A Memory about Saul Bellow and James Joyce, for Bloomsday.

The notes I took are gone, but I remember certain things. The pleasant disorientation of watching Augie March teach Nathan Zuckerman, for example. And the week we discussed Ulysses. That morning, we sat nervously as Bellow took his seat. “Have you finished the book?” he said. Had we read every page of one of literature’s most famously difficult offerings? In a week? Not one of us had gotten to that last Yes. Bellow laughed — not the marvelous, head back, teeth-bared laugh for which he was famous, but a small laugh — and brandished an ancient copy of the book, which, he said, had been smuggled into the country for him in the 1930s. And for the next hour, he read to us from Ulysses and, without notes, annotated it. Bellow’s deep recall, fluency, and confidence seems, now, to be a beautiful, cerebral high-wire act.

Bellow was eighty-five then…

Scathing Online Schoolmarm Says: Yes, We’re All Excited about Penn State’s Next Chapter…

… but as a writer you want to remain calm and control your prose as you discuss the upcoming HBO movie. This prose has too much figurative language all over the place, creating the chaos of mixed metaphors. SOS has helpfully italicized the problem areas:

Make no mistake: there’s plenty of material to be mined for the HBO drama. The firestorm that ensued following the 2011 arrest of Sandusky nearly tore the Penn State community in half and caused a flurry of controversy in all areas of public conversation. Resurrecting these events and examining the tense subject matter through the lens of famed director Barry Levinson and the prowess of Pacino will be mighty fascinating.

This prose literally runs hot and cold, as we venture from a firestorm that neatly cuts a community in half to a snowy flurry. Mining and resurrections are thrown in for good measure, leaving the reader all of a mucksweat (to quote Bella Cohen).

For the New Year, an Old Book about a New Life.

Yesterday was the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

You’d think the story of Stephen Dedalus working his way clear of sexual guilt, Catholic hell, a suffocating family, and of course Ireland itself, would skew antique these days; but just as we’re all susceptible to the New Year, we’re all susceptible to the New Life. Portrait is the ultimate successful makeover.

Put aside your awareness that Stephen’s flight beyond the nets of family country and religion will, in Joyce’s next book, crash-land him back into the same hot mess; recall instead your excitement on first reading this liberation song.

A veiled sunlight lit up faintly the grey sheet of water where the river was embayed. In the distance along the course of the slow-flowing Liffey slender masts flecked the sky and, more distant still, the dim fabric of the city lay prone in haze. Like a scene on some vague arras, old as man’s weariness, the image of the seventh city of christendom was visible to him across the timeless air, no older nor more weary nor less patient of subjection than in the days of the thingmote.

Here’s Dedalus just having broken free of the church; here he euphorically strides farther and farther away from a conversation he’s just had with a priest about joining the Jesuits. Although Stephen’s terror of damnation (he has consorted with prostitutes) has propelled him into a piety so intense that he has now been invited to enter an order, the unfolding conversation about his vocation suddenly makes explicit the absurdity of trying to murder his appetite with metaphysics. “His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders.” It’s the artist’s silence, exile, and cunning now, all the way.

How does this newly transformed self see the false world he’s about to leave? What are his thoughts as – manically overwhelmed by his release – he rushes about putting distance between himself and the prisonhouse?

Run that paragraph by me again.

A veiled sunlight lit up faintly the grey sheet of water where the river was embayed. In the distance along the course of the slow-flowing Liffey slender masts flecked the sky and, more distant still, the dim fabric of the city lay prone in haze. Like a scene on some vague arras, old as man’s weariness, the image of the seventh city of christendom was visible to him across the timeless air, no older nor more weary nor less patient of subjection than in the days of the thingmote.

You hear the gentle lilting hyperpoetic music of the thing? He’s looking at a city he’s about to leave – the dead world of “The Dead.” This writing is valedictory, a bittersweet backward view. All is old (“veiled,” “gray,” “faint,” “slow-flowing,” “dim,” “prone,” “vague,” “old,” “weary”) and trapped (“embayed,” “patient of subjection”). The final long sentence ends with the odd obsolescence of thingmote – literally, a raised mound on which Viking settlers met to enact laws; yet a figure too for the tiny ancient vanishing thing Dublin’s about to become in the artist’s rear-view mirror. We’re told this is a modernist novel; but at the moment we’ve got a rhyme-happy Romantic poet hurrying himself up into a pose of nostalgia for beautiful delicate ruins.

