Bloomsday! Bloomsday, Sir? Yes, today is Bloomsday! If you don’t know why today is Bloomsday, allow me to explain. The action of James Joyce’s famous novel, Ulysses, takes place on a single day— June the 16th, 1904— and focuses on the very ordinary thoughts and feelings of one Mr. Leopold Bloom, an advertising canvasser, as he goes about his business in the bustling city of Dublin. It is therefore Bloom’s day.
Some of us who love reading Ulysses— and it has to be said there are plenty of perfectly intelligent and literate readers who don’t— like to celebrate each year. Indeed, we feel compelled, yes I think I would go so far as to say compelled, to do something to mark the day (not without some superstitious or obsessive-compulsive fear of consequences if we don’t) by posting, for example, photographs of our battered and well-thumbed copies of the great work, or by engaging in Bloom-like activities such as over-frying pork kidneys so that they burn and reek, eating gorgonzola sandwiches with hot mustard, drinking Irish alcohol, or, alas, observing young women with speculative lust. As for defecation and other bodily functions not excluding autoeroticism, I say nothing. Each to his own. Or her own, yes, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day, right Alice? Yes, Sir, it is. Good.
This year then, since it is a hundred years since the novel’s first publication in 1922, I sat down at my battered old upright Imperial to bash, b-bash out a cent, a centenary piece about it. Tit. Damn. Where’s the Tippex, Snowpaque, whatever they’re calling eraser fluid this year? There I go again. Ranting. (And it’s a lie about the upright Imperial typewriter. Haven’t had one of those for years. Gotta La Ptop now. A what, Sir? A laptop. Oh.) Not being sure of the exact date, I said aloud, “Alexa, when was Ulysses published?” and a female voice replied, “Ulysses by James Joyce was published on the second of February, nineteen twenty two.” It was not my wife— she knows to keep out of my way when I’m writing, what with the groaning and the cursing and the stomping about, and in any case she isn’t called Alexa— Alexa is, as I’m sure you’ve realised, that astonishing electrical personality which sits quietly on a shelf until, summoned by the magic of naming her, she will answer your questions. What would Joyce have made of that! New words, to be sure. Alectionarygirl? Alexandra the electro-encyclopaedic? When I started writing in the eighties, I would have had to have looked it up in a book (don’cha just love that construction? Would have had to have) and a few years later I could have typed my question into Google; now, in 2022, I just have to ask. The world has changed, of course it has, it’s been a hundred years; but, to get back to the point of all this, has what we think of as ‘the novel’ changed with it?
When Ulysses was published, the novel in English had had its avant-gardists, its innovators, already— from Sterne to Woolf— but nothing like Ulysses had ever appeared before, let alone the immense Finnegans Wake. Some authors have been massively influenced by these novels— Anthony Burgess for one; he said something to the effect that every time he started writing he felt the shade of Joyce looking over his shoulder. But are they novels? What is the story? In Ulysses, a discontented young chap wanders round Dublin showing off, gets drunk, punched, is rescued by an older chap who knows his father… it’s hopeless trying to summarise it in the usual way. Nothing really happens. Finnegan especially seems at first glance to lack all the things we expect in a novel; where is the plot, a cursory reader might ask, the characterisation, the emotionally moving interaction of personalities, their psychological development? Good Lord, there is hardly a coherent sentence from beginning to end! Not, of course, that Finnegan has a beginning or an end; but if you do get from ‘riverrun’ to ‘all along the’ you’ll find you’ve been on quite a journey.
I think it was Anthony Burgess who said (yes, him again; every time I start writing I feel the shade of…) who said, I say, that in a sense the language of these books is itself a character in them; what happens in terms of story is less important than the way the words play. There is ‘story’, but you have to learn how to find it. Indeed, I would say you have to learn to read James Joyce’s major works. To take an illustration from music, you may have a reasonable grasp of piano technique, but you can’t just sit down and play the Beethoven sonatas at sight; it takes years of study. And have you learned to read Joyce, Sir? Do you, in fact, read Joyce in the Lord always, as Saint Paul nearly so said in Philippians chapter four? Yes yes yes of course… Wait a minute. You looked that up, didn’t you? Or did you ask Alexa? Yes, but she didn’t know. I had to go to an actual bookshelf and take down Peake’s Bible Commentary. It was very heavy and dusty and… Ah, Peake. The peak or pinnacle of biblical commentary. Old but trustworthy. Like me. Oh, Sir. You are silly. In fact this whole conversation has been rather silly. True. Pour me another cup of tea, will you?
Behold my ancient and well beloved copy of Ulysses. While you’re here, do have a look at my novels and other writing by clicking on this link, which will take you to my Amazon page! (It opens in a new tab)
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