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Dr Skogg’s Bloomsday: Martin Johnston and James Joyce

Martin Johnston’s novel ‘Cicada Gambit’ (1983) is probably the earliest work of fiction to use Bloomsday (the 16th of June) as an essential element of the story. Set in Sydney, it is an integral part of the history of Bloomsday celebration in Australia.

 The first mention of ‘Ulysses’ in the story is at page 41. It is a surprise appearance. The narrator talks about “narrative thread” and “Greek ideas and associations” before saying “I still cannot tell for certain whether James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ had any part to play.” Then proceeds to talk about something else, though he does speak of “the second of these episodes”, which hints at least at the idea that the book deals in episodes, just as in Joyce’s novel. The reference occurs in the second chapter, as though Johnston is starting to drop clues. We are henceforth on the lookout for Joycean cues.

 Bloomsday itself is introduced two-thirds of the way through the story, at Chapter 16, ’Control of the Centre’, continuing across Chapter 17, ‘Touched Piece’. (All chapter titles use expressions from chess.) It is the 16th of June and a Sydney academic by the name of Dr Skogg is preparing for his annual solo Bloomsday. Skogg’s Dublin is Sydney and his literary celebration of the day is all in his head. He plays all the characters, something different from the social event as it has come to be known worldwide, where group sharing is a primary motive of the day’s festivities. He re-enacts a literary ritual of one. Possibly Skogg is friendless, with no one to share his annual pastime, though Johnston is also making a point about how any novel reader is playing all the characters during the reading of a book, including and not least ‘Ulysses’.  

 Readers of ‘Ulysses’ instantly recognise why Skogg prepares a breakfast of what is unpoetically described as “offal”, in honourable emulation of Leopold Bloom’s more rhythmic “the inner organs of beast and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes.” (Joyce 48) Skogg’s breakfast is made to sound grossly unappetising, in comic contrast to Bloom’s hearty if unkosher start to the day. Later we find him in the Wessex Hotel, a pub near Circular Quay, where he connects with Vlastos and starts plying him tipsily and somewhat overbearingly with inexplicable questions. Vlastos, the primary narrator, cannot understand why Skogg asks has he read ‘Hamlet’, for example, and does he want to go to Kings Cross? But readers of ‘Ulysses’ understand instantly. Skogg wishes to relive the episode in the National Library of Ireland where Stephen Dedalus delivers his theories about Shakespeare and ‘Hamlet’, even if the location is a seedy bar of downtown Sydney. Skogg would like to visit a brothel with Vlastos, the main reason being that Vlastos can there play Stephen to his Leopold Bloom and so complete one of Joyce’s crucial cyclical themes, the meeting of the lost father with the lost son. Misunderstanding reigns and none of this will happen, due to mutual miscomprehension and Skogg’s increasing state of inebriation.  

 The Bloomsday section of ‘Cicada Gambit’ is a satirical way of portraying an academic adrift in his own daydream. It fits into the varying stylistic mode that tells the larger story. It heralds Johnston’s own absorption of ‘Ulysses’ and the inspired emulation of several of the features of that novel. Of which, more anon. But it is here that biography meets art in significant ways.

 Martin Johnston’s close friend Nadia Wheatley writes: “Bloomsday (16 June) was always a milestone in Martin Johnston’s year. Back in 1972, he had hosted a famous Bloomsday party at which the floor-to-ceiling  brick-and-board bookshelves had collapsed onto the assembled guests. And in the novel ‘Cicada Gambit’, there is a long Bloomsday episode involving the seedy academic Dr Skogg, who gets up that morning knowing (as he always did on Bloomsday) ‘that everything was going to go wrong’. Nevertheless, ‘he went ahead in the same way every year, obliviously expectant that just this once everything would go off perfectly.’”

 ‘Cicada Gambit’ is set in an identifiable present continuous known as the 1970s. Wheatley’s memoir confirms the period setting. More importantly, her words reveal Johnston’s propensity for self-mockery as, in a very evident way Dr Skogg is doing in most outlandish fashion the very thing Martin Johnston did annually for the last eighteen years of his life: he initiates his own Bloomsday celebration. Johnston’s self-observation of his own behavioural fixation has been applied to a character with very different reasons for reliving Bloomsday.

 Elsewhere, Wheatley refers to Martin Johnston’s negative reactions to the Sydney University English Department and its Leavisite takeover; his experiences were unhappy. In this context, it makes perfect sense to read Dr Skogg as a satirical reference to Professor Samuel Goldberg, Australian literary critic of Joyce and central promoter of the Leavis school in the Sydney Department. This surmise is supported by the character’s two presiding areas of academic pursuit, Augustan literature of which he had written substantially, and James Joyce – like Goldberg. This is where the comparison ends for, unlike Goldberg, it is Johnston who mounted personal celebrations of Bloomsday each year with his friends. Yet, Skogg seems to be a composite of at least two different aspects of Johnston’s own character: the reader so enthused by ‘Ulysses’ that he ritualises its contents each year and the deluded and unpleasantly arrogant professor of English literature that Johnston himself may have become, if things turned out differently.

