‘Make room in the bed,’ says Buck Mulligan to a man in the sea, when he is getting in for his swim at the end of the first episode of Ulysses. I have read the line many times without a second thought, but recently it drew me up short, because I had not heard the phrase for some years. ‘Move up in the bed’ was something my father liked to say. It might be when he was driving, waiting to nudge past a slow-moving car into a filter lane; or at home, if there were children on the sofa and he wanted to watch the news. He wasn’t the only one: you might hear a man say it to another man at a bar, when he was looking for space to sit or to get his order in. ‘Move up in the bed and make room for the lodger’ is a fuller version, quoted in the Irish Times, from the Dublin photographer Bill Doyle who, like my father, was born in 1925.
The idea that the population of Ireland occupies one giant bed is a happy one, made nicer, in Ulysses, by the fact that Mulligan is referring to the wide sea. This is such an arbitrary and accurate thing to put in a book. It is a nugget which survived not only Joyce’s many years of exile from Dublin, but the hundred years since Ulysses was published. When I stumbled on it in the text, the phrase felt ‘found’; as though Joyce were not making phrases, but stealing them and slinging them around.
Irish writers are often asked do they think of Joyce, Wilde and Yeats when they walk the streets of Dublin. There can be only one answer – as the child gets the same answer when they ask the same question, over and again. Yes, of course we do. We think of little else. All is well. So. Yes, I think of Joyce when I walk the dog past the Martello Tower, now the Joyce Museum, where that first episode of Ulysses is set. I resent that his ‘snot green’ – which is just a joke about Homer – has persisted as a description of the sea here. A mile up the road is the house in Glasthule where the real playwright J.M. Synge lived and the fictional Stephen Dedalus pissed against the hall door – unless, as he says, it was Mulligan. (‘—Me! Stephen exclaimed. That was your contribution to literature.’) And this is another example of Joyce pitching bodily against literary product, to transgressive effect. His concern with the body’s sheddings, with extramission and loss, owes something to a childhood metaphysics about growth and the self. It is described very beautifully in a discussion about Hamlet and his dead father in the episode of Ulysses set in the National Library:
—As we, or mother Dana, weave and unweave our bodies, Stephen said, from day to day, their molecules shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image. And as the mole on my right breast is where it was when I was born, though all my body has been woven of new stuff time after time, so through the ghost of the unquiet father the image of the unliving son looks forth.
In 1904, the year the book is set, Synge was not yet living in Glasthule, but at a slight remove, in Crosthwaite Park, with his endlessly disapproving mother. So this pissing, were it to have happened, would be more than a piece of drunken opportunism: it would involve finding the place, opening a gate, walking up a path, ascending a flight of granite steps and relieving oneself (buttons, not zips, in those days) against an elderly woman’s door.
Joyce cared about steps. He wrote to his aunt Josephine to find out the precise height of the railings outside 7 Eccles Street so he could describe Bloom breaking into his own house. When it came to transgressive acts of mock-heroic blatherskiting, however, any old house would do (lash it out there, lads). Sometimes, it feels as though commentators fetishise Joyce’s fetishisation of verisimilitude – for all his use of maps, directories and train timetables, he also wrote whatever the hell he wanted. He might use real places, real people, real phrases or quotations, but he is also prepared to bury or ignore facts, and to get some of them wrong.
How, a trainspotter might ask, in the super-particular, entirely confusing universe of Ulysses, did Stephen arrive on Sandymount Strand from Dalkey, when, as the dog in the street knows, the morning train did not stop until Westland Row? The walk back from there to the strand is a journey no sensible Dubliner would ever undertake. Also, for the non-Dubliner, what does Sandymount Strand actually look like? You won’t get a description of it in the ‘Proteus’ episode of Ulysses. The book will return here at dusk, this time in the company of Leopold Bloom, and again Joyce fails to mention the most geographically distinctive thing about the place: when the tide is out, the sand is bare for miles. Stephen scans the shore but does not share with the reader his sense of the view. There is some talk of ‘eternity’, but we have lost ‘the ring of bay’ and the ‘bright skyline’ he saw from the Martello Tower. The first thing he does is reject the visible by walking across the sand with his eyes closed. (This is a lot of fun. I think it should be a Bloomsday activity, like eating kidneys – one undertaken by enthusiasts, en masse, in Edwardian costume.) When he opens them again, it is to realise the world’s indifference to his perception of it. ‘See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.’
