Monday, 31 December 2012

Dear Dublin


"When I die Dublin will be written in my heart."
-- James Joyce


A few years had passed since I'd first picked up a copy of Ulysses, and I was becoming familiar with Joyce's writing style.  He wrote as if the reader instinctively knew the Dublin of 1904.  Every street and building he wrote about was real, or rather, was as real as it had been on June 16, 1904.

There are so many references to Dublin's streets and buildings in the pages of Ulysses that Joyce once joked that if Dublin were to be destroyed by some catastrophe, it could be rebuilt brick by brick, using his novel.

Joyce wrote about Dublin the same way an author would write about New York City or Paris today.  If a character visited the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, there would be no need to describe the appearance of these landmarks.  Most people would automatically conjure an image of them in their minds.  It's the same thing with Joyce's Dublin: he didn't feel it necessary to describe Dublin -- he just put it all out there.

At first I found Joyce's approach to writing about Dublin unsettling -- particularly since I had virtually no mental image of Dublin.  So I dug up an old atlas of the British Empire that included a Dublin street map, and tried to figure out where the action was taking place.  After reading Ulysses a few times, I was starting to develop a fairly detailed two-dimensional map of Dublin in my mind, and I was eager to travel to Dublin and see what the city really looked like.

In 2006 my wife and I took an eight-day holiday in Ireland.  We spent our first three days in Dublin, and after that, drove in a semi-circular path around Ireland's southern coast, spending nights in Dunmore, Cork, Kenmare and Galway, and returned to Dublin on our last day to catch our plane home to Canada.

On our first day we arrived at a hotel in the Temple Bar area of Dublin, and I was excited to finally get a chance to experience the pages of Ulysses in 3D.

There was only one problem....while I was planning to devote three days in Dublin to seeing the streets and buildings I'd read about in Ulysses, my wife just wanted to tour Dublin's sites and do some shopping; she had no interest in James Joyce whatsoever.

The first day, she humoured me.  We went to the James Joyce Centre on North Great George Street, and toured the wonderful museum.  We saw original door from 7 Eccles Street, the house that the Bloom's lived in, portraits of the Joyce family and a copy of Joyce's death mask.  It was terrific.

A copy of Joyce's death mask
After that, we walked to 7 Eccles Street to see where Bloom lived.  Big mistake!  Eccles Street is a tiny, unexceptional street with a few townhouses on it.  I tried to make it sound historic and profound, but even I had to admit, it wasn't much to see.  By then, my wife had enough with James Joyce.  She wanted to do some real sightseeing and shopping.

"OK, I've had enough James Joycey stuff," she said. "Now let's tour the city." 

Fortunately, things worked out for the both of us.  My wife absolutely adores exploring new cities and taking long walks -- so I suggested we stroll over to the pedestrian shopping district and visit the museum. 

We walked over the O'Connell Bridge and took Westmoreland Street to the Grafton Street pedestrian shopping district.  After that we turned on to Duke Street and stopped by Davy Byrnes for lunch (She knew something was up when I ordered a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich for lunch, but by then she was enjoying the walk and didn't care that we were following Bloom's steps in the Lestrygonians chapter).  After that we took Molesworth Street to Kildare Street and toured the National Museum.  

The next day, we took some fascinating long walks around Dublin, including a beautiful stroll on Sir Rogerson's Quay, down Lime Street to Hanover Street, via Lombard Street to Westland Row, where I ducked into Sweny's drug store to buy some lemon soap.  As long as I didn't talk about James Joyce, and the path was interesting, she was happy to walk anywhere in Dublin.  

Over the course of our three days, we walked through most of Dublin's downtown.  We visited Trinity University, saw the remarkable Book of Kells, visited the National Library, and took tours of memorable sites like Dublin Castle, the Guinness factory and Kilmainham jail.  

