Next Tuesday will see thousands of people trekking round Dublin on what has become and annual pilgrimage and popular salute to one of the city’s greatest sons. June 16 is Bloomsday, when Dublin denizens and visitors from all over the world congregate to retrace the steps taken by two characters in Ulysses, James Joyce’s expansive and celebrated masterpiece.
June 16, 1904 was the day when Leopold Bloom and Stephan Dedalus made their historic odyssey in Dublin. It’s a single day in the life of two of literature’s unforgettable men as well as the bewitching and sexy Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife.
More than most other writers, James Joyce wrote about personal experiences: he never invented anything unless he absolutely had to. The Ulysses plot line, based on Homer’s Ulysses, took place on June 16, 1904 because that was the day on which he first met Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid who was to become his wife.
Joyce and Nora met on the street by chance on that famous day and went for a walk round Dublin, just as Bloom and Dedalus do in the novel. In 1977, a few hard-core Ulysses fans, for whom the 320,000 words of the novel (933 pages) are like a sacred text, made a June 16 tour of the places Bloom and Dedalus visited.
What started off as a spontaneous caper quickly captured the imagination of Dubliners who were enthralled by the idea of Bloomsday: it allowed them to be more talkative, eccentric and sentimental than usual. Bloomsday was written about in newspapers and magazines and shown on TV news slots. It soon became the international pilgrimage it now is.
Just as Ulysses begins with Dedalus and Bloom having breakfast, determined Bloomsday trekkers begin their homage to Joyce with a hearty Irish fry-up. It can be sausages, bacon, black pudding and kidneys, the latter being one of Bloom’s favourite foods.
A treasured port of call is Davy Byrne’s pub in Duke Street where Bloom (and Joyce) was fond of having a gorgonzola sandwich with a glass of burgundy. Another legendary pub in the characters’ dawdle round Dublin, is Baily’s where Joyce used to write while sitting near the peat-burning fireplace.
When we first meet Bloom (on page 65 of the 1967 Bodley Head edition) he is making breakfast for himself and Molly. Joyce immediately gives us an insight into Bloom’s culinary tastes.
On the first line he tells us 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 breadcrumbs, fried hen cod’s roe. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
As Bloom is feeling peckish, he decides to have a fried kidney for breakfast but, this being 1904, he has no fridge or even an ice-box and has to go down to the butcher’s to buy the kidney. Although he prefers mutton kidneys, he decides it’s not a good day for them and goes to the pork butcher instead.
Back with his pork kidney, Bloom first prepares Molly’s breakfast tray, as she is still in bed. She’s having tea and four slices of bread with butter. Having scalded the teapot (Molly calls out from bed and reminds him to do so, which probably means he’s inclined to forget) Bloom adds four full spoons of tea to the pot (they obviously like a very strong cuppa) “tilting the kettle to let the water flow in.”
Bloom then starts to fry the pork kidney. He “crushed the pan flat on the live coals and watched the butter slide and melt.” Then Bloom “dropped the kidney amid the sizzling butter sauce. Pepper. He sprinkled it through his fingers, ringwise, from the chipped eggcup.”
Bloom is doing the right thing by frying the kidney over a hight heat. Kidneys, and other offal such as liver, exude a lot of liquid if done over a low heat and end up being stewed instead of fried. But he is about to commit a common culinary mistake.
“He prodded a fork into the kidney and slapped it over: then fitted the teapot on the tray. Its hump bumped as he took it up. Everything on it? Bread and butter, four, sugar, spoon, her cream. Yes. He carried it upstairs, his thumb hooked on the teapot handle.”
He gets involved in a conversation with Molly, partly because she wants to know the meaning of a word, metempsychosis, the supposed transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body of the same or a different species. Molly suddenly smells something burning, Bloom remembers the kidney and rushes downstairs to the kitchen.
“Pungent smoke shot up in an angry jet from the side of the pan. By prodding a prong of the fork under the kidney he detached it and turned it turtle on its back. Only a little burned. He tossed it off the pan on to a plate and let the scanty brown gravy trickle over it. Cup of tea now. He sat down, cut and buttered a slice of the loaf. He shore away the burnt flesh and flung it to the cat. Then he put a forkful into his mouth, chewing with discernment the toothsome pliant meat. Done to a turn. A mouthful of tea. Then he cut away dies of bread, sopped one in the gravy and put it in his mouth.”
I’ve never met anyone who has cream in their tea. Is it something the Irish do? Or people who like an extremely strong cuppa? I tried it once (just to see what the cream did) but didn’t like it at all because it completely killed the taste of the tea.
Throughout the 933 pages of Ulysses we mainly read about what the men are saying and thinking. But Joyce gives Molly the stage all to herself by ending the novel with her renowned monologue — 25,000 words written in one paragraph and without a single punctuation mark except for the final full stop, because this is also the end of the novel. In the French translation, they even leave out the accents, of which here are many. Joyce would have liked that little detail.
I learned last week that an Abbey Theatre actress called Marcela Riordan (I’ve never heard of her but she’s famous in Ireland and Britain) last year did a CD of the full monologue. I’ve ordered one and can’t wait to hear it spoken by an Irish woman.
I leave you with Molly’s last words as she lulls into sleep, thinking of events of that day, of Bloom and of her many lovers including the first one: “…how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him. As another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
There may be a better ending to a novel, but I’ve yet to come across it.