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Bloomsday Novels 1989 (American): ‘The Death of a Joyce Scholar’ by Bartholomew Gill

One of the novels written about by Philip Harvey for his paper (‘A Hundred Bloomsdays Flower : How Writers Have Remade Joyce’s Feast Day’) on Bloomsday in Melbourne, 16th of June 2023 and read at the annual seminar upstairs at the Imperial Hotel, corner Bourke and Spring Streets in Melbourne, on Sunday the 18th of June. 

The theme of the death of the author is transfigured in Gill’s Peter McGarr detective mystery. The scholar, who is found dead from a knife wound in a laneway at the back of the Glasnevin Cemetery soon after June 16, is described as having an uncanny resemblance to the author himself, as though the best way to get over the anxiety of influence generated by Joyce is to kill off a lookalike of him. This scholar is about to launch a new Joyce study with the pretentious title ‘Phon/Antiphon’ (the slash denotes its academic provenance) and though a professor at TCD, he lives (or rather, lived) in a reconverted warehouse with his wife and nine children in the Liberties. Comic contrasts abound as a cast of Dublin types, most of them with a motive for murder, populate the pages. Central is McGarr himself, head of the Murder Squad of the Garda at Dublin Castle, a quintessential Dubliner yet who, much to his wife’s amusement when she finds out, has never read Ulysses. At one stage, he ponders his investigation of those responsible for the death of the Joyce scholar, Kevin Coyle, as follows: 

It was beginning to irk him that so much of what seemed increasingly important in the Coyle case came cloaked in literary obscurity. Could the whole world be divided into those who had read and understood Ulysses, the rest of Joyce, the novels of Sam Beckett, and the works of Kevin Coyle, and those poor benighted, inconsiderable groundlings who did not? (Gill 147) 

You can see why McGarr is a detective. He asks all the right questions. Dublin itself is thus divided into those who have read at least some of Ulysses, and those who have not. Also, importantly if you are a Dubliner, you have to have an opinion about Ulysses, at least one if not hundreds. 

For our purposes today though, Kevin Coyle, the murder victim, was the invited drawcard of a commercial venture known as Joyce’s Ireland and Bloomsday Tours Limited, operating out of Nassau Street. In other words, he was the brains fronting an outfit interested in cashing in quick on the popularity of Bloomsday. Indeed, everyone in this story is out for some cash in a hurry, just one motive for murder, that in this book includes sexual favours, professional jealousy, academic politics, mistaken identity, familial connivance, business rivalries, pathological violence, insuperable arrogance, drunken stupidity,  and simply the opportunity so to do, murder. I will leave you to figure out who did it, and why, at your leisure. 

In this book, Bloomsday is a commercial proposition, a means of separating tourists from their dollars, given that by 1989 Joyce is turning into one of the city’s main attractions. Initially the investigation is troubled by the thought that the culprit may be a “foreigner … [who] had come to Ireland specifically for the Bloomsday event [and] might well have already left the country.” (Gill 68) The detectives later find that Bloomsday Tours have “all eighty-six names and addresses on disk” (probably a floppy disk) and that a printout could be provided of all “seventy-three who live outside the country.” (Gill 94) We can see why the novel itself is a Bloomsday selling device for American visitors.    

We are told that “on the day before the morning on which [Coyle] was found, a colleague from Trinity had employed him to act as a kind of narrator/actor in the yearly tour that the professor organized for literati and other interested parties …they had been wont to conduct their guests around Ulyssean Dublin, frequenting mainly pubs.” (Gill 35) This tour, Gill calls it a “literary holiday”, visits the sites of the book – the Martello Tower, Sandymount Strand, Eccles Street, Davy Byrne’s “moral hotel” – but not by foot. “The bus is a lovely big thing with plenty of windows, soft stuffed seats, air-conditioning,” in which Kevin Coyle recited relevant passages and offered commentary. This went all day, concluding at McGarrity’s Lounge Bar where according to a witness Coyle “removed the Dedalus boater and his glasses and donned a lady’s shift and sleeping bonnet and gave us Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.” (Gill 83) This is not the only book that references Bengal Terrace in Glasnevin, the “murdering ground” where the Childs brothers murder was committed in 1898, a case that is referred to several times in Ulysses itself. It is in this vicinity that Coyle’s body is found, with a single knife wound to the heart. The nexus between academe and popular urban life is drawn by the author, the balance of high and low brow that drives every page of the novel. But Bloomsday is done in comfort. 

Another charming aspect of this story is how Gill describes the reading experience of Ulysses for different characters. This is especially poignant with Peter McGarr, who must now read Ulysses in order to understand the suspects in the case. We are in the position to hear him experience Bloomsday in words for the first time. The following is just one of several delightful passages that trace McGarr’s reader responses. 

In his earlier attempts to read Ulysses, McGarr had discovered that the only availing approach for the novice reader was to consult the “guide” often and in depth. But he now found himself forgetting the many allusions to symbol, history, and myth and merely “listening” to the words on the page, much as he would listen to a piece of music.

It was a peculiarly Irish song, he understood from the first page, and a particularly Dublin ditty – now melodic and fine, later rough and raspy, then rambling and vague and what McGarr thought of as ethereal, counterbalanced by a focus as sharp and unsparing as any microscope. From the books that a certain literary martinet of a schoolmaster had forced upon him long before, and from years of recreational reading, he understood that Ulysses must have been for its time and was most probably still a tour de force, containing more literary devices than he could name or explain. He couldn’t keep himself from concentrating on the “voice”, or rather the “voices”; they were whispering and singing and chanting and cursing and praying and now stating bluntly in journalese or implying in ad lingo or slyly insinuating, like a whisper in the ear, propositions, avowals, invocations, promises, directives, observations, and whatnot, all in such a heady, ever-changing concoction that after several dozen pages McGarr decided it was more than mere song.

The novel reminded him of the complex weave of voices raised in complaint, laughter, song, noise, and lament that he had heard all his life in one or another Dublin licensed premises, which could not have changed since Joyce’s era.

(Gill 176)  



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