Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Bloomsday at Home

Two years ago I was lucky enough to be in Dublin on June 16, Bloomsday--celebrated by Joyceans the world over as the day Ulysses was published, and it appeared on that day in 1922 because June 16 was when James Joyce first took Nora Barnacle out for a walk. So there was a Bloomsday Breakfast at the James Joyce Society, featuring a prok kidney of course and black and white pudding and even a few other things that Eileen would consider consuming. There were talks on Joyce and a tour of Joycean sights--7 Eccles St., Bloom's home--and Belvedere College, where Stephen Dedalus studied--were two. There was also a one-man, two-hour rendition of Ulysses in a pub basement. And we stayed at the Gresham, not quite as snazzy, I suspect, as when Gabriel and Gretta stayed there in The Dead

This year, the annual reading of Ulysses I attended on June 16 occurred online. This reading covers a 111-page abridgement of the novel, and it started late. It took more than four hours--the whole book takes most of a day or more. I had attended this last year when it was at American University, but this year I had volunteered to read. I get a chance to read Joyce aloud on the first Thursday of every month at the meeting of the Capital James Joyce Group, now meeting online but otherwise at Politics & Prose, our locally-owned and operated bookstore.

Joyce is an author who benefits from being read aloud. He had a fine musical mind and ear, so the cadences of his prose gain in effect when heard. Although those of us assigned various sections attended a practice session a week previous, there were the usual technical problems that tend to occur at the start of every program requiring technology, both before and after the present situation.

Finally, we began. It hasn't taken too long for me to become very exhausted with meetings and lectures on Zoom, and this would have been no exception except that even the really dense parts of Ulysses are worth hearing and your comprehension is aided by each hearing. The high point of these annual readings is provided by Robert Aubrey Davis, who has been a classical music host on various DC radio stations. He always reads Chapter 3, Proteus, in which Stephen walks along Sandymount strand. 

To describe the chapter so, however, is to miss the many, many other subjects, allusions, and references which fill this chapter. Most readers find it especially challenging because of its complexity but Mr. Davis brings a fine accented voice to the task of presenting this material in the best way. It is a delight and it was only unfortunate that he only read half the chapter because of the ongoing technical problems.

The other readers were a mixed bag: too many people make careless mistakes and others don't know how to pronounce words in languages other than English--Joyce spoke eight languages and uses many of them, only glancingly, but it all adds up. Place names are important, too--Howth, the north side of Dublin Bay, where Bloom proposed to Molly, is pronounced HOE-th, for example.

They finally got to me, for I was assigned two sections of Chapter 11, Sirens, which takes place in the hotel bar of the Ormond Hotel, which I remember walking past in central Dublin near Trinity College, but much of the south side of the Liffey is near Trinity College. Among Joyce's themes in this chapter is music, and traditional Irish songs are sung by the men in the barroom. The scene opens with the two barmaids, Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy, conducting their mostly oral sparring with the men--in 1904, they were the only women in the barroom. Bloom appears but remains apart from the group, partly because he sees Blazes Boylan present, whom he knows will be shortly having an assignation with Molly that afternoon.

This was a comparatively challenging chapter to read, and I felt I acquitted myself well. I enjoyed it, tried to get into the spirit of the text, and made good efforts to pronounce the occasional almost unpronounceable words Joyce includes to capture some sounds. I'm not sure everyone was familiar with the close of the chapter, where, timing it to the noise of a passing trolley car, Bloom on the street passes gas, I'm told my rendition was credible.

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