James Joyce and me in Dublin
One thing we didn't do in our first three days was visit the Martello tower mentioned in the first chapter of Ulysses. However, when we returned to Dublin after touring the south of Ireland, we had just enough time to take a quick DART trip to Sandycove and see tower.  My wife was reluctant to go after she heard the name of the tower (The James Joyce Tower), but ultimately, we both enjoyed our walk around Sandycove.

All in all, we had a fantastic time in Ireland.  We experienced a truly beautiful city, met extraordinarily friendly people, ate outstanding meals, saw fascinating sites, and in the end, walked on a few well trodden paths from the pages of Ulysses.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Beginning Ulysses: Stephen's past sins


—It is a curious your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve. 
-- James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce
Sure, I'd heard all the hype about Ulysses: it's a modernist masterpiece -- it's the greatest novel of the 20th century; so when I first started reading it, I approached the beginning with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.  The first lines read:

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

—Introibo ad altare Dei.”

I didn't know what a "stairhead" was, I wasn't sure what a "dressinggown" was (sounded like a bathrobe?) and I couldn't understand the Latin.  I assumed Mulligan was the main character in the book (and later discovered how wrong I was about that).

By the first paragraph, I was already lost.

I later learned that the opening scene takes place early in the morning of June 16, 1904 in Sandycove, a coastal suburb in southeast Dublin.  Mulligan and Stephen are standing on top of an abandoned military building -- known as a Martello tower -- which Stephen rented for a few nights from the British War Office.  Although the term "tower" evokes an image of an expansive building, in reality, the tower is surprisingly tiny; it resembles a squat brick rook in a chess game. The previous night, Stephen and Mulligan had slept in the tower, along with an English student from Oxford named Haines.

James Joyce Tower, Sandycove, Dublin
At the outset of the book, Mulligan starts up a conversation with Stephen, who remains peculiarly silent.  Mulligan speaks eight times before Stephen says a single word.

At first, I struggled to decipher some nuggets of wisdom from Mulligan's comments.  He's a medical student, who seems to be performing some religious rites. Surely there must be some depth to what he says.  Yet it wasn't until much later that I realized not to take anything Mulligan says too seriously -- he's a minor character and a jerk.

To give some perspective, if I were to cast an actor to play Mulligan in a movie, I'd probably go with a young Jack Black.  Just imagine Black acting goofy, spontaneously breaking out into song, reciting some obscure lyric with an intense look on his face, and plotting ways to borrow money to get high (or in Mulligan's case, to get drunk).

Stately, plump Jack Black
This pretty much sums up my view of Mulligan.

The truly consequential character in the first chapter is Stephen -- but it's hard to draw that conclusion by just reading the chapter.

In the first chapter of Ulysses, we learn that Stephen's mother recently died, and he keeps having these jarring dreams and jolting flashbacks of his dying (or dead) mother's body.  In Joyce-like style these neurotic images spill into the text without warning or introduction -- one moment he's listening to Mulligan, the next his head is haunted with ghoulish visions.

We learn that Stephen was taught by Jesuits, but has since renounced religion.  When his mother was on her deathbed, she asked Stephen to pray for her eternal soul, but shockingly, he refused.  Now he's grappling with his conscience for denying her last request.

We also learn that Stephen is recognized as being brilliant and has developed some profound theories on Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Overall, not much happens in the first chapter of Ulysses.  After Mulligan finishes shaving, he and Stephen enter the body of the tower to have breakfast with Haines.  During breakfast, an elderly Irish woman drops by to deliver some fresh milk, and Haines shows his interest in Irish culture.  After breakfast, the three of them leave the tower and walk to the harbour so Mulligan can take a swim.  On the way, Haines tries unsuccessfully to get Stephen to talk about his theories on Hamlet, and expresses some anti-semitic views. After Mulligan jumps in the water, Stephen walks away, thinking about how he will not sleep in the tower again, and how he will not return home, wherever that might be.

