Re-Joyce-ing on Bloomsday
By MICHAEL CAINES
"Miss Dunne clicked on the keyboard:
– 16 June 1904."
On June 10, 1904, James Joyce stopped Nora Barnacle in a Dublin street. "I mistook him", she later recalled, "for a Swedish sailor." She didn't show up to meet him, however, as arranged, a few days later, on June 14. If she had, that would be the date we now know as Bloomsday, as June 16 is now called, for its association with a meandering span of Leopold Bloom and the other Dublin characters in Joyce's Ulysses – for that is when they did meet again, and their passionate, complex relationship began in earnest. . . .
Fifty years later, as the date on which Joyce set the action of Ulysses, June 14 was to be chosen by John Ryan, Patrick Kavanagh et al as the moment for the inaugural Bloomsday celebrations in Dublin – at a point when Joyce was, as David Wheatley has pointed out in the TLS, "neither popular nor profitable in the land of his birth". (This is not to count the similarly convivial but less . . . posthumous affair of 1924, which Joyce was aware of.) Bloomsday is now marked, and not only in Dublin, by readings, drinkings and dressings-up, but back then a Dublin publican could assume that the revellers entering his establishment belonged to a funeral party: "Ah! the sign writer, little Jimmy Joyce from Newtown Park Avenue".
At least that's the all-too-Irish story – it's like an anecdote out of Flann O'Brien, who was one of those inaugural revellers. Many a fine story is probably to be told of Bloomsday and what it elicits from modern Dubliners. "James Joyce, is it?" The bookseller and TLS columnist Eric Korn once had this from a taxi driver as he arrived in town for Bloomsday in Joyce's centennial year. "That gobshite they threw out of the country for his dirty writings?"
The first mention of Bloomsday in the TLS that I can find in the archives is in a passing reference by the novelist Rayner Heppenstall, in 1957, to this "valuable adjunct to Eire's tourist industry", "with trips round Dublin . . . stopping at spirit stores to look at the characters". Four years later, the opening of the Martello Tower as a "shrine to the memory of James Joyce" apparently marked a new stage in appreciation, receiving considerable attention in the American press. The years have seen the tipsy ritual reach a municipally demanding scale. That centennial Bloomsday enjoyed by Eric Korn, for example, also witnessed a re-enactment of the "Wandering Rocks" chapter, "including 150 participants and a viceregal coach".
At Sandycove, meanwhile, Korn observed a "various and chilly crowd of devotees", "shaving on the gunrest, absurdly with electric razors, or toasting the day in Buck's Fizz in honour of plump Buck Mulligan". There were brave swimmers at it, too. "If I had a scrotum", one water-borne woman proclaimed, "it would surely have tightened." Another Kornish tale has Davy Byrne's Moral pub being advised to advertise a Bloomsweek special, in the form of burgundy and gorgonzola ("A cheese sandwich, then. Gorgonzola, have you?") for £2. The advice is heeded. The sign reads: "BLOOMSDAY SPECIAL: GORGONZOLA AND BOURGANDY".
The TLS was nonchalantly late to review Ulysses itself. It had covered Dubliners ("The author . . . is not concerned with all Dubliners, but almost exclusively with those of them who would be submerged if the tide of material difficulties were to rise a little higher"), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ("It is wild youth, as wild as Hamlet's, and full of wild music") and Exiles (notably reviewed by T. Sturge Moore, who had campaigned without success for the Stage Society to overcome its scruples and produce the play). It continued reviewing Joyce after that, but ignored Ulysses – bar the odd nod – until 1937, by which time there was finally an English edition to review. The novel was, by then, thoroughly notorious: "there is an appendix", noted the reviewer, "giving, among other details of controversy, the decisions of the United States District Court and of the United States Court of Appeals which allowed Ulysses to be published in that country".
(An air of scandal weirdly clung to Joyce even as his work approached the expiration of copyright. Christopher Hitchens could note in the TLS in 1987 that a New York radio station risked the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission by announcing its annual reading of Ulysses on air. "The FCC was asked to state which passages might be risky, and loftily replied that that would be telling.")
Perhaps the most significant of those early engagements with Joyce's great work came in a review by Anthony Powell of a selection called The Essential James Joyce, in 1948, seven years after Joyce's death. While marvelling at Joyce's "mastery of his medium", Powell saw in Ulysses's gleeful pastiches the evidence of a "professorial attitude towards writing and [a] temperamental unwillingness to deal with the world of action in straightforward terms". And make what you will of both authors in Powell's concluding remarks:
"By mighty effort of will – will rather than imagination – [Joyce] produced a work that carried a certain sort of writing to its logical conclusions; and if there were nothing else to be said for Ulysses it might be defended on the plea that, once given to the public, such a book need never be written again. It is a literary oddity by a gifted writer, and it is hard to see how it can ever, or could ever, be otherwise regarded. However, Tristram Shandy is also a literary oddity and it has lasted close on a couple of hundred years to date. For Finnegans Wake we feel inclined to offer no such hope."
Perhaps Bloomsday in its modern guise may be thought of as a "normalizing" response to this oddity. It has served as convenient date for both the doling-out of literary prizes and coat-tail-grabbing publications such as Picador's dubious "Reader's Edition" of 1997: "the handy, usable Ulysses that we have been waiting for . . . smuggled out of the ivory tower of the academics and put squarely into the market-place". And in 2000 Julian Rathbone could reject the pedantic notion that one needed to read the book to be able to celebrate it. Dubliners, he reckoned, could feel something beyond pride and love for this writer: "Even if they haven't read a word, they know there was a man, there is a book, that understands and knows them in all their wonderful, terrible, terrifying, pitiable and admirable loneliness and companionship". I admit that I take his point.