The incline of Dublin Bay is so shallow as to seem horizontal, and the water arrives at terrific speed. Stephen goes to the edge of the sea and then cuts across to the rocks by the Poolbeg road to escape the tide ‘flowing quickly in on all sides’. He takes refuge on the rocks, where he sits in yearning reverie, and then lies down. The waters continue to rise, coming ‘in long lassoes from the Cock Lake’ which was, in 1904, a real lagoon on the strand. Stephen now has something to do, or finish: ‘Better get this job over quick. Listen: fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos.’ This is the sound of the waves, or it might be the sound of his piss making a ‘floating foampool’ in the sea. For some readers, he is ejaculating, in this public spot, from rocks that are now buried under the reclaimed land that is Sean Moore Park. After which: ‘He laid the dry snot picked from his nostril on a ledge of rock, carefully. For the rest let look who will.’
Later in the day, as the sunset glows over these same rocks, Gerty MacDowell sits in a cosy nook beside the ‘sparkling waves’. (Is the tide in again, already? By Stephen’s midday experience it should be a long mile away.) And though this time the reader is shown the sea and strand, ‘the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay’, the parodic language is less descriptive of the view than of Gerty’s pretensions about scenery. More conventionally described, it feels less real.
This is also the place where Leopold Bloom got Ulysses definitively banned in America, by engaging in a quiet act of indecency while watching Gerty watch fireworks just after dusk. And we really do see these explosions, in a book that often feels experienced rather than transparently observed. This shock of the visual happens at Bloom’s most intensely physical moment, and the language plays almost immediately into parody. ‘A rocket sprang and bang shot blind blank’ followed by the release of ‘a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely!’ As Djuna Barnes reports Joyce to have said, ‘there is not one single serious line in it.’
It is probable that the open spaces of Dublin saw an amount of action at a time when people seldom lived alone and lovers had few places to go. (Today’s rental crisis may be having the same effect. See, for reference, Eimear Walshe’s excellent video The Land Question: Where the Fuck Am I Supposed to Have Sex?) This spot, where Bloom watches Gerty, was at the end of Leahy Road in Sandymount. It is where, reputedly, on 16 June 1904, James Joyce took Nora Barnacle on their first date, when she slid her hand down inside his trousers to move his shirt ‘softly aside’. With hindsight, Joyce saw something in that moment (eyes closed, eyes open): a kind of crux in his life, the fact that his future had just reached into his britches. So when the reader asks what Stephen Dedalus is doing on Sandymount Strand – the character does not seem, himself, to know – the answer may be that Joyce put him there for sentimental reasons.
Stephen is there at midday, Bloom at dusk, Joyce and Nora sit on their bench in the evening. A different writer might put the courting couple in the book; a quick sketch, a cameo appearance as seen by Gerty or Bloom as they leave the strand. There are so many real people in the book already: hundreds of names taken and used, though none of the people they belonged to was delighted to see them in print. When the librarian R.I. Best was approached by the BBC because he ‘was’ a character in Ulysses, he replied: ‘I am not a character in fiction, I am a living being.’ Joyce is already represented in the book by Stephen Dedalus, a fictional version of his author’s youthful self. This is very far from autobiography, but it was more than enough. Joyce clearly did not want to split himself further, by leaving a shard of his real self in the text. This is a writer who loved a joke, who could do anything that he chose to do with words. It is also a novel with a mirror in the opening line.