Stephen's approach to dealing with others can be summed up in the following three words: silence (he starts the chapter without saying a word  to Mulligan); exile (he decides not to return home, and not to sleep in the tower again) and cunning (he tries to pinch money from Haines in exchange for telling him his theory on Hamlet).

So what's the story behind Stephen?

As I later learned, to get the background on Stephen, you need to leave the pages of Ulysses, and read Joyce's first novel: "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

Joyce wrote the semi-autobiographical story of Stephen as a youth, beginning with Stephen's earliest memories and following through until he decides to rebel against the Catholic church and leave Ireland to pursue his ambition as an artist.  Ulysses takes place several years after Portrait concludes.

While I won't fully summarize Portrait in this blog post -- suffice to say it's a stunning novel.  Joyce used a remarkable technique in which the book's narrator is always the same age as the main character.  When Stephen is a toddler, so too is narrator -- and by the end of the book the narrator is as sophisticated as the grown man.  In Portrait we learn about Stephen's formative years in Catholic school, and how he later engaged in "sinful" behaviour (i.e., visiting prostitutes).  In the third chapter -- one of the most remarkable in literature -- a preacher gives a long sermon about the consequences of sin, drawing graphic and visceral images of hell which must have of scared the bejesus out of the children listening.  In the end, Stephen's analytical-self triumphs over his religious-self, and he rejects an offer to become a Jesuit priest -- ultimately leaving the church entirely.

At one point in Portrait, Cranly asks Stephen if he would do everything he could to save his mother from suffering, and Stephen said he would if it would "cost [him] very little":

In many ways, this question is a preamble to the first chapter of Ulysses, where we learn Stephen did indeed have the opportunity to ease his mother's suffering by merely praying for her soul, but wouldn't.   In Portrait, Stephen gives a hint as to why he wouldn't do it:

— I fear more than that the chemical action which would be set up in my soul by a false homage to a symbol behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration.

After I read this, I could, at least, begin to understand the rationale behind Stephen's refusal to consent to his mother's request.   Without this context, the first chapter of Ulysses would be a puzzle.

This is just one example of how Portrait provides the context and background necessary to understand Ulysses.  Without the earlier work, it would be like trying to fully appreciate the Godfather II movie without seeing Godfather I.  

I also learned that, in any journey to understand James Joyce's work, you'll need to read everything he wrote.  It's all connected.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Music in Ulysses: Part 1


"So they turned on to chatting about music, a form of art for which Bloom, as a pure amateur, possessed the greatest love..."
-- James Joyce, Ulysses

James Joyce plays guitar in Trieste
I grew up in a house filled with music and musical instruments.  My father was a professional musician who played woodwinds.  He was a regular in the pit orchestra at Toronto's premier theatre, the Royal Alexandra, where Broadway-style plays would invariably land after successful runs in New York.  He typically worked nights, and a good part of his days were spent practicing scales, exercises and tunes on his menagerie of saxophones, clarinets and flutes.  When he wasn't practicing, there was a good chance my sister would be playing her flute.  She became a professional flutist (she eschews the pompous term "flautist") and leaned toward classical music.  I pitched in, playing saxophone and keyboards.  Between the three of us, our house was overflowing with music of almost every sort -- except, perhaps, opera.  There wasn't much of that.

James Joyce came from a musical family too.  He had a fine tenor voice and played several musical instruments, including piano and guitar.  His father had a well-regarded tenor voice and his mother played piano -- music always played a dominant role at Joyce family gatherings.  If Joyce hadn't become a writer, he could have been a professional musician.

Joyce created a musical household for the central characters in Ulysses: Leo Bloom and his wife Molly. We first meet the couple in the fourth chapter (known as the Calypso episode), where we learn Molly,  a professional singer, is planning a concert tour north of Dublin.  She tells Bloom that she'll be singing two songs on her tour, one of which is La Ci Darem La Mano (I'll discuss the other song, Love's Old Sweet Song, in a future post).  No doubt, Molly spent plenty of time practicing this song because it reverberates in Bloom's head for most of the day.