A veiled sunlight lit up faintly
The grey sheet of water where
The river was embayed.


The dim fabric of the city
Lay prone in haze.

In the days of the thingmote.

The gentle gorgeous insistent quality of these long A‘s underscores the delicacy and immobility of this arrière “arras” scene that hangs in “timeless air.” (And not to belabor the beauty, but look how the dull closed-off short I is everywhere as counterpoint: lit/river/dim/fabric/city/in.) Dublin has become a portrait for the artist. It is no longer an overpowering reality that hurts him, but an aesthetic thing “subject” to his powerful eye.

For those who, like UD, love James Joyce.

Mr. Trump, James Joyce called — he wants his stream of consciousness back…

A sentence that amazes UD and makes her smile…

[T]he deployment of Irish Naval vessels which began in May 2015 with the LE Eithne to be followed by the LE Niamh, LE Samuel Beckett, LE Roisin and LE James Joyce, was an important element in Ireland’s response to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean.

… and makes her wonder what Joyce and Beckett would have made of it.

Bloomsday, Chestertown

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Bloomsday, Chestertown Maryland.

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The little theater where UD just listened
to a couple of guys talk about why
Ulysses is great.

**********

The day is overcast – typically Irish… But Joyce’s novel takes place on a freakishly sunny and warm June day in Dublin.

Chestertown’s old and charming and set along a river. After the lecture, UD strolled the waterfront (full of gray geese and black vultures), and now relaxes with a chai at Play it Again Sam. There’s an open mic (five minute limit) Ulysses reading next door in about an hour. Maybe UD will take part. Something morbid, she thinks; from the Hades chapter.

UD listened to the guys talk very intelligently about why the novel’s worth is far above rubies. Wearing her James Joyce sweatshirt, scribbling in her Essential James Joyce (she met the editor, Harry Levin, at the home of Wiktor Weintraub‘s widow), UD wrestled down her impulse to comment on virtually everything they said… When she did finally say something (about the nature of artistic genius and artistic originality), one of the guys said “That person is clearly a plant.” — meaning to suggest that somebody must have custom-ordered a commenter who would sound like an English professor who teaches James Joyce.

But really it’s hard to say why Ulysses reigns supreme. One spends a lifetime with the book, trying to figure out how Joyce was able to write like that. You feel like Salieri gazing at a Mozart score. Ultimately it doesn’t seem possible that a human being could write so well. Think and feel so well. If it were only beautifully written, dayenu. If it were only beautifully written and brilliantly descriptive of social life in a city, dayenu. If it were only wise and humane and hilarious and deeply accepting of our vileness and pathos, dayenu. If it were only steamy dreamy streams of consciousness, dayenu.

Your head it simply swirls.

Bloomsday exists because the peculiar over-excitement you feel reading this book is deep and specific and shared by others.

Tomorrow, UD and Her Sister the Morrissey Fanatic Travel to…

… Chestertown Maryland to celebrate Bloomsday.

Naturally UD will instablog the experience. And take pictures.

UD‘s had a lot to say about Bloomsday over the years. If you’d like to read some of it, Google BLOOMSDAY MARGARET SOLTAN.

Pyrrhic Policy

[Biden] cited a line from “Ulysses” by James Joyce. Biden says the history of the Mideast region is a nightmare from which everyone is trying to awake.

Another Bloomsday Post

Trump does Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, starting at 5:18.

Bloomsday. Morrissey.

I went to see The Smiths, in Leisureland in Galway, age 18, with a copy [of Dubliners] sticking out of my back pocket. “Oh man,” said their sweet-natured guitarist, Johnny Marr, after the gig, “Morrissey practically has that book tattooed all over himself.” He introduced me to Morrissey. We talked about James Joyce; Morrissey told me Dubliners was his favourite book.

[See post below this one.]

Another Bloomsday.

This one is subdued, commemorated in a quiet house on a hot sunny day. In years past, UD has performed parts of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the Irish Embassy, won a prize at the Harvard Club Bloomsday in Washington for her reading (and singing) of parts of the Sirens chapter, crawled through the pubs of Dublin, and met up with a few of her students at a local DC bar for Irish food and recitation.

Here’s what she did this year. She downloaded the score of Mein junges leben hat ein end by Sweelinck (1562-1621), played it at her piano, and thought of this passage from the Eumaeus chapter of Ulysses, when Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom really begin to talk to one another. These are Bloom’s thoughts as he listens to Dedalus name and sing some songs he likes.