A postmodernist would not hesitate to stroll across his own page with his future wife on his arm. Did modernism turn ‘post’ when Borges put himself in ‘The Aleph’? And I don’t know if my sense of sudden insight (yes! of course it did!) is just what happens when a person reads Ulysses: they experience large, elusive thoughts; they feel very stupid or foolishly, vertiginously clever. I check back with the text, which seems to have more couples than doubles, more binaries than reflected images, but it is so various and shifting I find nothing there to prove or disprove the feeling that it all happens in the moment before the mirror, that Joyce is working at some prior point of consciousness, and this is why the language arrives slightly ahead of perception, or long after it.
On 20 June 1904, four days after his reputed first date with Nora, two women, an actor and her mother, tripped over Joyce in a dark hallway behind Camden Street, where he lay dead drunk on the floor. They were there for a rehearsed reading of Synge’s new play, The Well of the Saints. Joyce had turned up, unsuitably fortified, to face the same event, but failed to make the final few yards. The directors of the National Theatre Society, the Fay brothers, threw him out on the street, where he protested loudly until taken off home. Shortly afterwards, he wrote a ditty about the incident:
But I angered those brothers, the Fays,
Whose ways are conventional ways,
For I lay in my urine,
While ladies so pure in
White petticoats ravished my gaze.
He was 22 years old. It takes a certain boyish bravado to write up this scene as a successful act of upskirting (petticoats! result!). And though it happened four days after the book was set, Mulligan tells the story in Ulysses, this time with a different kind of elimination and defilement.
— O, the night in the Camden hall when the daughters of Erin had to lift their skirts to step over you as you lay in your mulberrycoloured, multicoloured, multitudinous vomit! — The most innocent son of Erin, Stephen said, for whom they ever lifted them.
There is no doubt that Joyce was envious of Synge, that he disdained the Abbey’s ‘conventional ways’ and the silliness of the Irish Literary Revival (‘He’s out in pampooties to murder you,’ Mulligan says of Synge, referring to the rawhide shoes of the Aran Islanders). Puking or pissing, or all invented, Joyce’s response to their fictions was visceral. The line about Synge’s hall door captured his attitude to an entire movement. If only, as the trainspotters might complain, he had got the right house, or the right day. Or perhaps this would work as one of those Dublin stories of drunken writers ending up in the wrong house, sleeping in the wrong bed and coming down to the wrong mother in the morning. She is, in this subgenre of urban literary myth, always unperturbed; there is a pot of tea.
I pass Sandymount Strand on the train into town. I might think of Joyce and Nora, but more often about Stephen’s encounter with the tide. I might also briefly consider eternity – it is hard not to, given the stretch of the view – or the drowned man at the end of ‘Proteus’, with the tiny fish darting in and out of his buttoned trouser fly: ‘God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain.’ The figure of Stephen is more vivid to me than those of Joyce and Nora, because Stephen is not dead, he is on the page. I sometimes resent the way biographers rip through the fictions to reach the writer on the other side. It can, in Oedipal mode, be hard to say who is more dead, the fact-maker or the fiction-maker: the ghost of the unquiet father or the unliving son.
If I am driving that way, I see, just before the turn for Sandymount, the house of Count John McCormack, the great tenor who, in May 1904, encouraged Joyce to enter the competition in which he had won a gold medal the year before. Joyce flunked the sight-reading and came third. McCormack would go on to have thirteen Rolls-Royces and many houses. His gold medal is now owned by Michael Flatley.
If I am on the road to the airport, and getting ready to be an Irish writer abroad, I might think of Seamus Heaney, who lived near the strand, and once joked that his family only saw him walk it when he had a film crew in tow. This cluster stumbles backwards in my mind: the boom microphone, the shouldered camera, the production assistant and her notebook, the director checking behind them as they go, while Heaney thinks, visibly, and moves at a well-judged pace, across the sand.
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