In my earlier blog, I wrote about how Joyce included his characters' unfiltered thoughts in the text of Ulysses; he held nothing back.  If characters had songs resonating in their minds, no doubt the lyrics and melodies would pop up in the text, usually haphazardly.

Later that morning, as Bloom walks through the streets of Dublin, he starts humming:

       "La ci darem la mano
       La la lala la la."

To someone who isn't familiar with the Don Giovanni aria, or who doesn't speak Italian, this passage must be a mystery.  Yet after you hear Luciano Pavrotti and Sheryl Crow (!) sing the aria, it comes alive:

Right after Molly tells Bloom she'll be singing La Ci Darem, Bloom's mind starts swirling with questions about whether she'll get the lyrics right; he thinks:

    "Voglio e non vorrei. Wonder if she pronounces that right: voglio."

Ironically, Bloom gets the lyrics wrong. When you click on the video above, you'll hear Sheryl Crow sing the lyrics correctly:

      "Vorrei e non vorrei"

Bloom's error was clearly intentional on Joyce's part.  Joyce was fluent in Italian and there's no way he'd ever get it wrong.  Later in the book, Bloom realizes the word "voglio" is wrong, but the word sticks in his head for the rest of the book.  This is another example of Joyce's commitment to absolute realism: people are always messing up song lyrics, so why shouldn't fictional characters make mistakes too? Similarly, real people have catchy songs running through their heads all the time, so why shouldn't characters in literature get ear-worms as well?

Other songs from Don Giovanni find their way into Bloom's mind.  He spends time during his lunch trying to figure out the words from the final scene of Don Giovanni ("Don Giovanni, a cenar teco"), and gets stumped on the meaning of the word "teco."  The song rolls around in his head, he does his best to translate it (although he's not quite successful), and eventually, the song fades away.

La Ci Darem La Mano is just one song in a symphony of music contained in the pages of Ulysses.  The Sirens episode is dedicated almost entirely to sound and music.  In it, a slightly drunk Bloom eats lunch in a crowded pub in the Ormond Hotel near the River Liffey, while a group of singers and musicians fill the room with a musical haze.  It's almost impossible for anyone to decipher what's happening in this episode without first listening to its music (which I will address in a later post).

Not too long after reading Ulysses, I purchased a CD of Mozart's light opera, Don Giovanni, and enjoyed it immensely.  It was probably the first time I'd ever listened to an opera.  Over the years, my wife and I started attending opera (including a wonderful performance of the Magic Flute in Prague), and now I appreciate the beauty and emotional impact of operatic music.  I owe my new fondness for opera to my catalyst: James Joyce's Ulysses.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Bloom's Odyssey: more than meets the eye


"Never know whose thoughts you're chewing." 
 James Joyce, Ulysses

A classic movie poster for Homer's Odyssey

Now we get to one of the cleverest aspects of James Joyce's Ulysses.  

In my earlier posts, I wrote that Ulysses wasn't about Ancient Greeks -- and that's certainly true -- to a point.   

At face value, Ulysses is about a Jewish adman named Leo Bloom who journeys through the streets of Dublin on a single day: June 16, 1904; but there are deeper dimensions to the novel.     

Behind the scenes, Joyce based Bloom's
 comings and goings on the structure of the epic Greek poem, The Odyssey by Homer.  Each chapter in Ulysses corresponds to a chapter in Homer's Odyssey, and most characters in Ulysses are based on parallel characters in the epic poem.

If you're like me, you grew up remotely familiar with Homer's Odyssey, but never actually read it.
I came to learn that The Odyssey was written by Homer in the 8th century B.C. and tells the story of King Odysseus's ten-year journey back to his kingdom of Ithaca after his success in the Trojan War.  On the way home, Odysseus encounters a series of adventures with a variety of gods, giants and monsters, and uses his skills and cunning to return to his queen, Penelope.  Back in Ithaca, a rowdy mob of suitors sense that Odysseus isn't coming home, and they gather at Penelope's palace to court her.  The restless suitors pillage the palace, eat Penelope's food, and demand she choose one of them to be her new king.  In the end, Odysseus makes his way back to Ithaca, disguises himself as a beggar and meets up with his son Telemachus -- together, they defeat the suitors, and Odysseus successfully returns home to Penelope's bed.

What's brilliant about Joyce's approach is that he takes this epic hero's ten-year journey in The Odyssey and uses it as a guide to write about the adventures of a common man during a single day.

Bloom is, of course, the modern-day Odysseus, who travels throughout Dublin.  Bloom's wife Molly is Penelope, who spends the day at home (and has an affair with a suitor named Blazes Boylan).  Stephen Dedalus corresponds to Telemachus, and by the end of the book, we see how Stephen and Bloom form a quasi-father-and-son relationship.  In both books -- Ulysses and the Odyssey -- the first three chapters focus on the Stephen/Telemachus characters, and the Bloom/Odysseus characters don't enter the picture until the fourth chapter.

I can just imagine how Joyce created the structure.  He must have made a list of the 18 episodes in The Odyssey, and used it as a guide to figure out what Bloom could be doing during each hour of the day. 

Here are a couple examples of how Joyce draws parallels with Homer:

Cyclops: In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus is held prisoner in a cave by a monstrous Cyclops.  When the Cyclops gets drunk and falls asleep, Odysseus takes a spear and pokes out his eye.  Odysseus escapes, and the furious -- and now blind -- Cyclops grabs a boulder and throws it at Odysseus, narrowly missing him.  In the corresponding chapter in Ulysses, Bloom gets into an argument in a pub with a bigoted Irish National, known only as "the Citizen".  The Citizen wears an eyepatch, making him a modern day cyclops.  When the Citizen questions Bloom's loyalty to Ireland, Bloom holds his cigar to his face in spear-like fashion, almost poking him in the eye - but in the end, Bloom punctures the anti-semite's arguments with his sharp comebacks.  As Bloom escapes, the angry Citizen heaves a biscuit box at him, once again, narrowly missing.

Hades: In the Hades chapter, Odysseus travels to the depths of the land of the underworld to receive a prophecy from a blind seer.  In the corresponding chapter in Ulysses, Bloom travels to a cemetery in traditional Irish style (a horse drawn carriage); at his friend's funeral, Bloom's thoughts are on death, burial and what lies beyond.

This hidden structure is similar to scaffolding used to erect a building, which is later removed without a trace once the building is complete.  Except for the name of the book, there's little actual evidence in the pages of Ulysses that this scaffold ever existed (if you're wondering why Joyce's book is called Ulysses, the Roman name for King Odysseus guessed it...Ulysses).

So, if you're setting out to understand what Ulysses is all about, it's almost inevitable that, early on, you'll start reading Homer's Odyssey.  It's one of the first stops of any journey with James Joyce -- and one that will bring you a great deal of joy.

The Odyssey by Homer, Translated by Robert Fagles
I started off by reading Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey, and it's exquisitely written.  In the oral tradition of the ancient Greeks, Homer's poem is best when spoken aloud.  So, after reading the book once, I read it aloud to my oldest son (who was then about 9 or 10 years old).  He grasped the story easily, loved the characters; we both looked forward to our nightly readings of this ancient tale.  To this day my son still clearly remembers the stories, and (unlike his Dad) has the benefit of knowing one of Western literature's greatest stories from an early age.

One more thing: not too long ago I picked up an audio version of The Odyssey performed by Ian McKellen, the great Shakespearean actor, better known as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings.  His voice is unbelievable, and he does great justice to Homer.  You can't go wrong buying a copy of the audio book, and maybe you'll discover a few correspondences to Ulysses along the way.

Friday, 21 December 2012

The troublesome anti-semitism in Ulysses

 “The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.”

― James Joyce, Ulysses

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses

It's hard to overstate the rewards of reading Ulysses.  It's pure genius, insightful, immensely creative, brilliantly written and laugh-out-loud funny.

Yet, what about the problematic anti-semitic passages in Joyce's epic work?

In earlier posts, we saw that Joyce was NOT an anti-semite.  He had a high regard for the Jewish people, enjoyed their company, studied Hebrew and the Talmud, had a Jewish daughter-in-law, and became romantically involved with a Jewish woman (as recounted in his short story "Giacomo Joyce").    

So the next destination in my journey with James Joyce is to examine why a "philo-semite" like Joyce would include such bitter anti-semitic rhetoric in his book. 

The first taste of anti-semitism in Ulysses comes in the first chapter, when Haines, a bigoted English student on leave from Oxford, says that Jews are England's "national problem."   The comment seems totally out of context, and goes unanswered by the other characters. 

In the second chapter, the anti-semitic fireworks fly.   Garret Deasy, the school headmaster and an outright anti-semite, spews venom about Jews being the "national problem."  He echoes Haines' earlier statement about England being in the hands of the Jews.  When Stephen Dedalus mildly challenges these racist views, Deasy responds:

-- They sinned against the light, Mr Deasy said gravely. And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day.

At this point, Stephen's thoughts swirl into cartoonish images of goldskinned men with gems on their fingers quoting prices on the steps of the Paris stock exchange like a gabble of geese.   What's going on here?  Where do these images come from?

This brings us to one of the most important reasons to read Joyce.  He was devoted to absolute realism -- he wanted to show the world as it truly was. His characters were almost always based on someone he knew in real life; his characters would never say or think anything that their real-life doppleganger wouldn't say or think.

The reason that anti-semitism was included in Ulysses is because anti-semitism was in the words and minds of the people who lived in Dublin in 1904.  Joyce chose to display the true nature of human beings -- their pimples, blemishes and barnacles. He would never candycoat someone's innermost thoughts -- just put them out there, exactly as they are.

To understand how Joyce writes, think of an alien coming to Earth with a machine that reads people's thoughts.  As the words and images flowed into people's minds, they'd be immediately transcribed into print.

Yet what would these thoughts look like in print?  They might appear in complete sentences and neat paragraphs -- but I'll bet that rarely happens.  Mostly thoughts would arrive in bursts of shorthand words, random phrases, unfinished sentences, incomplete ideas, flashes of imagery and reflections on the words and acts of others... just the way Joyce expresses them in Ulysses. 

That's why Stephen, after hearing Deasy's monstrous blathering, gets a head filled with a blast of stereotypically racist images.  Listening to trashy ideas is likely to fill your head with trashy imagery -- conversely, reflecting on noble ideas should have the opposite effect.

That's the magic of Ulysses.  When Bloom -- the Jewish ad canvasser -- enters the scene in Chapter 4, we learn every thought that goes through his head on June 16, 1904.  He's a kind, intelligent, inquisitive man -- yet he's got his share of hangups, which Joyce doesn't flinch at exposing like laundry on a backyard clothesline.  During that day Bloom experiences jealousies, remorse, lust, hunger and almost every other craving a man can have in a typical day.  He has flashbacks, thinks about ads, gets drunk, masturbates, gets into an argument, visits a brothel, breaks up a fight, carries out various bodily functions, and on and on...and we get to read his mind as he experiences them.

So if you've ever wondered what other people are actually thinking when they walk down the street, when they pray at a funeral, when they engage in a conversation with someone on the street or when they take a crap -- Joyce gives you the unvarnished truth.  Quite often, it isn't a pretty picture -- but it springs from life.

Just wait until we get to the stream-of-consciousness that emanates from the sultry Molly Bloom's head in the final chapter of Ulysses. I'll get to that in another post (yes I said yes I will Yes).  

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Springtime for Leo Bloom


“I don’t know what it meant to James Joyce, but to me Leo Bloom always meant a vulnerable Jew with curly hair. Enter Gene Wilder.”
 Mel Brooks  
Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel in The Producers 
The first stop on my journey with James Joyce took place long before I ever picked up a copy of Ulysses.   It started with a movie.

Growing up, my favourite movie was Mel Brooks' hilarious 1968 comedy The Producers.  I adored the timid accountant, Leo Bloom, played by Gene Wilder, who was swept up in Max Bialystock's crooked scheme to get rich by producing a Broadway flop.   

Little did I know that Mel Brooks "borrowed" the name "Leo Bloom" from the main character in Ulysses.  Brooks must have read and loved Ulysses prior to writing The Producers, because, as I later learned, his screenplay was chock full of references to Joyce's book.*    

When I first started reading Ulysses, I was surprised to come across the book's main character in the fourth chapter: a 38-year-old Jewish ad canvasser, with the same name as the Producer's character, Leo Bloom.  

Wait a minute...this bears repeating...the book I originally thought was about Ancient Greeks -- the greatest novel of the 20th century -- turned out to be a book about a Jewish marketing guy walking around Dublin with the same name as a character in my favourite movie.    

And to make things more intriguing -- similar to a Seinfeld episode -- Ulysses chronicles a day in Dublin where nothing much happens.  

Over the years, I've learned much more about Bloom.   Never mind he isn't technically Jewish.  His mother wasn't Jewish, his father converted to Christianity (twice), and he isn't circumcised.  But to everyone in Dublin, he's all too Jewish.

Bloom has been called the most complete representation of a human in literature; almost everything that Bloom says, does and thinks on a single day is included in the book.  It begins first thing in the morning on June 16, 1904, and ends late at night when an exhausted Bloom crawls into bed with his wife Molly, lying with his feet by her head and his head by her feet. 

So how did James Joyce, a Dubliner who had virtually no opportunity to interact with Jews in his youth, come to be one of the world's experts on the inner thoughts and desires of a secular Jew?     

He certainly didn't learn about Jews in Ireland.  When Joyce was six he was sent off to a boarding school in County Kildare called Clongowes Wood to be taught by Jesuits, and after that, moved to Belvedere College, another Catholic School in Dublin.  It wasn't until completing university he set off on a self-imposed exile to Trieste and Pula, where he found himself in the company of Jews, and discovered a strong affinity to them.  He became an English teacher at the Berlitz School where many of his students were Jews; he befriended them, drank with them, laughed with them and learned about them.  Years later his son, Giorgio, married a Jewish woman, Helen Fleischmann Kastor, and Joyce was overjoyed with the intermingling of the Jewish and Irish races.   

Yet while it is clear that Joyce was certainly NOT an anti-semite, many of the characters in Ulysses are blatant anti-semites.  We'll get to that in my next blog.

For now, let me return to The Producers.   Ironically, it wasn't Gene Wilder who came to personify the popular image of the Bloom character from Ulysses.     Rather, it was his co-star from The Producers, Zero Mostel.   Years prior to The Producers, Mostel starred in a Broadway play called Ulysses in Nighttown based on the Circe episode from Ulysses.   Today, when most people imagine what Bloom looks like, they think of a young Zero Mostel in a bowler.

After a long and successful run as Leo Bloom on Broadway, I wonder how Mostel must have felt playing opposite another Bloom in The Producers. 

As for current image of Bloom...put a bowler and a mustache on Sasha Baron Cohen, and "Bam!" you've got a modern day Bloom.  

*  Phrases in The Producers such as "Touch me...Touch me" come straight from the pages of Ulysses.   There's a character in The Producers called "Roger de Bris" who is a takeoff on a salacious author in Ulysses called "Paul de Kock" (Bloom's wife Molly was quite fond of his name). At one point in The Producers, an exasperated Gene Wilder asks: "when will it be Bloom's Day?" -- and a calendar on the wall of Bialystock's office showed it was June 16th (the actual Bloomsday).

Once upon a time and a very good time it was...


"I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality."
  James Joyce on Ulysses

Me and James Joyce in Pula, Croatia
This is the first entry of my blog about my journey with James Joyce.   A journey that took me to Dublin, Galway, Trieste, Pula, Paris, Buffalo and Zurich.  A journey that opened my eyes to large swaths of literature, to Irish culture, to new music from centuries ago, to British and Irish history, to religion, to colonial politics, to the stories of Homer, Ibsen, Dante, Svevo and so many other writers and philosophers that I've lost count.  And a journey that gave me an all-too-crisp vision of what it was like to walk the streets of Dublin on a warm Spring day over a century ago: June 16, 1904.

It began in Toronto's Indigo bookstore at Yonge and Eglinton in 1999, when I picked up a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses.   I turned to the first page, and by the second sentence I was already lost (what was "Introibo, ad altere Dei"?).  Further down, I crashed into words I hadn't heard before (What was "Chrystostomos"?).  There were dashes in the place of quotation marks, and concocted words like "snotgreen" and "scrotumtightening."  What was I reading?

Until then I hadn't read a word by James Joyce.  Sure, I knew he was a great Irish writer.  I figured he probably wrote about the struggles of Irish families.   But the title of the book -- Ulysses -- led me astray;  I had an image of the book being about ancient travelers matching wits and weapons with angry Greek or Roman gods.   This was nothing that I expected.

I should have put the book down and walked away.  But as I leafed ahead I came across these words "I don't want to see my country fall into the hands of German jews either."   Well, I didn't see that one coming.   I flipped ahead again and there were more Jewish references, mostly negative.   As a 38-year-old Canadian Jew, I was fascinated, confused and decided to bring the book home and figure what this book was about.

I hadn't read anything like it before.

I made it through the first two chapters of Ulysses with an inkling of what was going on.  By the third chapter, I was submerged in the bizarre spiral of internal dialogue of Stephen Dedalus, and was sinking fast.   Then came chapter 4 and a light went on.  I had a better grasp of what was going on -- and a new character entered the scene:  Leopold Bloom.   OK, I could understand most of what was happening -- and Joyce was sharing not only what Bloom said, but what he was thinking.   Sometimes Bloom would think something and say something different.  Bloom would ask questions to himself that sounded an awful lot like the questions I ask myself.  As the story progressed, I could pick up some large tracts of what was happening -- but as Bloom left the funeral about a third of the way into the book, the story started to get away from me.  There was a musical chapter, that baffled me, and from there it got worse.  The book's style seemed to change with every chapter.   There was a chapter written wholly in play-like dialogue where the characters seemed under a hallucinogenic (I later learned they were all drunk).  A chapter written as a question-and-answer catechesim, where the questioner seemed to be an alien without a frame of reference struggling to understand the simplest human events.   And, of course, a 45-page chapter that had virtually no punctuation -- which I was later to learn was Molly Bloom's famous stream-of-consciousness monologue.

I put down my copy of Ulysses -- and though I read the book from cover to cover, I was totally unsatisfied.  For the first time, I'd read a book and didn't understand a quarter of what I'd read.  There seemed to be links, recurring themes and clues within the book...but who had time to go back and make sense of them? There was anti-semitism throughout -- and I gained a new, unwanted, window into the mind of bigots. Yet the book was also sympathetic to Jews; the main character was partly Jewish -- and the other characters tended to treat him as a Jewish outsider. Somehow Joyce was able to get into the mind of this secular Jewish character and express what he was thinking and feeling; it was as if Joyce himself was a Jew.

I should have put the book down and forgotten this spaghetti-like mix of words...but I didn't.

I started to solve this puzzle and I couldn't set it down; I had to figure out what Ulysses was all about.   Yet where do you turn?  Where do you start?

This blog is about that journey.