Bloomers on the Liffey

James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses (1922) is clearly one of the most analyzed, annotated, criticized, translated, interpreted, and misinterpreted novels ever written. Paul van Caspel’s selected references list implicitly attests this through its eight-and-a-half single-spaced pages. Paradoxically, this plethora of criticism has discouraged many general readers from even attempting their own reading of Joyce’s masterpiece. Too often, the criticism has become mired in obscurities, biographical trivia, sociological underpinnings, and psychological subtexts. Fifty years worth of academic criticism has, in effect, shelved Ulysses for many who are attracted to Joyce’s works but who never get much further than the lyricism of Dubliners (1914) or, if fortunate, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

Van Caspel’s Bloomers on the Liffey: Eisegetical Readings of Joyce’s “Ulysses” is, accordingly, a work of critical housecleaning. Though he could be accused either of hubris or of being a literary reactionary by his bold intention to challenge even “untouchable” critics such as Richard M. Kain, William Y. Tindall, or Hugh Kenner, not to mention the sacrosanct reminiscences of Frank Budgen, van Caspel is actually quite sure of his position whenever he presents a new interpretation or argues for an emended version in one or another of the many translations of Ulysses which he considers here. His long experience and thorough grounding in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish (not to mention his native Dutch) allow him to move freely through the labyrinths many translators have made of Joyce’s already often obscure but daedal prose.

The full title of van Caspel’s book implicitly reveals its dual purpose, for this is a handbook for the general reader as well as a sourcebook for the experienced Joycean. The “Bloomers” of the title are not only the legion of critics who have sprung up in the wake of Ulysses’s publication but also the thousands of readers who have accompanied Joyce’s protagonist Leopold Bloom on his day-long odyssey through Dublin. Significantly, while most criticism is exegetical, drawing from a work in order to analyze, van Caspel’s is “eisegetical,” guiding readers into Joyce’s novel whether for the first or the fiftieth time. The distinction is not merely one of semantics. In a sense, van Caspel would like his readers to lay aside, temporarily at least, both preconceptions concerning Joyce’s text and prejudices about its interpretation. He holds the obvious but often-forgotten view that Joyce wrote Ulysses primarily to create a work of art. Other levels of meaning, whether sociological, biographical, or structural, are, accordingly, secondary to this major purpose.

Primarily because the book is eisegetical in its intent, its organization is logical and taut. Van Caspel presents his analysis in eighteen episodes corresponding to those of Joyce’s novel. Asking only that readers be familiar with Ulysses’s major scenes, he dutifully traces the critical tradition throughout and provides page references not only to the Random House edition (1961) but also to the recent synoptic text of Hans Walter Gabler (1984).

Van Caspel makes several varieties of observations. The first, of greatest interest to readers fascinated by Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and the colorful personalities among whom they circulate, involves character delineation. A typical van Caspel synthesis draws upon Dedalus’ interview with his superior Mr. Deasy in the “Nestor” episode. Van Caspel contrasts Dedalus’ need for self-respect and discipline with the actual state of affairs presented in Ulysses, in episodes 1 and 2. Dedalus is ashamed of his teaching position, seems largely...

(The entire section is 1574 words.)


Choice. XXIV, November, 1986, p. 481.

Library Journal. CXI, July 16, 1986, p. 87.