Posts Tagged ‘James Joyce’

We headed south on our annual pilgrimage to visit my mother in South Carolina, listening to James Joyce’s “The Dead” on CD as we passed through Virginia. It’s a good story, and even my high school-age daughter, encountering it for the first time, enjoyed it greatly.

The story takes place in Dublin around the turn of the last century, the gaslight era. Most of the long short story takes place at a Christmas party thrown by two elderly aunts and their niece and describes in detail the food and music and each of the significant guests. It is a vivid slice of the culture of a time long since gone, and it evokes an even earlier time when things were better, always the same time, always our youth. Gabriel Conway, the nephew of the old ladies, and his wife Greta return to their hotel after the party, and misunderstand each other’s moods. He is feeling tender and amorous, while she is reminded by a song sung at the party of the early death of her teenage suitor, Michael Fury. He had stood ill in the rain in her garden as she prepared to leave him to go to Dublin and caught his death of cold.

As we listened to the story, we looked at the beautiful Virginia landscape beyond the windows, and I remembered my youth in the port town of Norfolk, on the southern coast of Virginia. I felt the waves of youthful nostalgia like “The Dead” seep over me, and images of the friends I had then and places we had been together came crowding back, while the Blue Ridge Mountains fell off to the left amid clouds, like Galway in Greta’s memory.

Norfolk is an old city by American standards, with the good harbor that has sheltered ships since before the Revolution. Some of its streets in the old section are made of cobblestone, and parts of the city are sinking into the rising bay. In a few decades, parts of Ghent and The Hague where I walked with friends along the waterfront may be submerged at high tide, the water lapping at the museum steps.

I remember a Christmas party like the one in “The Dead” when I was 19 that took place in an old, tall house that had been turned into apartments on Fairfax Avenue near the museum. It was always cold in the big high-ceilinged rooms where Sam and Kit and their baby lived, the slumlord saving pennies keeping the oil furnace low. Richard lived in a small room up the stairs, and all of their friends from the Folk Ghetto were invited, the musicians and the waitresses, and there was singing and the air was blue with smoke. My brother and I were in the kitchen with a number of friends and guests, including the young woman who now reminds me of my own Michael Fury, as she stood dark and fading in the kitchen light.

I recall that my brother and I were acting out the opening scene from Cyrano De Bergerac, the swordfight scene, to much laughter, and the folk music from the other room was coming through the kitchen door. Richard was leaving in a few days for basic training and then for Vietnam. A dozen of us walked out into the street along the gray waters of The Hague, arm-in-arm, singing Christmas carols as the snow fell on our bare heads. I see them, old friends, fading ghostly under the old fashioned street lamps, shadows on the snow.

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(Today is Bloomsday, June 16. I wrote this piece about Bloomsday a half dozen years ago, at the beginning of the Irish economic revival that took such a fall in the Great Recession.  Now things are about back where they always were in Ireland.  Our Irish friend, Aideen, and her husband came for a visit a few years ago and got to see the beautiful valleys of central Pennsylvania where we live.  The poster of Bloomsday my wife framed for me and I look at in the mornings when I wake up.  Happy Bloomsday.)

As I sit down to begin this column it is Bloomsday morning, Saturday, June 16.  In Dublin they will have already begun the celebration of Joyce’s memorable novel “Ulysses,” which takes place over the course of a single day in 1904 and describes the wanderings of a Dubliner named Leopold Bloom.

It is a hot and overcast morning in central Pennsylvania, the kind that might be described as oppressive.   Thunderstorms are predicted for the afternoon.   We are a long way from Ireland and I have not heard of any celebrations here, so I will celebrate quietly, with a cup of coffee on the porch instead of a pint of Guinness in a pub.

I first heard of Bloomsday in a second-hand bookstore on Church Street in San Francisco.  It was a Saturday evening and my wife and I were taking a walk after dinner as we often did in those days with our daughter in a backpack on my back.  The old green streetcars rattled down the hill and light was spilling out of the open windows of the tavern on the corner next to the bookstore.   The door of the bookstore was open and people from the pub next door were standing in the doorway listening to a reading from “Ulysses”.

Inside the shop there were posters with the familiar photograph of Joyce in a hat and round, dark glasses that is on the cover of his book of stories, “Dubliners.”  Printed on the poster was the date, June 16, and the word Bloomsday.

Joyce spent most of his adult life in a self-imposed exile in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris remembering and writing about Ireland.  The culture that gave him its love of language was too oppressive for a writer of his sort.  It was also too oppressive for women, including Joyce’s wife Nora, who ran away from Ireland with him, even though she had no interest in literature.  An Irish friend, Aideen, gave my wife a copy of the biography of Nora Joyce a few years ago.  It is subtitled “The Real Life of Molly Bloom.”

When I met my wife in San Francisco she and Aideen were roommates in a big flat in the Haight district that they shared with two other friends. Aideen had gone to university in Dublin and worked as a nanny to a wealthy family in Pacific Heights.  She had grown up in the west of Ireland where her father owned a small pub.  Her speech was full of unusual words and colorful phrases drawn from what was still a predominantly agricultural 19th century culture.

Aideen introduced us to her Irish friends.  Many of them were in the country without the proper visas or work permits.  They worked in the underground economy that paid in cash for jobs like furniture hauling and handyman, and they met after work in the Irish pubs that are found throughout the city.  The pub life is central to the Irish, both at home and abroad.

A few weeks ago I heard an Irish writer interviewed on public radio.  Nuala O’Faolain was talking about her memoir, “Are You Somebody,” and I was spellbound in front of the radio by her voice and the subject, which was her coming-of- age in the harsh society of Ireland in the 1950s and  ‘60s when women were treated like servants and children like orphans. Later, reading her book, I was again reminded that Ireland was never that land of shamrocks and leprechauns, and John Wayne sweeping Maureen O’Hara off her feet in the movie “The Quiet Man,” that most Americans wish and imagine that Ireland is.

O’Faolain writes about the neglect and cruelty of her childhood, the sense of defeat bred in the Irish by their history and religion. Now there is an economic boom in Ireland and young people are coming home. The women’s movement has helped raise women’s status and some of the heavy sense of oppression has lifted.  Despite the ongoing troubles, on a Bloomsday morning in Ireland there is something to celebrate.

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