17 June 2007

Happy Bloomsday, June 16th.


On Friday, the 15th of June, I sent this email message to several people:
Saturday is June 16th, the day in 1904 on which James Joyce's novel Ulysses is set. It's known as Bloomsday, after the name of the principal character, Leopold Bloom, and in Ireland it's a holiday.
I got a few responses, and they prompted me to write a little more about it. This to my nephew:
I read Ulysses once or twice about 35 years ago. It's creepy to be able to say amounts of time like that and actually mean it.

There's a great old black and white movie made of it, starring I've no idea who.

I would very much enjoy it if you would keep me posted on your joint reading -- I'm very interested in Joyce and am always amazed at the depth of his work. Personally I am only capable of appreciating the surface, but this is true for me of most art. When others explain the revelations they have discovered in Joyce (or for that matter almost any good writer) I'm always amazed and educated. So please, don't be stingy.

Here's a lovely bit from the first chapter to show you what an intellectual I am, I love this:

Buck Mulligan, hewing thick slices from the loaf, said in an old woman's wheedling voice:

--When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.

--By Jove, it is tea, Haines said.

Buck Mulligan went on hewing and wheedling:

--So I do, Mrs Cahill, says she. Begob, ma'am, says Mrs Cahill, God send you don't make them in the one pot.

I found Ulysses at The Gutenberg Project, and spent some happy hours on Saturday paging through it.
I sent this snippet to a teacher:
Here, teacher, Dedalus teaches (or tries to):

--You, Cochrane, what city sent for him?

--Tarentum, sir.

--Very good. Well?

--There was a battle, sir.

--Very good. Where?

The boy's blank face asked the blank window.

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake's wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What's left us then?

--I forget the place, sir. 279 B. C.

--Asculum, Stephen said, glancing at the name and date in the gorescarred book.

--Yes, sir. And he said: Another victory like that and we are done for.

That phrase the world had remembered. A dull ease of the mind. From a hill above a corpsestrewn plain a general speaking to his officers, leaned upon his spear. Any general to any officers. They lend ear.

--You, Armstrong, Stephen said. What was the end of Pyrrhus?

--End of Pyrrhus, sir?

--I know, sir. Ask me, sir, Comyn said.

--Wait. You, Armstrong. Do you know anything about Pyrrhus?

A bag of figrolls lay snugly in Armstrong's satchel. He curled them between his palms at whiles and swallowed them softly. Crumbs adhered to the tissue of his lips. A sweetened boy's breath. Welloff people, proud that their eldest son was in the navy. Vico road, Dalkey.

This, to a friend who said he had tried and failed to read Ulysses:
Ulysses is not the most "accessible" of Joyce's works. If you would like to read what I think is one of the very best short stories ever written by anyone, and written by Joyce, and eminently readable, try "The Dead," from his book Dubliners.

Now, I'll freely admit that I love Joyce and without any rational reason for I'd guess that 3/4 of what he put into his writing goes right over my head but many years ago my old friend and High School English teacher John Hogan clued me in that the magic of Joyce is in reading his stuff aloud. He had a young daughter, Maggie, who was around 10 years old at the time, and he and his family went on a car trip somewhere. To pass the time and entertain everyone, Maggie read to the family from Finnegan's Wake.

Should there ever be a contest for the most inscrutable published work in the English language Finnegan's would have to be one of the top contenders, if not the hands-down winner. But, said Mr. Hogan, listening to Maggie read it for hours in the car, it made sense: it sounded good. It was like music, he said. Finnegan's wake is many things, and as I said, most of them I don't understand, but it is an orgy of words, just words for their own sake, and there are thousands and thousands of them, many of them made up new just for the occasion.

Joyce was nearly blind for much of his life, and the sounds of things were necessarily more important to him than their detailed appearance.
It's hard to say exactly why Joyce has always (at least since High School) appealed to me. He's Irish, and hard to understand, so perhaps that's the attraction?

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