The great day arrives each year to celebrate the world's great unread classic. So out comes the prose, the grog and the blarney. More than 80 years on, Angela Bennie explains why Bloomsday and the work that inspired it still matter.
There are many puzzles attached to James Joyce's Ulysses, not the least of which is its reputation of being unreadable. It might be the greatest novel in the English language, so it goes, but who can read it?
For those who can, there is no puzzle: Joyce's account of one day in the life of his antihero, Leopold Bloom, is as spellbinding as the entire history of Odysseus's journeys during the Trojan wars in Homer's Odyssey, on which it is loosely modelled.
The spell is first cast by Ulysses' virtuosic language. Rich in puns, invented words and literary and mythological allusion, it is like a new kind of "reading-music" playing in one's head, scored from some long-forgotten memory bank. Homer might have given us "the wine-dark sea", but Joyce gives us the deep, dark night sky, "the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit".
Heavenspeech in the awkward, broken accents of earth, as one critic described it.
Or it could be his equally virtuosic use of stream-of-consciousness
narrative, where characters' thoughts can begin each to their own self, then
collapse and meld together into the storytelling, creating a multiple world of
being and sensation.
Whatever the spell's first cause, nevertheless it has sustained Ulysses' reputation as being the book that changed the novel forever.
The riddles of Ulysses - its allusions, meanings, characters - have kept scholars busy for the past 80 years since its publication in 1922; if Joyce has his way, they will for centuries to come. He claimed to have filled Ulysses with enough enigmas to keep "the critics busy for the next 300 years".
At the very core of Ulysses sits one of the most refined Joycean enigmas of all, its antihero, Leopold Bloom. Where Homer has one of the great figures of Greek heroic legend as his protagonist, Joyce chooses an ordinary, Irish-Jewish advertising seller. An everyday Everyman. Why? Who is Leopold Bloom?
Today, and continuing over the weekend to Monday, Sydney's traditional Bloomsday celebrations get under way. Bloomsday is officially June 16, the day on which Leopold Bloom took his journey across the 1904 Dublin of Ulysses. For half a century, June 16 has been celebrated in some 60 countries around the world - including China - to celebrate Bloom's journey and Joyce's masterpiece.
These celebrations consist of much eating and drinking and carrying on in pubs, especially Irish ones, some fine dining in restaurants, perhaps on "grilled mutton kidneys with the smell of urine", and much talk from invited scholars and critics.
Accompanying these activities are readings of the text itself.
Sydney has taken Bloomsday to heart; so much so, that, with true Irish logic, Bloomsday is now celebrated over four days. It is no different this year. At noon today the Bloomsday festival begins with lunch at the Arthouse Hotel in Pitt Street in conjunction with the opening of an art exhibition on the theme of the now-famous door at 7 Eccles Street, Dublin, Leopold and Molly Bloom's residence, at which the famous journey began and ended.
It closes on Monday evening at the Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst, with a talk on Joyce's years in Trieste, and with the final readings of the novel.
In between are lectures, discussions, readings and performances in various venues around Sydney.
At one of these events, Ulysses' heart, Leopold Bloom, will come under the microscope. John Gatt Rutter is a professor in Italian studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne and the biographer of one of Italy's greatest writers, Italo Svevo. On Sunday, at the State Library of NSW, Gatt Rutter will offer a plausible answer to the question "who was Leopold Bloom?"
Some scholars argue that Bloom is Joyce himself, only in mature age. Not the writer Joyce (personified in Joyce's writings as Stephen Dedalus), but the domestic, everyday, husbandly Joyce.
That may well be - perhaps particular kinds of Joyces are in every character in Ulysses. Gatt Rutter would probably not disagree with this.
But he will argue that Bloom's character is not essentially Joyce but Svevo.
Leopold Bloom an Italian? So who is Svevo? The answer now becomes truly Joycean, for Svevo is really Ettore Schmidt, a friend and employer of Joyce during his sojourn in Trieste. Schmidt chose the pseudonym "Italo Svevo", meaning "Italian Swabian", as his writing persona to signify his mixed Jewish-Italian-German heritage.
Schmidt and Joyce, both struggling as writers at the time of their friendship, much encouraged each other in their attempts. On Joyce's part, he recognised in Schmidt a great writer and was helpful in finding him a publisher for what is now considered one of modernism's finest novels, The Confessions of Zeno.
On Schmidt's part, he unknowingly became the model for Leopold Bloom.
"At this stage in the gestation of Ulysses, Joyce was looking for a model of human goodness and greatness," says Gatt Rutter. "This, I believe, is what he created in Leopold Bloom. He saw something of what he was looking for in Svevo."
Of course, in the Joycean universe, what is considered "human goodness and greatness" is not as straightforward as it first seems.
"In Bloom, Joyce fleshes out what he noticed about Svevo," says Gatt Rutter. "It was his ability to tackle the full weight of life. As well, he makes Leopold Bloom a Jew like Svevo because this quality can be extended to mean 'in a global sense' as well as a personal one. "Svevo had this quality. Joyce once remarked to a friend after Svevo's death, 'Before being a great writer, he was a great man."'
Throughout Bloom's wanderings through Ulysses, he is seen withstanding his sense of rejection and exile, his experience of being an outcast in the Dublin society in which he lives, yet being fully a part of it. In his travail, he is still able to offer up his humanity and compassion as his natural response, no matter the disjunction. This then, in Joycean terms, is human goodness and greatness.
So it was with Svevo, the civilised Jewish Italian German, struggling to find his place in his culture as a writer, living on the cusp yet in the midst of a high European culture that was the Trieste of that time.
"What Bloom and Svevo have in common," says Gatt Rutter, "is that both are Jews, baptised but not observant religious Jews, internally Jewish in that sense of being marginalised, in the notion of their being permanent outsiders.
"Yet there is also in both their sense of their constant obligation to carry on a dialogue with the culture. They feel both separate from, yet part of, it."
Gatt Rutter believes that Joyce identified with this dualism, being in "exile" himself. He lived in Europe, but it was Dublin in his head and in his blood.
At the time Joyce knew Svevo, he was struggling with his "work in progress". He had written about three chapters and was experiencing a bad case of writer's block. He sought Svevo's advice.
"Svevo told him plainly that he had to rise to the challenge of his subject matter," Gatt Rutter says.
"He told him you can only write about strong subject matter. The everyday is not strong subject matter. So there is this tendency to beef up the writing, so that the ordinary everyday activities gain in importance.
"The challenge is to write about the everyday as it is, to find the language of the ordinary. Then it becomes great subject matter. Your challenge, he told Joyce, is to find the language."
Joyce rose to the challenge. He found the heavenspeech that is our life as we live it. Leopold Bloom wanders through Dublin and the great epic of the everyday is enscribed into legend.
Created: Tuesday, July 5,
2005; Last Updated:
Thursday, August 06, 2015
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