People flocked from all over to Sandycove, south of Dublin, wearing their antique linens and boater hats, shading themselves with parasols and champagne, all primed for a bit of literature and witty wordplay. They came to the Martello Tower to hear clear Irish voices read from a book about a single day that took place 100 years ago, the story opens here. An entire street was blocked off to serve breakfast to the antique crowd a buffet including the urine-scented kidneys that Leopold Bloom enjoyed so long ago (“chewing with discernment the toothsome pliant meat”). Undoubtedly, you’ll have heard of that famous book by James Joyce, Ulysses, and the breakfast of innards and the journey through Dublin?
With the meal of kidneys safely consumed, the faithful traipse around Dublin loosely following the steps of Leopold &co, with usually a bit more Guinness (to wash away the taste) and their tattered, dog-eared and broken-spined copies of the book in hand. In the spirit of re-enactment and celebration, Dublin is playing host a series of ongoing exhibitions of thematic art and photography, manuscripts and film screenings of Bloom, the latest cinematic interpretation of the book, street theatre on the day, and guided walking tours with speakers in black caps and linen shirts and the general look of the poor and unwashed Dubliner. Enough to make a day of it.
For this one day Joyce is like a god to Dublin. Bloomsday is his monotheistic (or should that be monolithic) day of worship (more so than poor Bloom). All this, of course, at the expense of the lesser deities, the Becketts and Behans of Irish literature who are relegated to various all-saint’s days on the cultural calendar. But, if you’re a writer working in the shadow of Ulysses (so grandly, maddeningly epic and overwhelmingly detailed), you’d understand it’s best to step back and grant Joyce his day in the sun. And praised be the saints, it was scorchingly bright like a Greek summer’s day, this Bloomsday.
Bloomsday is now literature’s celebrity event. As Vienna owns Mozart, so Dublin owns Joyce. But I think that in his acute planning and foresight for Ulysses, in his conviction that the city could be rebuilt from the novel alone (this should give you an idea of the scope of it), that it is rather Joyce who owns Dublin. The book is, strangely, so much bigger than a single day. He cunningly planned it this way; it was only a matter of time before the world caught up.
It’s appropriate, then, that Ulysses, which celebrates a city and its people, music, and history in 1904, so spectral in genre and near universal in theme, should be celebrated in any and every way, to the far reaches of relevance. If a book is detailed enough, this should all follow. Take the amount of Official James Joyce Pubs in Dublin (check inside for official placards), the manifold sponsors, lectures and events, which are only vaguely related, like the school in Dalkey (where another character, Stephen, teaches) but it, too, has its little day in the sun. At Bloomsday 100, some schoolchildren were dressed up in antique clothes, blissfully unaware of how, erm, “adult” the book can be. Shop windows in Sandycove filled with striped summer blazers from ages past, with quotes from the book and proud portraits of JJ (as we’ll call him). It all boils down to a celebration of general culture, of everyone getting involved and having a bash.
Joyce hit on an organisational goldmine by fixing the narrative date of Ulysses so forcefully in time; it’s a great advertisement. But of course the writing of Ulysses was a celebration for him too, of meeting his wife Nora. So Bloomsday stands for a celebration of Dublin by Dubliners, of a monumental book by admiring readers, a celebration of writing by writers (it’s also a great day for columnists), of the Irish by the Irish, and of academics by themselves. A veritable industry of criticism has bloomed around the book, but it doesn’t matter, because the book remains larger, heavier, and more massive than the armies of academics, their swirling papers and interpretative airs. Joyce, with deliberation and cunning, had made Ulysses a haven for scholars to get lost in, too. It took more than 40 years for the novel to see the light of Irish day (it was printed in 1922), but now that it’s here it’s here for everyone, everywhere, for all time. Let’s celebrate.
Hence it’s also ironic, proudly ironic, that very few people in Dublin have actually read it. Of all the people I’ve asked, at least, some have started but none have actually completed Ulysses. It’s a bitch of a novel, as Norman Mailer might say its writing occasionally so dense as to bewilder and its manifold styles so difficult it’ll exasperate the most devoted reader. But it doesn’t really matter. No book is as great as Ulysses. It leads to exasperating and unavoidable hyperbolic statements, as every reader knows.
