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'Ulysses' European tour seeks modern touch for Joyce's epic novel

Oct. 4, 2022 - 11:16 By AFP
Joyce grew up in Dublin, and later lived in France, Italy and Switzerland FRAN CAFFREY NEWSFILE/AFP

MARSEILLE -- A festival dedicated to James Joyce's novel "Ulysses" is touring 18 European cities, with artists and writers linking the work to contemporary issues such as immigration.

"Ulysses," published in 1922, counts among the 20th century's key novels, and its centenary has already sparked much celebration in Joyce's native Ireland.

But Liam Browne, co-artistic curator of "Ulysses European Odyssey," said the tour is to go beyond the kind of literary fandom seen at home.

"What interested us was Joyce as a European figure, rather than an Irish figure," he told AFP on the margins of the tour event in Marseille on the southern French coast.

"In his imagination he was engaging with Dublin to write his novels but actually his day-to-day existence was in these European cities," Browne said. The crude language and sexual content in "Ulysses" meant there was no chance of it getting published in conservative 1920s Ireland or anywhere else in the English-speaking world.

It became the target of an obscenity trial in the United States, and was banned in Britain for more than a decade.

In the end, it was published in Paris by American poet Sylvia Plath, owner of the "Shakespeare and Company" bookshop which is still a gathering point for aspiring writers today.

The novel tells the story of a single day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, while Joyce links the day's events to Homer's "Odyssey." Scholars are still busy tracing the subtle connections.

Difficult to read

The book has a reputation for being difficult to understand, with the New York Times predicting in its 1922 review that "not ten men or women out of a hundred can read 'Ulysses' through."

Fans the world over still celebrate "Bloomsday" in honor of Joyce every year on June 16.

One of the aims of the European tour -- involving actors, directors, writers, musicians, photographers and even food experts -- is to connect the novel with today's burning topics.

"We wanted a multi-art response and we wanted the art engaging with society and social issues," Browne said. "Nationalism, exile, sexuality and the place of women in society."

Joyce, who grew up in Dublin, later lived in Paris, Trieste in Italy, and Zurich in Switzerland, where he died.

"We believed that the book would not have become what it was without Joyce's exile in Europe," said co-artistic curator Sean Doran. "We are fascinated about this concept about home," he said.

Marseille, he said, was "perfect to explore that subject, people here are coming from everywhere in the Mediterranean."

An Anglo-Irish artist duo based in Marseille, Myles Quin and Gethan Dick, picked immigration and exile for their performance piece at the weekend, featuring recent arrivals from Afghanistan, Sudan, Algeria, Guinea and Syria in their depiction of the trauma of attempting to cross the Mediterranean in search for a better life.

"It seemed impossible to talk about them without making them actors in the performance," said Sophie Cattani, co-founder of local arts collective "ildi ! eldi."

Other venues for the tour, which is sponsored by the EU, include Athens, Budapest, Berlin and Istanbul.

Dublin will be its penultimate stop in 2024. The tour ends in Derry, Northern Ireland, with female artists from the other venues joining in the festival's finale. (AFP)