This is Bloomsday, of course, and literary folks are even now tromping through Dublin, commemorating June 16, 1904, the day on which Stephen Deadalus and Leopold Bloom, the two characters at the heart of James Joyce great wanderdream of a novel have their adventures. (Thursday, June 16, 1904 was, by the way, the date of Joyce’s first outing, a walk to Ringsend, with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle.) Some Bloomsday celebrants will go off with the ghostvoices of Stephen Deadlus and Buck Mulligan (all stately and plump) to Sandycove for a tour and reading at the Martello Tower; maybe some have taken a dip at the Fort Foot. Others have followed Leopold Bloom from his house at 7 Eccles Street and shared breakfast with him and Molly, eating what must easily be the most famous kidney in literature.
MR LEOPOLD BLOOM ATE WITH RELISH THE INNER ORGANS OF BEASTS and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.
It is a long day’s journey, and a celebratory one, for Ulysses is nothing if not a celebration of ordinary, everyday, plainwalking life. Joyce’s masterpiece is, for me, the best example of how words can capture the beauty in our sometimes drab, yet sparkfuelled lives. Which is to say, Joyce seems to be examining the possibility that everything is our ‘city,’ the place/space/reality in which we live; that there is no separation between our thoughts, our sensations, our daydreams, our tea kettles, our half-forgotten memories and the streetsigns on the corner, the waste bin, the birdsong.
It is a wonderwork of attentiveness, of observation.
People are often afraid to pick up Ulysses, being put off, suspect, by all the honor heaped upon it. After all, how can an ordinary person hope to understand the book that has generated more scholarly examination that any other?
And it has its detractors. Virginia Woolf, for example, dismissed Ulysses as “a mis-fire.” In a diary entry for September 6, 1922, she wrote: “The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious but in the literary sense.” Perhaps. But all books are flawed, as are their writers. Is it a failure? Maybe, but what a brilliant failure. I should fail so spectacularly! I can’t help but wonder if Ms. Woolf wasn’t just a teensy bit jealous given her own idea that “identity, rather than depending on the concrete circumstances of a person’s life, is primarily constructed from within, through an individual’s deployment of language.” (Kate Flint, ‘The Waves’, in Julia Briggs (ed) Virginia Woolf – Introduction to the Major Works) Both Joyce and Woof were working in the same field, so to speak.
In Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece (W.W. Norton, September), Declan Kiberd, a professor of Anglo-Irish literature at University College Dublin, tries to bring the novel down from the dusty academic topshelf. He posits it is “a book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them.” His point is that Ulysses has much in common with the work of Whitman, intended to be about and for the common people. Kiberb says Ulysses is “an extended hymn to the dignity of everyday living,” best appreciated by those who do that living. I agree.
And on that note I urge you today to pick up your copy of Ulysses, or go and buy one, or go on-line, even and read even just a few smatterings of this wonderful prose. I’ll leave you with a snippet,, describing the sea, from Book 1, Telemachus
In long lassoes from the Cock lake the water flowed full, covering
greengoldenly lagoons of sand, rising, flowing. My ashplant will float away.
I shall wait. No, they will pass on, passing chafing against the low rocks,
swirling, passing. Better get this job over quick. Listen: a fourworded
wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehement breath of waters amid
seasnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop,
slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases. It flows purling,
widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling.
Under the upswelling tide he saw the writhing weeds lift languidly and
sway reluctant arms, hising up their petticoats, in whispering water swaying and upturning coy silver fronds. Day by day: night by night: lifted, flooded and let fall. Lord, they are weary: and, whispered to, they sigh. Saint Ambrose heard it, sigh of leaves and waves, waiting, awaiting the fullness of their times, diebus ac noctibus iniurias patiens ingemiscit. To no end gathered: vainly then released, forth flowing, wending back: loom of the moon. Weary too in sight of lovers, lascivious men, a naked woman shining in her courts, she draws a toil of waters.