 Another reading of the Skogg-Johnston relationship is that the novelist is proposing the need for a variety of ways of interpreting a book like ‘Ulysses’, that doctrinaire or theorised ways of interpretation have their value, but are necessarily narrow and limited when dealing with literature of the scope and scale of ‘Ulysses’. The Skogg chapters raise the issue of different claims made on the book by academe, bohemia, publishing and reviewing, the common reader, and even the educated and uneducated reader, i.e. the issue of joint sharing of the work. Johnston does not try to answer the question, he simply does what novelists do, he illustrates the dilemma.  

 The way things actually turned out for Martin Johnston is more real and poignant and sorrowful in its own way, as Wheatley describes: “On 16 June 1990, Martin paid his respects to James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ by going on a huge binge with his drinking pals at the Toxteth Hotel in Glebe. After a few hours, he suffered a fit, and was taken by ambulance to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. When triage staff began their assessment by asking him what day it was, he replied (politely as always) that it was ‘Mr Bloom’s Day’. The nurses thought he was rambling. He was diagnosed as suffering from delirium tremens and pneumonia.”

 Martin Johnston died of a heart attack five days later, on the winter solstice.

 Given the deliberately haphazard use of time in ‘Cicada Gambit’, it is impossible to give a timeframe for the action. However, in the Bloomsday chapters of the novel the date is firmly set, with sentences in those chapters implying that other parts of the novel are also happening on that day. In this provisional sense, at least, it is safe to say that ‘Cicada Gambit’ is set in and around Bloomsday, a high feast day in the Johnston private calendar.

 I conclude for now by listing the several features of the composition of ‘Cicada Gambit’ that, on a first reading. are influenced by or pay respects to Joyce’s book.  

 What similarities are observable between ‘Cicada Gambit’ and ‘Ulysses’?

1.     Each chapter is written in a different style, or voice, or first-person narrator, to every other chapter. This surprise mode of episodic storytelling mirrors ‘Ulysses’.

2.     The action of each book is set in more rundown, poorer parts of a large city, whether Sydney or Dublin. Street life is on show. Distinctions of class become easily demonstrated.

3.     Greece and Greek culture are awarded high value, existing in and behind the life of each novel. In ‘Cicada Gambit’, some of the characters, including the main character Vlastos, are Greek or Greek descent.

4.     ‘Metempsychosis’ is a long word from the Greek used for comic and other purposes throughout ‘Ulysses’. Joyce has fun with other long words for the same reason, as does Johnston in his book. Vlastos, but not just Vlastos, is given to using long Greek words at unexpected moments, leaving the reader to reach for the dictionary. It is a comic ploy derived from Joyce.   

5.     Both books have one main character who is a fictionalised portrait of the artist as a young man. Unlike Joyce though, Johnston’s Dedalus figure speaks mainly in the first-person. The changing personal and creative tribulations of each of the artists are shown to effect. In ‘Cicada Gambit’ both Vlastos and Sean McIan may be read as writers finding their way towards maturity.

6.     Each artist is dealing with questions of why write, and what to write, and how to write. However, Joyce’s artist character does not suffer the same existential doubts about the purposes of writing that afflict Johnston’s characters on an almost daily basis.    

7.     Stephen, Leopold, and Molly are now, almost by convention, read as expressions (within limits) of Joyce’s personality and evolving thought. Vlastos the chess player, Sean McIan the small crimes reporter, and Dr Skogg the Joyce scholar are each representative of different aspects of Johnston’ personality and life, trialled on the page, given a life of their own beyond the author’s mortal limitations. Even the idiot savant Nicky Osgood is a poet figure who speaks for Johnston’s inner world.    

8.     Several chapters are composed in a consciously high style, reminiscent of the Nausicaa and Eumaeus episodes of ‘Ulysses’. Vlastos, first language Greek, apologises early in the book for “a certain formality, a certain, how shall I put it, stiltedness in my use of the English language … It is not my native tongue,” (Johnston 13) There is a faux-naiveté in this claim, as his English, with its many surprise turns of phrase, startling subordinate clauses, and febrile vocabulary, is the work of an accomplished user of English. Vlastos’ high-sounding tone and command of a long sentence, though delivered with a kind of underlying humourous intention, is employed to signify Vlastos’ distinctive speech. This is recognisable Joycean trick.  

9.     The unruly world on show in ‘Ulysses’ is managed authorially by templates, most definitive of these being the matrix of the Odyssey and the street map of Dublin. ‘Cicada Gambit’ has the chessboard. An authorial excuse, perhaps call it a conceit, in the penultimate chapter is the excuse that all the foregoing chapters are a collection of different manuscripts found once in a suitcase.


Martin Johnston, Cicada Gambit, Hale & Iremonger, 1983

James Joyce. Ulysses. The Bodley Head, 1937

Nadia Wheatley, Remembering Martin Johnston. Online:



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