Today is Bloomsday, June 16th, the date that James Joyce renders unforgettable in Ulysses. Ulysses was finally published in 1922, but the novel celebrates the day in 1904
that Joyce first met his long-term (and eventually ‘legal’) common-law wife, Nora Barnacle, who was then working as a chambermaid in a hotel in Dublin. Since I first read the novel in the 1970s, I’ve always quietly celebrated Bloomsday when it has come round each year and still enjoy dipping into Joyce’s account of the perambulations of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on this day. I’ve written about it before, too, but today I have a new dimension to add, something I’d forgotten about for decades.
One of my Covid-19 lockdown projects has been to ‘bottom’ my study and sort through all the books and papers living there. I’ve almost completed this task. Sometimes it has been stressful: I knew I’d have to be ruthless and select some items for recycling or other forms of disposal and I’ve done so, discarding items that logic dictates I will never truly want to use or look at again, despite the happy memories they inspire and the tug of my hoarding instinct..
Many things remain sacrosanct, however, including some discoveries that have surprised and delighted me. Among these is a privately printed guide to the Martello tower that Buck Mulligan, the first character to appear in Ulysses, lives in in the novel.
A foolscap-sized pamphlet printed on hand-made paper, it is entitled James Joyce’s Tower, Sandycove, Co Dublin and was written by Joyce’s most famous biographer, Richard Ellman, and published in 1969.
I acquired it in the very hot summer of 1976, when it was sent to me by William ‘Monk’ Gibbon, an Irish poet and man of letters – in fact, long before then he was known as the Grand Old Man of Irish letters – whom I had contacted when I was carrying out research on George Moore, an Irish author who lurked on the periphery of the Gaelic Revival. As a young man, Gibbon knew W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and Lady Gregory and George Moore, as well as Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty, the real-life inspiration for Buck Mulligan. When I wrote to him, he was one of the last living links with these writers. He had also kept in touch with ‘George’ Yeats, Yeats’s wife, until her death a few years previously. He told me fascinating anecdotes about all of them and sent me several gifts, including the book about the Martello tower and a hand-written poem of his own, inscribed on a sheet of the same type of hand-made paper as the book. He had written out eighty copies of this, of which the one I have is numbered the fifteenth.
I’m posting a copy of the poem, but, in case some of the words are difficult to read, I’ve also transcribed it.
An Alphabet of Mortality
A’s for Arrival on the arena’s sand
B is our distant Birthright, long forgot.
C are the Cards, dealt deftly, to each man.
D is the Desperation of his lot.
E is for Eagerness, which conquers sloth.
F is our Folly, immense, which drags us down.
G are the hallowed, haloed, laurelled Great,
who scorned Happiness, that tinselled crown.
I the insatiable, insistent self.
J all its Jealousy and petty spite.
K is the coloured Kaleidoscope of our views
and L our longing for more stable sight.
M is the makeshift Madness of most lives.
N is Lear’s ‘Never’ to the fifth degree.
O’s the Occasion, haste or hesitate.
And P? Pride, Prejudice and Pedantry.
Q is the ultimate Query all must ask.
R the much-varied Responses from the dark.
S the great Silence, which puts speech to shame
and T the triumph when men leave this mark.
U is the infinite Universe, where there’s zoom,
when all the lies are dead, for Veritude.
W’s recovered Wholeness, which may yet
give X in the equation exactitude.
Y is for Yearning.
So, having overlooked
The many-lettered joys which, too, have been,
I, at the stake, do now recant and say
The Zephyr of my hopes was sweet and clean.
On the reverse side it is inscribed to me, with the message “to she …who knows that whatever the rest of it may say the last letter of my alphabet is the truest.”
It is dated December 15th 1976, the date of his 82nd birthday; he must have written the poem to celebrate it. He lived until 1987.
As I re-read it, it struck me that this poem contains sentiments that are very relevant for our present times (also his use of the word ‘zoom’ made me smile – he had, of course, no idea that in 2020 it would achieve fame as a brand name for a virtual communication product).
Happy Bloomsday, everyone!
The 25th Hour (David Benioff)
The 25th Hour, by David Benioff, was passed on to me by my son. At the risk of sounding sexist, I didn’t fancy it all that much; from the blurb on the jacket, it struck me as a quintessential boy’s book. It seemed to typify one of those fast-paced American thrillers in which cops and robbers all speak with gravelly voices out of the corners of their mouths, Humphrey Bogart style, and wisecrack with each other while letting their guns do all the serious talking. However, since I think that everyone’s reading should once in a while include something from outside his or her literary comfort zone and that one of this book’s more obvious virtues is that it is very short, I decided to give it a go.
I was very pleasantly surprised. The novel is set in New York and tells the story of the (anti-) hero’s last twenty-four hours of freedom before he has to present himself at Otisville Jail to serve a long sentence for drug-trafficking. His name is Monty. David Benioff succeeds in pulling off the difficult coup of making the reader both sympathise with him and recognise the enormity of his crime. This is achieved in an under-stated way, using just a few sentences, by describing the death from drug abuse of one of Monty’s friends and how it has continued to devastate the addict’s family.
The quality of the writing is superb. New York itself almost becomes a character in the novel. It is described at every hour of the day as Monty visits various haunts within the city and bids farewell to his friends, often in gritty and unconventional ways. Whilst it would perhaps be stretching it to compare it with the Dublin depicted by James Joyce as Leopold Bloom conducts his own twenty-four-hour odyssey, David Benioff clearly knows New York well and portrays it with affectionate precision.
The names that he chooses for his characters are superb. Monty’s friends are called Jakob and Kostya; his Puerto Rican girlfriend has the unforgettable (and ironic) name Naturelle. Jakob, a teacher, has a crush on a seventeen-year-old pupil whose name, Mary d’Annunziato, suggests association with the Blessed Virgin; the girl herself turns out to be a latter-day Lolita from the Bronx.
Finally, there is Doyle, the pit-bull terrier, whom Monty rescued after he had been abandoned at the side of the motorway and nursed back to health. Monty himself loves Doyle because he believes that his care of the dog is the only truly selfless thing that he has ever done. Aside from the moral that the reader is intended to draw from this (which is not laid on too heavily), the fact that Monty’s imprisonment means that he and Doyle will have to be separated, probably forever, is a detail ingenious for the way in which it inspires pity for Monty’s fate. If only he hadn’t dunnit, he and Doyle would still be bouncing along the sidewalks, though Monty would be financially poorer and Naturelle might well have moved on to someone with a fatter wad of notes in his money-clip.