Sunday, June 16, 2013

My Personal Date with Ulysses

No, she wasn't my date, but Marilyn certainly looks rapt as she finishes Ulysses.

Today is Bloomsday, a literary festival celebrated around the world in honor of Irish novelist James Joyce and his masterwork Ulysses.  It celebrates June 16, 1904, and the life and thoughts of Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew, his wife Molly and a host of other characters both fictional and real from 8 am on that morning to the early hours of the next day. 

Joyce set his novel on June 16, 1904 because it was the occasion of the first date between Joyce and his future mistress and wife, Nora Barnacle. 

Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, the eldest of ten children.  He was educated at Jesuit schools before enrolling at University College on Stephen’s Green where he studied modern languages at a time when Irish nationalism was spurring a renaissance of national culture and literature. 

Upon graduation he went to Paris as a medical student but spent most of his time drinking in cafés and writing.  He was called home for the terminal illness of his mother in 1904 during which time he met Nora. 

That August the first of his short stories was published in the Irish Homestead magazine.  In October he left Ireland with Nora in tow for a job as an English teacher with a Berlitz school in Pola, Croatia.  He would only return to Ireland for four short visits after that, and the last of those was in 1912.  The couple lived the life of ex-patriots. 

For ten years they lived in the city of Trieste where they immersed themselves in the local culture, spoke the local Italian dialect at home, and added two children, Georgio and Lucia, to the family.  Joyce contributed articles in Italian to the local press and lectured on literature. 

Joyce’s separation from Ireland crystallized his memories of it and fixed them perfectly in a set time in a way that might not have been possible had he been living there amid the inevitable changes. 

The first observation of Bloomsday was organized by the Irish writers Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien in 1954 on the 50th anniversary of the original date.  A tour of the various sites of the book was never completed when the participants partook too deeply at pubs in route.  Joyce would have approved.  Since then Bloomsday events, usually involving extended readings from the book, have been spread around the globe.  And oddly in Spokane, Washington with an annual 12K run, an event that the largely sedentary Joyce would scarcely have approved.

Want to participate?  You can start your reading from the beginning:

 STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

-- Introibo ad altare Dei
Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:

-- Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful jesuit.

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.

Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.    

My own brush with a group celebration of Ulysses came not on Bloomsday, but on a Chicago Easter weekend.

It was sometime in the early ‘70’s. Chicago was in the grips of a monumental ice storm.  A consultation of meteorological history and a table fixing the dates of that gypsy holiday would firmly fix the date.  1970 or ’71 would be my guess.

We slip-slided—literally since ice thickly coated the streets and sidewalks—over to my friend Penny’s  second floor apartment somewhere south of Armitage Avenue between Old Town and Halstead.  The “we” were young Wobblies. The mission was to read aloud from Ulysses while sipping Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey and ingesting some very powerful purple acid.  We had a little grass as well, just to keep the edge off.

It was probably Kathleen’s idea.  She was our leading enthusiast for Irish culture.  She knew the great old songs, played a small, dark Martin guitar, could beat a bodhrán, and blow a penny whistle in a pinch.  Or it may have been Penny.  She was quite literary.  It may even have been my doing, hatched over too many beers at O’Rourke’s Pub on North Avenue where portraits of Joyce and other Irish scribes watch silently as newspaper types, writers, and a wannabes like me regaled each other with lies. 

I am a little unclear as to all of the participants.  Young Dean, recently arrived from Portland was there.  I can’t imagine that Leslie and Mary—eccentric even in our circles—songwriter/singer/cat lady/lesbian/anarchists, missed the occasion.  I am sure there were others.    

We settled into the living room and began to drink, toke and read as the acid began its work.  I can’t remember if we tried to start at the beginning or someplace else like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.

After a while, I remember watching the window in Penny’s living room as if it were a movie screen.  The window stretched nearly the width of the room, which itself took up the whole front of the second story of the frame two-flat. It was no more than two or three feet high.  Lying on the floor, I could see nothing but the three bare poplars, heavy with ice, sway in the wind against a slate sky in time to the rhythms of Joycean nonsense. 

1 comment:

  1. Oh boy, those days taking acid in the Chicago winter. I remember living on Belden right across the street from what was still a seminary. Walking east on Belden just leanining into a frigid wind with a friend of mine, She finally exclaims," I believe Lord, I believe!". That hawk wind drug it out of her :)