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Bloomsday and Dear Dirty Dublin

In the New York Times this week John Williams reports:

Today is Bloomsday, when readers worldwide celebrate Leopold Bloom’s Dublin wanderings on June 16, 1904, in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. To mark the event I asked a few notable fans of Joyce’s masterwork for memories of their own Bloomsdays.

The novelist Colm Toibin recalled a June 16 several years ago when he took a break from working at home in Dublin to food shop. Forgetting it was Bloomsday, he came across a group of literary celebrants outside a pub. “I had two plastic bags of groceries,” Toibin said. “When the crowd asked me who I was, I expressed puzzlement. They presumed I was masquerading as a character from the book, and were trying to think who had two bags of groceries in ‘Ulysses.’ In the end, I used a term with which Joyce might have not been familiar — I called them ‘a shower of wankers’ — and slowly made my way home and got on with my day’s work.”

This is a carefully articulated position, not as it appears a casual anecdote. Colm Toibin is placing himself in relationship to James Joyce, not the Bloomsdayers whom he disparages in a gratuitous fashion. He describes himself as doing what an average Dubliner (he is not an average Dubliner, but never mind) would do on an average day like say um the 16th of June, just to pull a date out of the air. He is walking home with his bags of groceries, just like some character in Ulysses. It’s so mundane it deserves a sentence in the greatest work of English fiction. Except in Ulysses not many people would have had grocery bags because (1) there was scarcely any food to buy and (2) grocery bags hadn’t been invented.

Toibin’s belief that he uses a term with which “Joyce might have not been familiar” assists in distancing himself from Joyce as well. Toibin inhabits a different world of English language in time to Joyce, so by logic a separate world of literary habitation. He does not need to live with Bloomsdayers, or James Joyce.

I find the story itself implausible. The most unlikely thing about this story is that anyone in Bloomsday would bother to ask a passer-by who he was pretending to be from Ulysses. Would they really do that? They might if they recognised Toibin and concluded he was joining in the festivities. As Joyce knew, being recognised on the streets of Dublin can come at a cost, which is one reason Joyce lived most of his life on the Continent. Toibin cannot escape, but clearly Toibin has more important things to do than celebrate Joyce, like going home and writing.

This anecdote will be added to the long historical record of ‘anxiety of influence’ and ‘the long shadow’ of Ulysses that affects Dublin writers. There is a wilful need in many Dublin writers to put themselves at odds with Joyce and his inheritance. Even today. They are uneasy with the phenomenon of Bloomsday in its hometown and seem prone to fire off missiles in its general direction. In some cunning or hostile way, Irish writers contest with the reputation of James Joyce. We see it writ large in Flann O’Brien, who read the predicament very well, and goes on to this day with Colm Toibin. The fact that Toibin is in the business of ‘forgetting it was Bloomsday’ is symptomatic of the Irish literary mind. He wants to forget Bloomsday but Bloomsday won’t let him.

There is also in Ireland an observable hostility from within the literary establishment towards Bloomsday, one that we do not see anywhere else. Edna O’Brien wrote an excellent biography of Joyce, but has voiced her criticism of Bloomsday as an unthinking Edwardian dress-up. Seamus Heaney chided the people in Dublin who (at last after so long) were prepared to celebrate Joyce’s achievement in the streets, by reminding them that Joyce suffered long for his art and deserved better than this free flow of Guinness. Roddy Doyle, in typical iconoclastic style, once claimed that the book should have been reduced in size long ago. In my experience of Bloomsday in Melbourne these criticisms are negligible. Dressing Edwardian, sipping stout, wondering if a particular passage is a longeur, these are incidental seconds of time on June 16th, overrun by the larger momentum of the performances and seminars.

When I read Toibin here I cannot help wonder if Joyce is right, Dublin is full of puritanical grumblers, full of unresolved jealousies and resentments. No wonder he left. The culture of complaint about Bloomsday is part of the history of Joyce reception in Ireland and may well be linked, in ways that need exploring, with the longer history of rejection of Joyce’s own work by the city of Dublin through the twentieth century.

Toibin, it must be remembered, idolises Henry James and is highly skilful at the calculated putdown. When I read this anecdote in the New York Times, I ask who it is who really serves the long term enjoyment of Joyce, the cheerful “group of literary celebrants outside a pub” or grumpy old Scrooge Toibin? Ulysses is a comedy from beginning to end, but when I read this story I wonder who it is that gets the joke.


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