Today is Bloomsday, the day on which the action in James Joyce's a) brilliant; b) difficult; c) both a and b; master word, Ulysses, takes place. The date also marks the anniversary of Joyce's first "date" with Nora Barnacle, who was to become his soul mate and lover, and, far later, his wife.
Although I wasn't particularly fond of Ulysses, I love Joyce's earlier works, especially his brilliant short stories. The Dead remains, for me, the greatest short story I've ever read. But when it came to pure readability, Ulysses was fairly hard going for this reader. In addition to my preference for the earlier works, I'd rather read the Ellman biography of Joyce, and the Maddox biography of Barnacle.
Frankly, I'd rather read Finnegan's Wake, which is far less comprehensible and plotted than Ulysses, but which you can pick up at any time, at any point, and just dive in and have fun. I will add that I don't see how it can be much fun for people who don't quite have my cultural baggage. Finnegan's been translated into many different languages, and I always wonder what the Japanese, say make of it.
I can have the odd bit of fun with it, because I at least get some of the references, having:
- Been raised Catholic (in a largely Irish Catholic environment)
- Visited Ireland over a dozen times
- Taken four years of Latin
- Knowing a few words in Irish
Ah, well, not for me to question what someone else might get out of Joyce.
What the Irish - who, quite naturally, reviled Joyce in his day, with the favor gladly returned by yer man - get out of joy is a minor industry.
The Martello Tower outside of Dublin where Joyce roomed with Oliver St. John Gogarty (a.k.a., "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" of Ulysses fame) is a museum. Davey Byrne's Pub (featured in Ulysses) does a fair amount of custom from tourists. (I've been one of them. It had become something of a pick up joint by the time I got there; and I believe I got food poisoning from the oysters.) And half the pubs in Ireland have a picture of Joyce on the wall (along with Yeats, Beckett, Wilde, Shaw, et al. - time to put up Roddy Doyle, John Banville, John McGahern, and Edna O'Brien et al., I'd say).
And Bloomsday has become a big deal, with period-garbed actors (and tourists) following the Ulysses route through Dublin. In the States, too, there are celebrations -there may even be celebrations in Japan and China, for all I know.
Well, why shouldn't the Irish exploit Joyce? It can certainly be argued that he did plenty of exploiting - certainly of the Olde Sod, but also of the friends and relations (including his brother, who was also a writer) he exploited so that he could keep on being a genius. (Joyce is by no means alone in this regard. Read any genius bio, and there's someone behind the scenes making sure there's toilet paper and tea bags on the shelves.)
In any case, it's interesting to think what Joyce would have made of all the Bloomsday hoopla. I'm sure that the genius would have found it shite, while the egoist would be somewhat gratified.
More interesting to imagine what Joyce - now dead almost 70 years - would make of the Ireland transformed into a prosperous country that's taken its place among the nations of the world. Or whether - like so many of the Irish - he wouldn't quite trust it. (I understand that, now that the economy there has taken a bit of a downturneen, that many of the Irish are all doom and gloom. Why does that not surprise me?)
In any case, I will not be celebrating Bloomsday in any particular fashion, other than that I'll probably finish the Edna O'Brien novel I'm reading. (Like Joyce, O'Brien fled Ireland so that she could have a life as an artist.)
Since one of my greatgrandmother's was a Joyce, I used to pretend that I was somehow related to the great man. But, alas, James Joyce was from a family with Cork roots, while "my" Joyces are from County Mayo.
Pre-school, I did have an imaginary friend, Dooley, who looked uncannily like James Joyce, now that I think of it. Surely, as a four year old, living on the second floor of a three decker in Worcester, Massachusetts, I had no idea what James Joyce looked like when I conjured up Dooley.
For those who celebrate Bloomsday, knock yourself out! (I think I'll just go and commune with Dooley...Yes.)