Volunteer Nathan attends an anniversary reading of Ulysses as part of Bloomsday.
One of my favorite experiences was my first reading of Ulysses by James Joyce. The book shocked and shattered my concept of narrative capability with its complex structure, modernist style and epiphanic rollercoaster sentences. Upon completing the 265,000 words, I felt inducted into a special community which has lasted 90 years and still congregates annually to celebrate Joyce’s work.
Last Saturday, The Harvard Club of Washington D.C. hosted a moveable feast at three D.C. locations in celebration of Bloomsday, the annual commemoration of Ulysses. Like a Trekkie at a convention center or a Potterhead at The Wizarding World, I giddily joined an excited crowd at Politics & Prose to hear readings from Part I.
A cast of seven read from the first three chapters of Ulysses. The Harvard Club which sponsors social and educational events throughout D.C. had the foresight to diversify the listening experience. A rotation of speakers gave different interpretations of cadence, inflection and pace. Some presenters spoke slowly. Others gave characters voices in animated timbres. A few stressed Irish accents.
I got to hear characters differently and noticed traits and nuances in Joyce’s writing I’d overlooked. I also heard more comedy in Joyce’s writing than when I was reading solo. Several speakers seemed to know how to maximize the effect of a punch-line, turning a witty phrase into a boisterous knee-slapper.
The fragmented and diverse perspectives made the narrative feel less familiar and more fresh. However, this was not disorienting. I could still recognize my favorite lines and phrases. When a main character, Stephen Deadalus, says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” the speaker slowed and let the audience appreciate our goose bumps and tingling spines.
Some speakers set up their passage with scene descriptions and explanations on how their section fit within the book’s context. These summaries expanded the breadth of the event, and I wish there had been more similar moments.
A bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey was awarded to the “best reader” as voted by three people selected from the audience at random.