublin was the first time that it felt like a fully public celebration, with lots of locals and tourists joining the Joycean academics in celebrating the day.”

Joyce enthusiasm has spread across America, where Symphony Space in New York has presented “Bloomsday on Broadway” for 31 years; this year’s performance will be streamed live online. Also online will be a reading of part of “Ulysses” by Alec Baldwin, Wallace Shawn and others at Pacifica Radio; at seven hours, it’s still only a portion of the text.

Is all this drinking and dancing an appropriate way to celebrate a brilliant work of literature?

“I think Bloomsday events absolutely do a service to Joyce’s work,” Cheng writes. “Not only are they a lot of fun for Joyce aficionados, but they get people who have never read Joyce (and who might otherwise never dare try such challenging reading) interested in looking at these wonderful (but very difficult) books, especially ‘Ulysses’.”