15 June 2012

Why Bloomsday Matters

Unlike Harlem Village Academy's
counting, some books might take
a year to read and embrace.
There aren't many days devoted to celebrating a novel, but the 16th of June - Bloomsday - is one, and though it misses the school year for most of us Northern Hemisphere types, it remains worth celebrating, if for no other reason than it suggests that reading is not done "school credit" or Pizza Hut coupons or anything else except the desire to know, and that it suggests that writing can do so much, and among the things it can do, is to carry us across time.

The 16th of June 1904. Dublin. Ireland, still a part of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Edward VII reigning from Buckingham Palace. Charles Stewart Parnell, the great leader of the movement for Irish Self-Rule dead some 13 years before, but the Wright Brothers, across the Atlantic, had flown their first heavier-than-air craft six months before, marking the 20th as a unique Century.

And James Joyce went for a walk through the city of Dublin with Nora Barnacle, the woman who he would marry 27 years later.

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in London on the day of their wedding in 1931.
Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images
"Nora worked in Finn's Hotel," Colm Tóibín writes (brilliantly) in today's Guardian, "and the walk between there and Merrion Square, where they originally arranged to meet, passed by 6 Clare Street, from where Samuel Beckett's father ran his business, and where Beckett would write some of his novel Murphy. Joyce, who would begin the stories in his book Dublinersin that year, 1904, and Nora planned to meet outside the house where Sir William Wilde had lived and where Oscar Wilde had been brought up, the site of many parties. Bram Stoker, who had known Wilde at Trinity College Dublin, had been a visitor to this house. His wife was a former girlfriend of Oscar Wilde. Thus the run-down city of Dublin could become sacred space if you cared and knew about those names. If you did not, or were in a hurry somewhere, as characters in Ulysses often are, as many people today still are, then it could be ordinary, like a street in any city. "
And thus James Joyce began, in 1904, about his city, and his people. "to write "a chapter of the moral history of his country" was grandiose; the stories themselves evaded such easy description. In them, Joyce's Dublin is a village filled with dreamers and chancers whom he placed in a kind of cage." (Tóibín). He wrote the stories of Dubliners, and then, a decade later, he began assembling Ulysses, his magnum opus, his remarkable tour of a day in Dublin with his "hero," Leopold Bloom. "Mr Bloom smiled joylessly on Ringsend road. Wallace Bros the bottleworks. Dodder bridge."

Ulysses can be read in many ways... this is from the amazing Ulysses Seen project
Ulysses is many things, including much easier to listen to than to read (but Joyce is an Irish writer, and Irish Literature is meant to be heard), among them a survey of the forms of literature, a paean to Homer, and a description of the city so clear that you can breathe it.

All around Dublin, the book's
events are commemorated.
It is rich, and complex, and difficult, and long, and it is the ultimate kind of triumph of human communication, a book which bonds its readers to its author, and its readers to its place.

"A black crack of noise in the street here, alack, bawled, back. Loud on left Thor thundered: in anger awful the hammerhurler. Came now the storm that hist his heart. And Master Lynch bade him have a care to flout and witwanton as the god self was angered for his hellprate and paganry. And he that had erst challenged to be so doughty waxed pale as they might all mark and shrank together and his pitch that was before so haught uplift was now of a sudden quite plucked down and his heart shook within the cage of his breast as he tasted the rumour of that storm. Then did some mock and some jeer and Punch Costello fell hard again to his yale which Master Lenehan vowed he would do after and he was indeed but a word and a blow on any the least colour. But the braggart boaster cried that an old Nobodaddy was in his cups it was muchwhat indifferent and he would not lag behind his lead. But this was only to dye his desperation as cowed he crouched in Horne's hall. He drank indeed at one draught to pluck up a heart of any grace for it thundered long rumblingly over all the heavens so that Master Madden, being godly certain whiles, knocked him on his ribs upon that crack of doom and Master Bloom, at the braggart's side spoke to him calming words to slumber his great fear, advertising how it was no other thing but a hubbub noise that he heard, the discharge of fluid from the thunderhead, look you, having taken place, and all of the order of a natural phenomenon."

The act of writing - not handwriting, not keyboarding, but communicating asynchronously with an audience - is a wondrous thing. Most authors struggle to tell their stories, struggle to find time and place to write, struggle to be heard. And for that courage, for the gift writers give us, we celebrate them only rarely. There are days for Presidents and days for Soldiers... but only this event to recall the wonder of those who enable us to know, to understand, to feel, to sense far beyond our personal experience.

So raise a pint (or four) to James Joyce this 16th of June, and to Leopold Bloom, a human created from the mind of another human. And add a whiskey too, for all the other authors, and all the characters they have created, and for all of us as well, the readers who keep the tales alive.

Happy Bloomsday to all...

"Penelope" the final chapter of Ulysses, contains the longest known sentence
in English-language literature
- Ira Socol

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