Though to be fair, even the hordes of friendly tourists at Bloomsday 100 with their quirky JJ shirts and JJ mugs and fake JJ eye patches are kookily celebrating the book for literature’s sake. I was very tempted to take the anti-philistine line of hardcore JJ junkies who say: you’ve either read and pretended to understand the novel’s every allusion, reference, and punning joke, or you cannot appreciate its genius fully and sincerely and legitimately at all. It doesn’t matter, it can be enjoyed on any level and enjoyed even partially. But in this line, regarding the actual content of the book, I thought there’d be a lot more informal discussion going on at Bloomsday. I found a lot of informal drinking, but I probably didn’t hang around Davy Byrne’s Pub long enough for the intellectual gloves to come off, for the quoting academics to get hot and bothered. The point being, reading the book through to the end doesn’t actually matter. Read it selectively, take your time with it.
Further, as I stood in the crowd of Davy Byrne’s, having a quick flipper through the Cyclops chapter of the book, in which “I” and the Citizen engage in bigoted bickering with Bloom, I thought, “My god (my Joyce), I’d forgotten how social the novel actually is”. It’s a sweeping picture of a connected world, where everyone is socially engaged in a variety of ways: by rail, mail, telegram and postcard, by hearsay and rumour, music, thought and dialogue. And to represent these complex connections in writing is no mean feat it demands an absolute and generous devotion to a city and its culture. And therein, at least, Dublin represents the massive sociability one finds in Ulysses. Which alone makes it worth reading, and which also means that it doesn’t have to be read to be enjoyed, strangely. And this we indirectly celebrated.
Sure there were a few out-of-character mobile phones amongst the antique outfits, and if the event felt slightly sanitised for general consumption (where was Molly’s rickety bed and seedy monologue, the crazy jakes, the dirty thoughts, the SM and autoeroticism?) then that, too, cannot take from the social power of the book. Martin Amis mentions in his memoir, Experience that Joyce is Shakespearean in scope (meaning universal), that you’ll recognise Everyman and All Sorts in his work. At Bloomsday, indeed, I saw every kind of tourist, almost every kind of celebration (and several of inebriation, and sunburn).
There was a slightly sour tang, almost a watered-down feeling in the air, thanks to the Joyce Estate, which is notoriously particular and threatening when it comes to reading rights and permissions. Thus, we had no crazies in the park declaiming loudly and irreverently from the book (read loudly: “He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere!”); not as much public reading and dialogue as there might’ve been were it not for the vague fear of legal reprisals. Which brings up the ongoing question of the public celebration and ownership and the associated vague ironies. The Irish government forked out big money for original JJ manuscripts as part of an exhibition at the National Library (also a setting in the book) and then the government also had to pass special and delicate copyright legislation so the people could actually see it.
But again there’s that foresight: Joyce planned and anticipated this somewhat if not literally then in social realism . He didn’t call it “Errorland” lightly. I think Joyce’s claim that Dublin could be rebuilt from his book is a little disingenuous but it’s spot on when it comes to describing the social tenor Ireland, the characterisation of her people. The social picture Joyce renders in Ulysses is so complete (exhausting, even), so humanely diverse and contradictory, that we’ll always have this sense of the full Irish social spectrum.
If Dublin should disappear, we’d still have enough information from his narrative to create a rich culture in all its contradiction and flair. And by virtue of the book’s aesthetics and humanity, this would above all be a humane and intensely experienced society. The buildings of a Dublin reconstructed in this way might not come out right (let’s indulge the metaphor), and the dress-sense would be even more inconsistent. The current buildings and the tramlines of Dublin are contradictory and badly planned, anyway. It’s the people, the social discourse that come across so clearly, and which leave the impression of a real and connected society, even centuries from now. Wart, puns, ironies and all.