Literary fun and frolics in Ireland
When a consensus of literary critics named James Joyce's "Ulysses" the greatest novel of the 20th century, it was the final accolade in the ascension of a book that could not find a publisher upon its completion.
Although it is one of the most complex novels ever written, tracing the travels of Joyce's Ulysses, aka Leopold Bloom, in his metaphoric odyssey to find his way home and reclaim his wife and son, Joyce chose as the timeline for this arduous journey a single day, June 16, 1904.
Such recognition for one of their own would have been reason enough for the Irish to celebrate - if they hadn't been doing it already, every June 16, on a day known as "Bloomsday."
"My friend," Oliver Grogan, said in answer to my rather naive comment about Dubliners' dedication to such a serious - and demanding - work of literature, "we Irish, we're inclined to celebrate any little happening."
Not that Dubliners were solely dedicated to using "YOO-lis-eeze" (as they say it) as just one more excuse to party.
I was chatting with Mr. Grogan, whom I'd met just minutes before at one of the stops along the route followed by Bloom during his journeys through Joyce's take on the Homeric world.
We were having Gorgonzola sandwiches on brown bread, the lunch Bloom himself has while he ponders the metaphorical significance of various gustatory choices.
Grogan was waiting for a woman he said had been showing up here for a dozen years to present her rendition of sections of the novel.
"She reads portions to the assembled multitude?" I asked.
"Nooo, sir," he replied. "She recites."
As I was leaving, the Bloomsday Messenger Bike Rally was pulling up in front: men and ladies in period dress, riding vintage bicycles. Each was sponsored by a local company to raise money for the Irish Youth Foundation.
You can begin your day with the annual Bloomsday breakfast at the South Bank Restaurant near the Martello Tower at Sandycove on Dublin Bay, about 10 miles south of Dublin, where the novel opens and we are introduced to Stephen Dedalus, Bloom's surrogate son.
While South Bank announces it will cater to offal eaters, you may prefer to be served a typical Irish breakfast of eggs, sausage, mushrooms, tomato, toast, and jam, than the over-roasted kidney Bloom cooked up for himself.
The Martello Tower was transformed into the James Joyce Museum in the early 1960s by Sylvia Beach, whose Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris published "Ulysses" in 1922, when Joyce could find no mainstream publisher who would touch it.
Among the museum's exhibits is a magnificent edition of the novel, illustrated by Henri Matisse. There are also letters, photos, the author's death mask, and some of his personal belongings. On Bloomsday, it is one of the many sites that feature readings. I heard the "Telemachus" chapter that opens the novel.
Concurrent to the introduction of Dedalus, there is the few-blocks stroll Bloom took from his home on Eccles Street on the north side of the River Liffey to Dlugacz's Butcher shop to buy his pork kidney. Now it's marked with readings from the "Calypso" chapter by a theatrical troupe called the Balloonatics.
The Balloonatics appear throughout the day with readings at various locations around town, ending their participation in the evening at the Sirens Lounge in the Ormond Quay Hotel, with a reading from the "Sirens" chapter.
By the time of this reading last year, the room was packed.
During mid-June in Dublin, the days are long and luxurious. The sun goes down after 11 p.m. and rises about 4 a.m. As the day progresses into the sunlit evening, the Joyceans dissolve into the crowds. Even those out of costume can be identified by their ragged copies of the book sticking out of pockets or handbags.
Joyce, Ulysses, and the Bloomsday phenomenon are a great conversation starter in a city where none is necessary. But on this day each year, a word with the man or woman standing next to you will elicit a Joycean anecdote or an experience or two from Bloomsdays past.
Joyce does not belong to Dublin alone. Inspiration for much of his work was a Galway girl - his live-in lover, then wife, Nora Barnacle. At her house at No. 8, Bowling Green, a bay city on Ireland's west coast, I chatted with Irene Conway-McGovern three days after Bloomsday.
"We began our Bloomsday celebration with readings at Rahoon's Cemetery," Conway-McGovern said. "It's the final resting place for Nora's first love and the inspiration for Joyce's melancholic short story, 'The Dead.' "
True cognoscenti know about Joyce's Galway connection, and this year it attracted people from such disparate places as Germany, Russia, Canada, the US, and Australia.
"Ulysses," as anyone who has struggled through it will tell you, is a great puzzle, but a challenge that pays the great reward of delving into the mind of a genius.
It is a communal experience, whether that be serious academic study in a classroom environment or chatting about it at a pub in Dublin.
I remember asking the professor who taught my master's-degree course in Joyce whether one could be expected to pull the book off a shelf in a bookstore or library, then take it home and cuddle up with it in a favorite armchair.
"Are you kidding?" she asked with a laugh.
Some variation on that response was common as I asked young people in Dublin whether they had read the book.
Dublin has developed a reputation of becoming a dotcom city. Perhaps literary talent will degrade, as Joyce lamented in the chapter about the winds - fading with youthful concentration on things electronic and financial.
But I have to believe Leopold Bloom will never let go completely. You can hear him whispering behind the lilt of language here. You know he is waiting to reappear in some modern incarnation.
For me the glorious day ended something like ... well, Joycean. To quote the great author himself: The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace.
Amen, James, amen.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor