Thursday, 10 January 2013

Leo for a day

 Journey #9: to the maternity ward

“Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother's love is not” 

 ― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Portrait of James Joyce as a young man

If you've read my previous posts, there's probably no need for me to tell you what the novel Ulysses is all about.  I'm sure by now you're murmuring to yourself: "Yeah, yeah...I know...Ulysses isn't about ancient's about a 38-year-old Jewish marketing guy named Leo Bloom who walks around Dublin for a day." 

You probably also recall that Leo Bloom has been characterized as the most complete personification of a human being in all literature. Almost every thought that floats through his head spills onto the page -- and the reader attains an unmatched level of insight into the mind of this common, yet oddly heroic, fictional character.

Yet the incredible spotlight James Joyce shines into the thoughts of his characters isn't the only marvel of Ulysses - the genius of Joyce expands exponentially once you appreciate the remarkably creative writing styles he introduces in each chapter.

For example, there's a chapter in Ulysses called Oxen of the Sun which takes place in a maternity ward.  A woman named Mina Purefoy has been in labour for three days, and Leo Bloom visits her in the hospital.  After he arrives, he mingles with a group of others who have congregated in an office.   Some are concerned about the expectant mother and child - others just want to hang around and drink.

Oxen in the Sun is one of the most ambitious and creative chapters in Ulysses -- and that's saying a lot.  

In it, Joyce sprinkles his pixie-dust by parodying 20 different writing styles in the chapter -- one following another in chronological order -- in a manner that parallels the gestation and evolution of the English language.  

If it sounds is. 

It's also breathtakingly brilliant...once you figure out what he's doing.

At the outset of the chapter, it's almost impossible to follow the narration -- but don't worry, it's meant to be indecipherable. 

Joyce then shifts to writing in an early Latinite prose (which you're also not expected to understand) - then moves to a medieval prose using an ancient pallete of words and phrases. As the chapter progresses so does his writing style -- on and on. He evolves by leaps and by generations as he nimbly moves through the writing styles of writers like Daniel Defoe, Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Dickens, and every couple of paragraphs he shifts gears again and again - upwards and onwards. 

If you're not familiar with the evolution of the English language this gymnastic feat will undoubtedly go right over your head.  But if you're an English Lit major your jaw will drop in utter amazement.

What's also astonishing is the way Joyce links the evolution of the English language with the gestation of an unborn child (remember, he's in a maternity ward).*  

And when you consider the chapter is based loosely on an episode from Homer's Odyssey -- you add layer upon layer of additional complexity.   (You can read more about how Ulysses links to The Odyssey in one of my earlier posts).

After reading this chapter you'll almost want to put the book down and stare off to space in sheer amazement and exhaustion.   It's almost as if Joyce wanted to give readers the feeling that they just gave birth to a newborn after three days of agonizing labour.   

It's an awe-inspiring feat.  It's daring, brilliant and so, so original.

Now you might be thinking "wait a minute..this blog is supposed to be all about your journey with James Joyce -- what does all this have to do with you?"

Well, I'm glad you asked...

My wife gave birth to our third child just over nine years ago.  When a child is born in the Jewish faith, it's customary for some Jews to name their baby after a recently departed relative and thereby honour the memory of a loved one. 

So we needed a name for our son.   

Years before me were married, my wife's grandfather passed away and his name was...wait for it...wait for it...: Leo!

So, after our son was born, my wife earnestly looked up at me from her hospital bed and told me she favoured the name "Leo" for our son.  How about that?  She wants to give him the same name as my favourite fictional character: Leo Bloom. 

This is terrific, I thought as the chorus from Ode to Joy ricocheted through my head, we're going to name our son after Bloom.   

So I looked lovingly and reassuringly at my wife (who couldn't care less about Joyce) and said:

"If you really want to name our son 'Leo' - fine with me."

And we named our son Leo.

That night, my wife and I both went to sleep with the warm realization that we'd each named our child after someone we admired and respected.

Only one was dead - the other fictional.

The next day I returned to the maternity ward.  While outside my wife's hospital room, I bumped into an old law school buddy of mine, Geoff, who's wife also just had a baby.  After we congratulated each other, he told me his newborn son's name was "Christian Andrew" -- a solid and impressive name that evoked images of a fine, respectable man, perhaps destined to be a judge, or mayor or a surgeon. 

I told Geoff that we named our son "Leo Sherman" -- and as the name slipped past my lips, I could only imagine my son growing up to look like Len Lesser, the obnoxious Uncle Leo in Seinfeld. 

Jerry Seinfeld and Len Lesser (Uncle Leo)
The tone of my voice must have conveyed a sense of discomfort as my son's new name rolled off my tongue the wrong way.  As I stepped back inside my wife's hospital room, she was shaking her head back and forth.

"I heard," she said. "We need a new name for the kid."

I pulled out my blackberry and we rifled through a list of names we were considering - and when we came to the name "Jonathan" - she paused and shouted: "Stop!"

Although Jonathan wasn't my first choice - I admitted to her that the moment our son was born I thought to myself "Jonathan's here," and I wasn't kidding.  

That was it - we renamed our son Jonathan - and today, the name fits him like a glove.  But even though he's a perfect Jonathan, he still loves the story about how he was named Leo -- at least for a day.



Nine years have passed since Jonathan was named and renamed.  Today, he's got and effervescent personality that lights up a room and a wicked sense of humour -- we've often said he'd make a great comedian someday.  Come to think about it...perhaps he would have made a great "Leo" after all.   What do you think?

Leo for a day

Len Lesser as Uncle Leo 

Sadly, the wonderful actor Len Lesser passed away almost two years ago at the age of 88.  Rest in peace, Len, and I hope that your family honours you by naming future generations after you.  MS


*  Just as the fertilized eggs start off as an indistinct cell that rapidly multiplies - the first words in the chapter don't make any sense - but they repeat themselves.  Just as an embryo begins to develop, the language in the chapter starts to morph and take on a semi-familiar shape.  As the foetus grows you can almost start to make out limbs and features - just like the language in the middle of the chapter takes on somewhat better defined features.  As the foetus matures - the language starts to make sense - and ultimately, as the child is ready to be born, things turn stressful and traumatic. As Mina Purefoy's birthing process progresses, the action, dialogue and writing style of the chapter turns utterly chaotic. After the baby is born the characters burst euphorically out of hospital onto the street in an explosion of hyperactivity and euphoria.

1 comment:

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