Exquisite variations he was now describing on an air Youth here has End by Jans Pieter Sweelinck, a Dutchman of Amsterdam where the frows come from. Even more he liked an old German song of Johannes Jeep about the clear sea and the voices of sirens, sweet murderers of men, which boggled Bloom a bit:

Von der Sirenen Listigkeit
Tun die Poeten dichten.

These opening bars he sang and translated extempore. Bloom, nodding, said he perfectly understood and begged him to go on by all means, which he did.

A phenomenally beautiful tenor voice like that, the rarest of boons, which Bloom appreciated at the very first note he got out…

Bloom knows good singing, being married to Molly, and from the first note Dedalus gets out (recall that Dedalus is exhausted, beat up, and drunk) he recognizes his exceptional voice. We are also reminded here (he perfectly understood) that finally, at the end of a trying day, both men have found someone to whom they can talk honestly and by whom they can (to some degree) be understood.

The full lyrics to the Sirens song go like this:


From the Sirens’ craftiness
Poets make poems
That they with their loveliness
Have drawn many men into the sea
For their song resounds so sweetly,
That the sailors fall asleep,
The ship is brought into misfortune,
And all becomes evil.

Both songs express definitive Ulysses themes: With the death of his mother, Dedalus has indeed in some important sense come to the end of his youth; yet it’s clear from his self-destructive behavior throughout June 16 1904 that he’s resisting growing up, or let’s say that he doesn’t quite know what next step to take. The sirens song suggests one reason for his paralysis: Dedalus not only has that rarest of boons, a great singing voice. He’s – more importantly – a great writer. Yet something in him fears the pull toward the aesthetic, and though he concludes Portrait of the Artist stupendously, euphorically sure of his vocation, he has in fact grown up quite a bit by the time Ulysses begins. He has not produced the great art he thought he would by fleeing Ireland; in fact in Proteus he looks back with self-loathing on his childish narcissistic aestheticism while on the Continent:

Reading two pages apiece of seven books every night, eh? I was young. You bowed to yourself in the mirror, stepping forward to applause earnestly, striking face. Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Hray! No-one saw: tell no-one. Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W. Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria? Someone was to read them there after a few thousand year, a mahamanvantara. Pico della Mirandola like. Ay, very like a whale. When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once…

How to avoid the narcotic element of the aesthetic – the aesthetic as pure escape? Dedalus doesn’t yet know (his encounter with Bloom will presumably help him along here), and he is dealing with this not knowing – and of course with the pain of his mother’s death – by losing himself in the narcotic of alcohol. Indeed, the Sweelinck lyrics describe not just the end of youth, but the end of life, and Dedalus, who doesn’t eat, drinks like a fish, wears only black, is deeply depressed and angry, has earlier in the day given up his job and his lodging, and refuses any touch of (life-giving) water, himself seems drawn toward death.

Our last view of him has him quite alone, walking who knows where in a still-dark Dublin dawn.

Snapshots from Home: The Flood.

As UD‘s metro train, yesterday afternoon, lifted itself out of the tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue and ran above Rock Creek Park, UD looked down and saw thick brown water heaving past the creek’s banks. Croppings of wildflowers barely showed through the flood, and the sycamores were all shaken up. UD was shaken. This scene, usually a calm span of green between the Beltway and Parkside Apartments, was turbulent and strange; and the rainfall wouldn’t break for awhile.

Earlier, in Foggy Bottom, she’d watched the sky disappear, watched her office windows go gray and fill with long streaks. She had the closed-in feeling you get in an airplane taxiing in a storm: There was the turbulent world, inches away; here was a world weirdly – barely – immune.

Later, watching the fast river Rokeby Avenue became, she remembered Henry Miller’s nod to James Joyce in The Tropic of Cancer.

