Bloomsday in Melbourne

It started with my friend Susan posting a comment on Facebook about where she would be on June 16 – in Melbourne at Bloomsday. I responded that I was envious (after looking up what exactly Bloomsday is) and told her that I wished I could be there.
Because at that point, I wasn’t sure if I was coming back to Australia.
But then I was.
But then, she wasn’t going to be able to make it to Melbourne for the festivities.
But then, she did. And it was perfect because Bloomsday is a celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Her connection with Joyce is visceral, partly fueled by her heritage (her entire family is Irish, and many still live in Ireland). After finding the book when she was a young girl, she was immediately fascinated by it and vowed to one day understand the language she found beautiful but baffling. She studied Joyce at Berkeley. Wrote her thesis on it. Has been to Dublin. Retraced his characters’ steps.
On June 16, the day that Leopold Bloom set forth on his journey through Dublin, cities all over the world set about “re-Joycing,” presenting plays, readings, lectures, classes and so on.  Of course, there are those who travel to Dublin and duplicate his journey, in fact, that’s how the whole thing started in 1954. The Bloomsday in Melbourne Committee marked the day with a play adapted from the text of the final chapter in the novel, “Penelope.”  At first glance, Joyce’s stream of consciousness would appear ideal for theatrical adaptation. But Joyce’s Penelope, Molly Bloom, is static throughout the entire chapter, her thoughts shared with the reader after she’s retired to bed. As the director said in her introduction to the play, “A woman. On a bed. Forty-four pages.” But the adaptation worked. Five characters – including a man in lacy bloomers, chemise and corset – played Molly, representing each aspect of her character. A photo of the set heads this post.
My navigation of the tram system has improved since my last visit, so we made our way through the blustery (read: windy and freekin’ cold) Melbourne day to the Trades Hall.  The hall sits on the corner of Victoria and Lygon Streets, straddling the Central Business District and the gentrified suburb of Carlton with its trendy restaurants and shops.  It was built in the 1870s to be the headquarters for Melbourne’s trade unions, and still serves that purpose. We climbed the stairs to one of the hall’s ballrooms, directly across from another that had a stage full of band equipment on one end of the room, a full bar at the other.  We agreed that the setting, complete with the pong of stale beer and urine, was ideal for the staging of a Joyce event.
Susan is much more on top of this whole timely posting thing than I am and shared this on her Tumblr blog the next day. In the post she said, “if you have to ask you don’t get it.” I would amend that (because I did sort of ask) to: “If you have to ask, you don’t get it – yet. And want to.”
After the performance and before the lecture, we spoke briefly with Francisca (or Frances?), a lovely woman sporting short silver hair, a brocade jacket and a long plum velveteen skirt. She is one of the founders of the festival, and pointed out that 2012 is a big year. The novel has reached its 90th anniversary since publication and the heir has just lost copyright. Next year, adapting pieces of the novel won’t be such a big deal.
One of the other founders, Philip Harvey in a jaunty green and white Tattersall plaid shirt, introduced Professor John Gatt-Rutter who presented his research. The professor is not an expert on Joyce, but discussed the evidence that points to Joyce using his friend Ettore Schmitz, better known by the pseudonym and nom de plume Italo Svevo, as a model for Leopold Bloom.  Schmitz was a student of Joyce’s in Trieste and was also a writer. Joyce championed his work, and Gatt-Rutter says that he is now regarded as one of the best Italian novelists of the 20th century.
I enjoyed reading Ulysses. I “got” it. I could follow. But then I would doze off. Okay, stop laughing. What I mean is that Joyce’s characters’ stream of consciousness is hypnotic. Reading Ulysses is like driving on a long, straight highway and watching the white lines instead of the horizon. The blur is mesmerizing, and each line has its own life span as it dashes past, but looking at the lines is looking at the details instead of the greater image – a driver gets pulled in to that world of white flashes. Before you know it, you’re off the road.
Reading Ulysses is an experience in completely giving oneself to the language and inner workings of mind. (You notice that I didn’t say “the characters’ minds.”) The work is fascinating, not only for what it tells us about us, but for what it tells us about Joyce. I suppose that is true to an extent about all books, depending upon the skill with which they are constructed, but in this case, the author is ever-present.
There are times, like Bloomsday, where I feel woefully inadequate as a writer. That concern comes not only from reading the work of a master, but also from the gaps in other literary reading. I was not an English lit major, but a theater major. I did not read Joyce – I read O’Neill. And O’Casey.  And Beckett (which I guess is sort of like reading Joyce…). I read theatrical literature: plays. So thankfully, I know the story of Ulysses as told over and over by so many writers.  Best-selling novel The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Nefenegger also told the story from Penelope’s point of view, but certainly not Joyce’s Penelope, Molly Bloom. Molly is a wonder unto herself.
Since this site is dedicated to the concept of home, it’s worth mentioning that Joyce left Dublin in his early twenties and never returned, choosing instead to live in Trieste, Paris and Zurich. In fact, his remains do not reside in Ireland – his grave is in Switzerland. Ironically, the Irish government refused Nora Joyce’s request to have his body transferred back to Dublin shortly after his death. Although Joyce rejected Dublin, all of his fiction is set there.  He said that he always wrote about Dublin because he felt if he could get to the heart of that city, he could understand anything: “In the particular is contained the universal.” If it is true (as Napoleon reportedly said) that geography is destiny, then Joyce helped prove that maxim.

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