How Molly Bloom Got Her Apostrophes

Lawrence Rainey

  • Ulysses by James Joyce, edited by Danis Rose
    Picador, 739 pp, £20.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 330 35229 6

On the morning of 16 June, in city after city throughout the world, small groups of people will gather to engage in curious rituals. In New York, some fifty people will each pay $25 to breakfast on mutton kidneys and slightly burnt toast. Optional courses will include ‘nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs’ and ‘fried hen-cod’s roe’. The kidneys will be judged by how keenly they give the palate ‘a fine tang of faintly scented urine’ or leave one feeling ‘a bit peckish’. In Sydney, two hundred people will gather in the Cathedral to hear a requiem mass for Paddy Dignam, someone who never lived, then exit by torchlight to re-stage his burial, which never took place. In Dublin, as has been the custom for some years, perhaps a hundred will go to the cemetery where Dignam wasn’t buried, there to re-stage the same funeral, which never took place. A man in a brown mackintosh will lurk in the background. And in Toronto, two hundred or so will stroll along the shore of Lake Ontario, but refer to it as Sandy-mount, then walk to a series of other sites within the city, each renamed after a locality in Dublin – all in order to reconstruct the perambulations, which were never made, of a man called Leopold Bloom, who never lived, on a day that never existed.

The annual Bloomsday has returned, celebrating the fictional day (16 June 1904) chronicled in overwhelming detail in Ulysses, for many the greatest novel of the century. This year, however, marks the 75th anniversary of publication – and the 75th Bloomsday – which accounts for the unprecedented number of readings, concerts, lectures, dramatisations and re-stagings, all accompanied by commemorative breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions of every sort. A bit much, one is tempted to say, perhaps even a bit crazy.

Some of this activity, no doubt, is merely an occasion for high spirits, some of it the result of excessive piety. Yet the fact is that no other work of modern fiction elicits such deep affection from its readers, notwithstanding its length, multiple styles, recondite allusions and references, often most arcane when dealing with the ephemera of middlebrow and popular culture of the period.

If the continuing passion for Ulysses is remarkable, so is the fact that the book exists at all. Joyce made a few preliminary stabs at the novel at the beginning of 1914, while polishing off A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and working more earnestly on Exiles. He was a heavy drinker who would nowadays be considered an alcoholic; he was penniless and unknown. He had published only a slender book of even more slender verse. Trieste, where he taught English, was an international city, but from his point of view decidedly provincial, far from the metropolitan centres that dominated the literary scene. In the closing weeks of 1913 he had received a letter of inquiry from Ezra Pound: Yeats had mentioned Joyce’s work in a casual conversation; would he have anything to hand? Before he could reply, a second letter from Pound had arrived. Yeats had turned up a copy of his poem, ‘I Hear an Army’. Was there any other work Pound might see? Joyce sent him the entire manuscript of Dubliners, which had been rejected by some forty publishers, and the first portion of A Portrait. One result was immediate. By reply he learned that A Portrait would begin appearing in serial form – no payment, of course – in the Egoist, a journal devoted to libertarian individualism, whose total circulation, unmentioned by Pound, was under 400. The other result would become clear later: the transformation of his life and career, thanks to the good offices of Pound and Harriet Shaw Weaver, the editor of the Egoist.

Pound’s unstinting generosity on Joyce’s behalf – hectoring, cajoling, and finagling support – is well known. In late June 1915, Joyce, his wife Nora and their two children were forced to leave Trieste for Zurich. With Italy’s entry into the war, the Austro-Hungarian authorities were anticipating trouble from the city’s large Italian and foreign populations. Joyce’s income for the rest of the year would come to £99, of which £24 was provided by a kind relative, and £75 by a subvention from the Royal Literary Fund, acting at Pound’s instigation. The following year, 1916, his income would amount to £250, apart from what he earned by occasional English lessons and a few translations. Of that sum, £175 came from Pound’s initiatives (a grant from the Civil List, a subvention from the Society of Authors and an anonymous donation). The rest came from Harriet Weaver, who retroactively paid Joyce £50 for the serialisation of A Portrait and £25 in advance for the serialisation of Ulysses. These were not grand sums: on the eve of the Great War, the average wage for the adult male industrial worker in England was about £75 per year, while the average annual income of the salaried class was £340 (the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, for example, earned approximately £400).

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