“I love everything that flows,” said the great blind Milton of our times. I was thinking of him this morning when I awoke with a great bloody shout of joy: I was thinking of his rivers and trees and all that world of night which he is exploring. Yes, I said to myself, I too love ev­erything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. I love the amniotic fluid when it spills out of the bag. I love the kidney with its painful gallstones, its gravel and what-not; I love the urine that pours out scalding and the clap that runs endlessly; I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul; I love the great rivers like the Amazon and the Orinoco, where crazy men like Moravagine float on through dream and legend in an open boat and drown in the blind mouths of the river. I love everything that flows, even the menstrual flow that carries away the seed unfecund. I love scripts that flow, be they hieratic, esoteric, perverse, polymorph, or unilateral. I love everything that flows, ev­erything that has time in it and becoming, that brings us back to the beginning where there is never end: the vio­lence of the prophets, the obscenity that is ecstasy, the wisdom of the fanatic, the priest with his rubber litany, the foul words of the whore, the spittle that floats away in the gutter, the milk of the breast and the bitter honey that pours from the womb, all that is fluid, melting, dis­solute and dissolvent, all the pus and dirt that in flowing is purified, that loses its sense of origin, that makes the great circuit toward death and dissolution. The great in­cestuous wish is to flow on, one with time, to merge the great image of the beyond with the here and now. A fat­uous, suicidal wish that is constipated by words and par­alyzed by thought.

In time for Saint Patrick’s Day, the Dublin City Council…

votes against demolishing the Ormond Hotel, where Simon Dedalus so beautifully sang “Martha” in the front room, while, in the back room (having told a waiter to keep the door between the rooms open so he could hear), Leopold Bloom so feelingly listened. (To hear more or less what Simon Dedalus would have sounded like singing that afternoon, go here and click on Play Music Clip.)

In its plans [the developer] argued that the original fabric of the hotel no longer existed and that the literary associations would be best preserved through the retention of the name of the hotel, the erection of a tourism plaque, and the use of the name ‘Sirens’ for the bar.

The James Joyce Centre was among several objectors [there was also a petition] to the development on the site of the hotel which was the setting for the Sirens episode of Ulysses.

A city preserves a real hotel because an imaginary character sang in it while another imaginary character listened to the singing. UD finds this civic act more moving than, say, New York City preserving the site of the Algonquin Room, where real people met…

Fictive realer than real. Aristotle. Plausible, and free of the need to be faithful to what actually was. In the hands of a genius read by all and then … percolates over time into the real city. Seeps. Visitors see the city through the mist of its genius-recreator…

There. A little Leopold Bloomesque stream of consciousness to try to get at why a room with Dorothy Parker in it may mean less to us than a room with Blazes Boylan in it.

Here’s some of what was said and thought about music in the bar of the Ormond Hotel on June 16, 1904. This is from the Sirens chapter of Ulysses:

[An unidentified narrator admires and somewhat ridicules Simon Dedalus’s sentimental rendition of a sentimental song.] It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don’t spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the etherial bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness …….

**********************

[Bloom thinks about Simon’s voice as he sings the sad Martha song.] That voice was a lamentation. Calmer now. It’s in the silence after you feel you hear. Vibrations. Now silent air.

**********************

[After he sings “Martha,” Simon gets excited, recalling, with one of his friends at the bar, how he first heard Italians singing.] It was the only language Mr Dedalus said to Ben. He heard them as a boy in Ringabella, Crosshaven, Ringabella, singing their barcaroles. Queenstown harbour full of Italian ships. Walking, you know, Ben, in the moonlight with those earthquake hats. Blending their voices. God, such music, Ben. Heard as a boy. Cross Ringabella haven mooncarole.

*********************

[Bloom’s thoughts as he ponders the omnipresence of music.] Sea, wind, leaves, thunder, waters, cows lowing, the cattlemarket, cocks, hens don’t crow, snakes hissss. There’s music everywhere. Ruttledge’s door: ee creaking. No, that’s noise. Minuet of Don Giovanni he’s playing now. Court dresses of all descriptions in castle chambers dancing. Misery. Peasants outside. Green starving faces eating dockleaves. Nice that is. Look: look, look, look, look, look: you look at us.

That’s joyful I can feel. Never have written it. Why? My joy is other joy. But both are joys. Yes, joy it must be. Mere fact of music shows you are. Often thought she was in the dumps till she began to lilt. Then know.

*******************

[Later, the narrator writes this, as another person performs The Croppy Boy.] The voice of dark age, of unlove, earth’s fatigue made grave approach and painful, come from afar, from hoary mountains, called on good men and true.

*******************

[Ultimately:] And deepmoved all…

*******************

Vibrations sustained almost a century now over silent air.
Strings plucked again each moment a lover of art opens the novel.

As always, the master of English prose in our time is…

James Joyce.

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