James Geary joins a crowd of James Joyce devotees on a Bloomsday trek through Dublin in pursuit of the elusive, allusive soul of Ulysses
Posted Sunday, June 27, 2004; 11.23BST | Print Friendly Version
Here I am in Dublin, under a railway bridge on Westland Row at 9:30 on the morning of June 16, 2004 — the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, the date on which Leopold Bloom makes his epic journey through the pages of James Joyce's Ulysses. Thousands of people descend on Dublin every June 16 to celebrate Bloomsday, which like Ulysses itself is a raucous, sprawling affair. There are street parties, performances, Joyce impersonators, a massive outdoor breakfast (serving—of course—pork kidneys, Bloom's favorite) and an academic conference. Knots of tourists, students and scholars crowd the sidewalks as they retrace Bloom's circuitous route through the city. Some come in period costume—the women in billowy frocks and the men in bright, striped blazers and boaters. Nearly all clutch a copy of the book, which they consult with the frequency of religious devotees. Cesare and Claudia Rimagnoli, an Italian couple living in Canada, had been planning their trip for some time. At least Cesare had. On their first date 20 years ago, Cesare told his future wife that he wanted to be in Dublin for the centenary. "I had never even heard of Joyce," Claudia recalls. "I thought he was crazy."
Bloomsday pilgrims are crazy—about Ulysses; for us, it's simply the greatest novel ever written. About a hundred of the literary faithful have gathered on Westland Row to take a walking tour with Leopold Bloom, a.k.a. Paul O'Hanrahan, an actor who's been performing scenes from Ulysses for the past 17 years. But my odyssey really began on the platform of a Bamberg train station in September 1989. I was traveling through Germany with a battered old copy of Ulysses as my only reading material. I had already twice tried to tackle the book, but each time quit after about a hundred pages because, well, I didn't understand a single word I was reading. Like a lot of people, I was flummoxed by Joyce's dense web of allusions and stream of consciousness style. But having been a Joyce fan since my early teens, when I was mesmerized by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was determined to crack Ulysses. And on that happy morning in Bamberg I had gotten all the way to page 283.
This part of the book takes place in and around Barney Kiernan's pub on Little Britain Street and is mostly about nationalism, though with frequent digressions on topics like horse racing, anti-Semitism, Irish trade and the physiological reasons why hanged men get erections. The mood in the bar turns ugly when a character known as "the citizen" taunts Bloom for being a Jew and a foreigner. The chapter reaches its mock-apocalyptic climax with Bloom being hustled outside into a waiting carriage as the citizen hurls a biscuit tin at him. When I reached the last sentence, a magnificent parody of the language of the King James Bible—"And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe's in Little Green street like a shot off a shovel."—I laughed out loud. Hey, I thought, this book is really funny." - in TIME