by Mike Karnes
The sun casts shadows on the marble bar, its sheen worn dull by 120 years of greasy palms and frothy brew. Denudation through inebriation. A glass tips. Beer collects in pools on the bar – the snotgreen sea. Read that somewhere. Can’t think about James Joyce without the old stream o’ consciousness.
At Davy Byrne’s pub in Dublin, Leopold Bloom famously lunches on a cheese sandwich and glass of wine in the groundbreaking novel Ulysses. The closest thing you can get to a gorgonzola sandwich these days is an appetizer of fried brie wedges with a fancy crosshatched pattern of raspberry sauce on the plate. You can still get the glass of burgundy though – or the Chilean red or the French white. And it still remains a “moral pub,” with its friendly, laid-back crowd of tourists and Dubliners – a good place for a literary traveler to reflect on one of the 20th century’s most puzzling authors over a pint.
“Getting” Ulyssesis not an easy task. In fact, it’s easily the most challenging book I’ve ever read. When I was a spry undergrad, I attempted to tackle it and failed miserably. I was more interested in drinking and mild philandering than an intricate modernist-before-there-was-modernism work that is challenging, esoteric, funny and idiosyncratic all at once. (Joyce may have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder today.) I read the first 100 pages, checking the Internet after each chapter to clear up any confusion. (Oh, Stephen’s on the beach!) But I became frustrated with all the double puns and arcane references. Eventually, it was collecting dust on my bookshelf.
It wouldn’t be until this spring when I would pick it up again, after planning a trip to Dublin in June. And I would be there on Bloomsday, a literary Star Trek convention where people dress up like the characters from the novel and recite passages or trace the steps of Bloom through Dublin.
The experience for me was quite disorienting. Regular Dubliners go about their day as tourists, hardcore fans, professors and students – mostly from nearby Trinity College – to take to the streets in period costume. Women in flowing gowns and wide-brimmed hats recite from Molly’s soliloquy. A man in a bowler hat and with fake rotting teeth (I think) played the belligerent “citizen” from the Cyclops episode. Virtually every bar or bookstore has a flyer in the window advertising some Ulysses-inspired activity. It was crowded, touristy – and if your’e not obsessive – a touch bizarre. Bloomsday is, however, a testament to the influence the novel has had, and why so many people tour Ireland’s capital with Ulyssesas their guidebook.
Joyce once said that if Dublin were burned to the ground, the pages of Ulysses could be used as a blueprint to rebuild it. For simplicity’s sake, I picked up a roadmap instead and made my way to the James Joyce Centre on North Great Georges Street (http://www.jamesjoyce.ie/). It offered a number of resources, especially for walking tours. I decided that I would visit some landmarks from the novel, but not be tied down. After all, it seemed that Bloom and Stephen’s itinerary was relatively open for the day, why shouldn’t my own? I wanted to make my own mini-epic journey through Dublin’s narrow cobblestone streets and picturesque quays.
The first place I went was Davy Byrne’s pub. Like many European establishments, the old is mixed with the new – modern-looking barstools are parked up to the antique-looking bar. You can dine on poached salmon in a hollandaise sauce while taking in murals of old-time Dublin painted by Liam Pond in the 1940s.
As Joyce no doubt knew, a couple pints can really change your perspective. As the bartender refilled my glass, I took out my copy of Ulysses and turned to what is known as the Lestrygonians chapter, which corresponds to the episode of the same name in Homer’s Odyssey. I found that if you think about the novel from a Homeric perspective, you realize that Joyce is encouraging us to embark on our personal odyssey, even if you don’t leave the town you grew up in.
The Homeric correspondence can be tenuous at times. In the Odyssey, for example, the Lestrygonians are a tribe of cannibals. In Ulysses, Bloom leaves his first lunch option because everyone is eating in such a slovenly manner. He retreats to a “moral pub,” Davy Byrne’s. Random sights, thoughts and sounds are catalogued, especially those related to digestion. For me, this chapter can be quite tricky. But for all the novel’s confusions, every so often a sentence can stop you in your tracks, hitting you like a like a fist to the forehead: “O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away.”
The way Joyce could sum up what it is to be in love just from recalling a brief memory of Bloom’s relationship with Molly blew me away. It’s almost an afterthought between Bloom finishing his glass of wine and leaving, but it’s also so much more.
Reflecting on my journey in Ireland, I began to see that too – the beauty in every moment. Ireland has entrancing scenery. The grassy hills of the countryside are just as deep-green and dewy as any American would hope from watching those Irish Spring soap commercials. And if the weather is right, you can see “the sunlight, now radiant” shining over Dublin Bay from the Martello Tower at Sandycove, where the novel begins. Even in summer, the bay does look as “snotgreen” and “scrotumtightening,” as Buck Mulligan describes it.
Joyce was captivated by all this as well when he created his masterpiece at his desk in Paris, Triste and Zurich from 1914 to 1921. I can still see the scenery now as I sit at my desk in New Jersey: A white-flowered tree growing through the ruins of an ancient stone cottage. A 1,000-year-old cross and sheer cliffs pounded relentlessly by the sea. Ancient – and quite disturbing – pornography carved into a 900-year-old castle wall. Modernly old. Profanely sacred. This is the world Joyce wrote of. He gives you clues throughout: “But then Shakespeare had no rhymes: blank verse. The flow of language it is. The thoughts.”
At Davy Byrne’s, I sat at the bar, downing pints of Smithwick’s Ale, chatting up patrons and trying to wrap my head around the novel. I may have lingered too long. It was getting late, but I was still able to find some touchstones from Ulysses: I stopped at the stone arch where Bloom buys a dirty book for Molly (street vendors still frequent the area); I drank at bars in Dublin’s former red light district, where Leopold and Stephen finally cross paths; I walked along the quays as the sun rose just after 4 a.m., tracing the path of the earl’s carriage in The Wandering Rocks episode, imagining different characters on the riverbank as I strolled by.
The sunrise over the River Liffey was a surreal experience – a strange green luminescence filled the sky as the sun gave light from parts unseen. The eerie, strangely beautiful scene brought to my mind Stephen and Bloom’s walk home in the Ithaca episode. It seemed like time to make my own journey home.
I finally stumbled back to my hostel near Eccles Street around 5 a.m., close to the hospital where Bloom’s house used to stand. Bloom has the same address in the novel as his real-life inspiration, J.P. Byrne. Byrne lived there in the early 1900s and – thanks to two writers who drunkenly stole it before the house was razed – the door to 7 Eccles St. still survives today at the Joyce Centre.
I turned on the faucet, and was immediately reminded of Bloom returning home with Stephen in tow. I thought of Bloom’s own thoughts on water as he turned on the tap. He loved water’s universality: “its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8,000 fathoms.”
In Joyce’s world, an insignificant task like washing your hands can morph into a vast scientific meditation on water’s life-sustaining ubiquity. That’s what Joyce is all about – the significant hidden in the mundane. As I reflected on that passage with cool water running over my hands, I made myself a promise to try and capture moments like this in my mind and with my pen. I crawled into bed with a new resolve to feel every moment as it should be remembered.
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