I tend not to write down dates of birthdays, wedding anniversaries etc., but I think I’m quite good at remembering them – although I have just had to ask one of my friends the date on which her daughter was born. One date that I never forget each year, however, is a fictional one: Bloomsday. As all James Joyce aficionados will know, it is today, June 16th. It was on this date in 1904 that Leopold Bloom made his day-long perambulations around Dublin and, by describing it in Ulysses, first published in Paris in 1922, Joyce captured the history, customs, beliefs and prejudices, not only of his own country, but of the whole of European culture. His masterstroke was to present it from the viewpoint of the perennial outsider, a modern version of the Wandering Jew. A life in the day, indeed! There was a personal irony in the choice of date, too, as it was on this day that Joyce’s liaison with Nora Barnacle, who was to become his long-suffering common law wife and eventually his legal wife, began.
Picking up my tattered Penguin edition of the book, I resolve to read it again very soon. Because of the range and depth of the literary styles that it covers, and Joyce’s wonderful manipulation of language, it is a complete writer’s handbook in itself. It needs no gloss or laboriously explained sets of rules – although the book can be read at many levels and is amazingly erudite. I don’t usually write in books, but I see that against one passage my younger and more studious self has written ‘Traherne: Centuries of Meditation. 3rd Century’. It’s impossible for anyone else to write like Joyce, but admiring and appreciating his work certainly makes you think about how to use language.
It was Joyce who first taught me the magic of lists. The ones that he creates appear to be off-the-cuff, but I’m sure their sparkling apparent spontaneity cost him many hours of effort. Take this one, for example, which is only a third of one in a series that appears towards the end of the book to sum up Bloom’s condition: Mendicancy: that of the fraudulent bankrupt with negligible assets paying 1s 4d in the £, sandwichman, distributor of throwaways, nocturnal vagrant, insinuating sycophant, maimed sailor, blind stripling, superannuated bailiff’s man, marfeast, lickplate, spoilsport, pickthank, eccentric public laughing stock seated on bench of public park under discarded perforated umbrella. It was through Joyce’s work also that I came to realise the importance of evoking all of the senses, not just the visual: his description of Leopold Bloom’s lunchtime cheese sandwich is a classic still to be surpassed, in my experience. Then there is his satirical juxtaposition of the sacrosanct (and, he indicates, probably humbug) with the absurd: And they beheld Him, even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel. Like avid readers both before and after him, Joyce read everything: cereal packets, handbills, magazines and potboilers as well as more European literature than almost anyone else could cram into a lifetime. Unlike other learned writers, however, he didn’t make judgments about the ‘quality’ of what he read. The Nausicaa episode (Chapter 13 of Ulysses) is not only a brilliant pastiche of the style of writing of women’s magazines of the time, but also reveals Joyce’s sneaking admiration for a genre that could get away with so much hyperbole. Gerty MacDowell, its naïve and rather tragic heroine, is a fine portrait of a dreamy young woman whose head is filled with romantic notions of how she can shape her life. Although she is portrayed only once, in a tiny snapshot of time, Joyce conveys to the reader through this medium of ‘magazinese’ that her life will be much bleaker than she supposes. Today’s ‘filmstar for a day’ brides are her modern equivalents.
It’s difficult to say what I like best about Ulysses, but, if pushed, I’d say that it’s the portrait of Molly Bloom. Hers is a timeless portrait of almost everything that it has meant to be a woman through the ages: she is a sensuous earth mother, fascinating femme fatale, sexy but not a whore, capable of great sympathy but also self-centred, perceptive, ‘genteel’ and coarse. She belongs to a long tradition of female characters that stretches back in time, even beyond Cleopatra, to Homer’s sorceress Scylla. Molly lives through her senses; the one attribute that she doesn’t possess is intelligence of the formal, schooled kind. In this, she is the antithesis of Leopold, who thinks about everything, applies his knowledge to everything, and therefore, like Hamlet, is unable to act. Apparently she was modelled at least in part on Nora Barnacle. Some feminist readers have found her portrayal insulting to women and, mixing life with fiction again for a moment, it’s true that Joyce held some curious views about the female sex. But Molly is above all the great force for the positive in the novel. It is she who has the very last word. It is, simply, Yes.
The book’s title is pronounced YouLISSease, by the way, not YOUlissease. I was taught this by an Irish professor, who said that I could mispronounce it if I liked, but, if so, I’d never get to grips with Finnegans Wake, which is all about pronunciation. I’ve found this to be true. Although still a difficult work, ‘the Wake’ becomes comprehensible if you read it aloud in a Dublin accent.
Joyce eventually stretched language to the point at which all but his most determined supporters find his work too much of an effort to read. He may perhaps have been a genius on the verge of madness. Nevertheless, what he managed to wrest from language changed the course of fiction writing forever. A much more insignificant James salutes the author – and you all – on Bloomsday 2013!