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Bloom County

Reasons to celebrate Bloomsday

By Michael S. Gant

AS HOLIDAYS GO, Bloomsday doesn't enjoy the flag-waving, sparkler-twirling jingoistic appeal of Independence Day; nor does it serve as the excuse for a fossil-fuel-guzzling motoring extravaganza, as Memorial Day Weekend does for the Indy 500. And no American worker gets Bloomsday off—ever. (Memo to HR: Why not?)

Still, June 16, 1904, the day that Mr. Leopold Bloom (and Stephen Dedalus et al.) undertook a meandering personal odyssey through the streets of Dublin, Ireland, in James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses, deserves to be remembered now that this fictional 24-hour time-space diagram of a great city has reached its centenary. Somewhere, no doubt, a smattering of tweedy literary types are buffing their leather elbow patches and preparing to read aloud from Joyce's often incantatory prose in honor of Bloomsday. And afterward, they'll swap a few puns and bandy about some arcane classical allusions.

The Irish, jumping the gun, filled the streets of Dublin last Sunday to mark the occasion, although, according to an AP report, the fear of mad-cow disease dampened people's enthusiasm for sampling the diet of Bloom, who "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, dried hencod's roes."

Oddly, the only local coverage of this signal anniversary I stumbled across was a cranky Insight piece in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle in which freelancer Tim Cavanaugh notes with unseemly glee the novel's declining appeal as a topic for graduate-student theses and calls it "the kind of book only a college professor could love." He goes on to liken the experience of reading the novel to Geneva Convention-busting practices in POW prisons. ("Parse this, Al Qaeda scum," the comely American private sneered as she rubbed the detainee's face in the Nighttown chapter.)

I'm at a loss to explain such rancor. Finnegans Wake, now there's an instrument of torture, but Ulysses, with its earthy vocabulary ("My words! I'm all of a mucksweat"), gustatory revels and breezy blasphemy (from "The Ballad of the Joking Jesus": "If anyone thinks that I amn't divine / He'll get no free drinks when I'm making the wine") cohabiting with a Jesuit classical education, onomatopoeia ("Mrkrgnao! The cat said loudly") and a shelf full of literary styles ripe for satirizing actually make for a highly entertaining read, even if you have to skip over the Latin words.

But Cavanaugh forgets the real reason that Ulysses hooked generations of readers. Long before it was required reading in college-lit classes, Ulysses was supposed to be a dirty book. After all, the government had tried to ban it as obscene back in the '30s, hadn't it? Fast-forward to the mid-'60s: a bepimpled teenager, having read, reread and tired of the juicy parts of Mary McCarthy's The Group (a sort of Sex and the Vassar Girls of its day), haunts a local used bookstore until he finds a copy of Ulysses. The owner, oblivious (as all good booksellers should be) to the potential for corruption, sells the eager teenager the book (along with a few more-respectable decoy selections to avoid suspicion). And home the mucksweated boy goes to discover the famous "good stuff" he's heard so much about.

To make a long-ago story short, I worked my way through the stream of Joyce's prose, fascinated but a little frustrated, too. Where was the smut I had paid for? By the time I reached Molly Bloom's soliloquy, my ardor had cooled a bit, but I had absorbed a lot of curious, stimulating language and I had a leg up on that college-lit course waiting for me in a couple of years.

I still own that copy of Ulysses in the Modern Library edition with the sturdy red binding and plenty of underlined passages. I found it hidden away behind some other books, as if—after all the lit classes and graduate theses and reams of analysis—I still thought of it as an illicit pleasure.

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From the June 16-22, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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