A late bloomer
June 18, 2004
June is a month of famous anniversaries. D-Day, on June 6, 1944, springs most readily to mind. Earlier generations in Britain and in European countries other than France would have pointed to June 18, 1815, the day Napoleon's armies met defeat at Waterloo.
And there is, of course, June 16, 1904. That was the day that the student James Joyce started stepping out with Nora Barnacle. They remained together for the rest of Joyce's life. Eighteen years after that first stroll Joyce immortalized the day in a book. It was called Ulysses.
It was a revolutionary book that purported to tell a banal story. The book recounted a day in the life of a Dublin Jew, Leopold Bloom, as he moved about his city. Early on, the American critic Edmund Wilson dubbed it "a modern epic of an ordinary man."
Part of the epic nature of the story lies in the title. Joyce tightly tied each episode in Ulysses to a similar episode in Homer's Odyssey. What made the book path-breaking were its many voices, its stream-of-consciousness style, its frank words and sexual thoughts. When it came out in 1922, the British home secretary promptly banned it. He called the book unmitigated filth.
Among writers, it was almost immediately recognized as a great book but a hard one. Among readers over the years the reaction has been similar. Many bought it; few read it, at least to the finish.
How then to explain this scene on June 16, 2004? In a street in central Dublin hundreds of people gathered to stroll about, drink free beer and eat a "Bloomsday" breakfast. In the crowd were many dressed in period costume. James Joyce himself appeared to be wandering among the revellers. This was the Joyce of a later period, with his round spectacles, the right lens as thick as a Coke bottle, the left covered with a patch of black, testimony to his creeping blindness.
Periodically people in costume sprung up and began declaiming. A dishevelled man shouted "most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine." These were actors, impersonating the author and his famous creation, Leopold Bloom.
The grilled mutton kidneys with the faint scent of urine were Bloom's favourite breakfast. But the fanatical pilgrims who had trekked to Bloom's street were disappointed. The Bloomers were offered only pallid sausage sandwiches and wretched industrial coffee. Yet no one seemed disappointed.
Good humour, perhaps fuelled by the beer, overflowed. This "event" was sponsored by two Irish firms, one of them a brewery noted for its dark beer. The president of the Irish Republic, Mary McAleese, came to the party and waved to the crowd from the Joyce centre. "Although Bloomsday is a single day," says the happy handout from ReJoyce Dublin 2004 Bloomsday Centenary Festival, "Ireland is planning a world-class, five-month festival lasting from April 1, 2004, to the end of August."
Joyce and his creation have become "commodified," in the words of a couple of disgruntled Irish writers. "I think the whole exercise reeks of a new kind of hollow triumphalism that is abroad in Ireland," said John Banville, a noted novelist. "I get suspicious when tourist boards, governments and political parties suddenly become terribly interested in literature and try to claim it as part of what we are. I also think it's wrong to try to deceive people into the notion that art is easy. "
The government and the tourist board have latched onto Joyce as an artistic PR man for the city and the country. It's a sour irony for John Waters, the Irish Times political columnist. "He left in disgust, for Christ's sake. Ulysses was about Ireland but it was not for Ireland. You could even say that it was against Ireland because Joyce was alienated from, and by, Ireland." Joyce was an Irish exile, not by necessity but by choice. He described his country as "the sow that eats its young."
For those subjugated by the prose that blew apart the tradition of the great 19th century naturalistic novel and ushered in the modern era, such carping was irrelevant. Joyce's work was to be worshipped, and worship required the proper costume.
Debby Lewang is a Canadian accountant who fell under Joyce's spell when she took a creative writing course three years ago. She has read Ulysses 1½ times. On Bloomsday she came dressed as a man, a particular man James Duffy, another figment of Joyce's imagination. The costume included black homburg, shapeless black jacket and black moustache.
"I believe it is my mission in the world," she said, "to prove that Duffy is trying to tempt people, to cast a spell in Dublin in 1904. He was a devilish character and wanted to corrupt others. But he couldn't find the proper people to tempt. So he was actually quite bored."
No great writer can exist in eternity without his academic barnacles. Symposiums, debates and seminars have been strewn across the calendar on all manner of tenuous topics. Professor Dermot Kelly travelled from Newfoundland to chair a symposium on the following topic: Joyce and Punk Rock. This is how he summed up proceedings: "It was about singing some of the lyrics of the Sex Pistols and quoting Joyce and creating a kind of counterpoint there." Of course, why hadn't you thought of that?
Whoever anywhere will read these written words? Joyce wrote in Ulysses. Not to fear, James, the pilgrims will, the literary congregation of true believers, led by erudite guides dressed in Bloom-era bloomers. In earnest little groups they set off in pursuit of Bloom's Dublin, Joyce's Dublin, following a fictional day in a real landscape created by a man who called himself an Irish clown, a great joker in the universe.