Published: 21 June, 2012
JUNE 16, Dublin. It’s 8am and rain is teasing a small group gathered outside a Georgian house in Eccles Street. Two men in simple black suits emerge from the shuffling crowd and casually start speaking the opening lines of Leopold Bloom’s section in Ulysses: “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs… most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine…”
June 16 is the date in 1904 that is depicted in Ulysses, James Joyce’s notorious novel, and that has occasioned a celebration known as “Bloomsday” after the book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom.
Paul O’Hanrahan with his Balloonatics Theatre Company has been performing Ulysses as Bloomsday street theatre for 25 years.
He is a trained actor and scholar, but his Bloomsday performance, like the contributions of so many others, is born from a pure love of the words and purpose of James Joyce.
For some Ulysses is a call for artistic and personal freedom; for others it is a love story set against the betrayals and flaws of the human heart; others hear it as a cry of despair for an exhausted culture whose backward-looking revival threatened artistic paralysis.
But for many of the group gathered in Eccles Street, watching as Leopold speaks cat language, it is a book of connection.
This connection, the rare and poignant meeting of beings in a world of consumerism, struggle and hatred, is what brings Joyceans together from all over the world to celebrate and honour this epic novel revealing one day in the life of an ordinary man.
I cannot tell you here what the book is about: to reduce 1,000 pages of narrative to a pithy summary invokes just the kind of superficiality that Joyce’s writing revolts against. Ulysses is a virtuoso exploration of the power of language, playing with style and form to reflect the book’s events and characters.
This is part of what makes Dublin’s Bloomsday so exquisite: for the reader to hear the words performed, to see anew the patterns and images and artefacts of the book, increases our understanding. We eat the words with relish.
Bloomsday in Dublin is packed with events both formal and spontaneous.
While Paul O’Hanrahan as Bloom pantomimes a most literary bowel movement, other Joyceans had started the day at the Martello Tower, where the book opens. This group commenced an impulsive dramatic reading of the opening scene.
The Literary Salon group that arrived from London joined together for some events and followed their own desires for others.
We shared Bloom’s gorgonzola sandwich with a glass of Burgundy at Davey Byrnes’ moral pub in the middle of the day (“Good glass of Burgundy; take away that.
Lubricate… the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate… Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed…”), along with a growing crowd of other celebrants.
All around us, scenes were acted out, characters were arriving in period costume, biscuit tins were being thrown, and the wonderfully maudlin The Croppy Boy was tenderly sung.
The frenetic energy, humour and surreal events infuse everyone with a giddiness that keeps us carousing from one end of the city to the other. We run into Molly Bloom out on a bicycle, we empathise with Leopold Bloom as he encounters cruelty and prejudice, we drink with the Irish nationalists as they let loose jingoistic clichés, we are bathed in the winds and shattering light of the sea at Howth Head (where Bloom and Molly… no, you have to read the book).
We in the London Literary Salon have spent six months struggling and vaulting through the pages, laughing aloud, throwing the bulky tome against walls, sighing with deep satisfaction when the lyrical prose ignites a profound idea – recognising our humanity within the characters of this exasperating and gorgeous book.
In January our study began with a reading schedule aimed at completion by Bloomsday. There was a local celebration that involved a dramatic reading of the last chapter at the Pineapple Pub in Kentish Town.
Nine intrepid readers joined me in Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday. We sang along to Love’s Old Sweet Song, heard the words of the book enacted in the actual settings, listened to impassioned academics propose their own focus on the power of the book.
As with an exercise regime, you need the support and company of others to sustain you when the going gets exhausting.
The book also requires multiple perspectives and voices in order to understand the specific allusions and to invoke the weave of voices that compose it.
All of the Salon participants commented on how it has changed them and how essential our work together was in guiding them through the wild waters.
Reading Ulysses makes you slow down, pay attention, reflect on words and meaning – experiences our media-saturated lives make little room for.
As I made my way back to London with the salt of the Irish Sea on my skin and the electric moments of the trip playing through my mind, I knew that daily life cannot always sustain such fullness.
But the gift of the book and the absorption of the weekend is to live in the mode of the fully awake, as Joyce was: to experience, pain, bliss and people.
The book – and the imagination that birthed it – teaches us to be attentive to the miracles of connection and beauty in the everyday.
• Toby Brothers is director of London Literary Salon, www.litsalon.co.uk/