Sunday, 17 June 2012

Blooms-Morning After

It always amuses me, the fuss over "Bloomsday", as if Ulysses had been required reading at school, and was a familiar and fondly-recalled experience for the entire English-speaking world.  It won't be long before someone thinks to make it a national holiday, and it appears printed in calendars, along with all those other anniversaries, meaningless to most of us.

I had the misfortune to study English at a university that dealt with the literature of the entire twentieth century in the first year; we studied it for an eight-week term, were examined in it at the end of the year, and then forgot about it.  Joyce, typically, might have been given a week's attention, perhaps two.  Next!  As I had already read Ulysses, and Dubliners, and Portrait of the Artist, it was one of the easier weeks for me.  I did take a look at Finnegans Wake, decided puns in Sanskrit were not my thing, and slowly backed away.

I say I had read Ulysses, but I had come nowhere near to understanding it.  I doubt many English English students ever did, though in many ways James Joyce was English literature in the 1960s and 70s, a bottomless playpit of linguistic cleverness, in which to exercise one's own linguistic cleverness.  I'm sure I wrote a perfectly acceptable essay on it, pointing out the structural links to Homer, the revelling in style-for-style's-sake (one lacked the critical vocabulary, back then, to detect the  ironic presence of the "post-modern" in the work of the arch-modernist), the multi-layered humanity, the delightful taste of the language on the tongue, the sheer artfulness of it all.

But I didn't understand it.  At all.  For a start, I couldn't have pointed to Dublin on a map.  I couldn't have pointed to "Ireland in 1904" on a map, either.  The Prof asked me yesterday morning, "Why is Bloom Jewish?" and I realised I had no idea.  I'm pretty sure I had no firm idea of what it meant to be Jewish (or anti-semitic, come to that) -- or even what it meant to be Irish -- when I originally read the book, aged 18.  (I have told you I was an idiot, haven't I?)

Well, by the end of the day I was considerably wiser.  The BBC has done us all all a service by dramatising the book in nine chunks broadcast yesterday.  What a revelation!  The cleverness fell away, and the human drama emerged, like one of those optical tricks where the apparent foreground recedes and the rabbit becomes a woman in a large hat.  The breadth and depth of Joyce's humane sympathies shone through, and I  pulled my old copy from the shelves, amazed by what I had missed all those years ago, that multiplicity of voices.  Yes, they were really there, but I had simply lacked eyes to see, ears to hear.

If you have the remotest interest in Joyce, and missed yesterday's broadcasts, then do make the effort to listen: they're all available on the BBC iPlayer.  I also recommend this article by Colm Tóibín, writing in yesterday's Guardian Review on Joyce's Dublin.  His insight into the world of "The Dead", the last and greatest story in Dubliners, is acute.  It would never have occurred to me to link Dublin, Barcelona, Calcutta and Edinburgh in the way he does -- capitals without parliaments, cultures divided by language -- but then I'm English, aren't I?

Two men drinking at a Dublin bar
Photograph: Bert Hardy/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Martin said...

Read it in the 70s. Didn't get it but kept returning to it as one might with a puzzle that's simultaneously intriguing and irritating.

I've downloaded the lot in iTunes, hoping that my experience runs along the lines of that which you had.

Martyn Cornell said...

It won't be long before someone thinks to make it a national holiday

Well, I'd be in complete favour of that, but then, Bloomsday also happens to be my birthday.

Mike C. said...


They've packaged it up into fewer downloads than broadcasts, I think, so a couple are quite long, but well worth a try.

Morton, sorry, Martyn,

Happy Birthday, you controversialist! And congratulations on getting your "own" beer -- a bit like getting your own custom Fender model...


Martyn Cornell said...

Thank you. Trouble is, I am now 60, and, much like you, I am sure, I don't feel any older than - what? - 35 at the most? 25, sometimes. Six, on bad days (or good ones). My daughter, embarrassed that her father is older than some of her schoolfriends' grandparents, tells everybody I'm 50 ...

Mike C. said...


Are you really? Blimey... I keep forgetting how old I am -- must check what the badge on my next birthday card says (and quite possibly start wearing it).

I have the same "late parent" issues, and was regularly taken for a grandparent, waiting alongside the 20-year-olds in the school playground.

I think I've already told the story of a guy I knew, our age, whose family had a tradition of *very* late fatherhood (i.e. 60 plus), and whose grandfather had fought in the Crimean War.