Bloomsday 2023

On the 16th June, 1904 a young Dublin intellectual met a feisty, red-haired chambermaid.   They fell in love and eloped to the continent to live a life of adventure, occasional penury and high literary achievement.  James Joyce, the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, had met Nora Barnacle, the Galway girl who would inspire him to create the character of Molly Bloom.  Joyce himself would appear in Ulysses under the guise of Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, and Stephen Dedalus, an aloof would-be artist.  The trio would dominate Ulysses, the modernist novel set in Dublin on that fateful day of 16th June, 1904.

Joyce celebrated his encounter with Nora by setting all the action of Ulysses on that day.  Ireland, though initially adverse to what was considered the novel’s obscenity and anti-Catholic criticism, learned to appreciate the unique value of what one of her most prestigious sons had achieved.  Ulysses has become a byword for complexity, comprehensiveness, experimentation and literary daring.

Bloomsday now celebrates Joyce’s unrivalled mapping of the city of Dublin and its very colourful denizens, with visits to its pubs, a church, the cemetery, a maternity hospital, a brothel, the national library, the public baths, strand, and the Martello Tower, where the day-long odyssey starts.

Dubliners are depicted with their garrulousness, their drinking habits, their legendary hospitality, their gregariousness and their conviviality.  We meet Blazes Boylan, man-about-town with an eye for the girls, seducing Molly at four in the afternoon in her own home; the Citizen, boastful nationalist, always cadging a drink, antisemitic and bigoted; the librarians discussing Hamlet and being subjected to Stephen’s outrageous ideas about Shakespeare’s love life; Gerty MacDowell, lifting her skirt to excite that inveterate voyeur, Bloom.   Though Joyce satirises many aspects of Dublin life, the characters are lovingly presented with their endearing foibles, their sly sense of humour, their fondness for the rhetorical flourish, their deep attachment to their city.  Joyce’s main satirical thrust is reserved for the Roman Catholic Church and the British imperial presence, two masters Stephen is determined to repudiate.

Bloomsday now is one long street party with dancing, feasting, music and readings from the novel.  A book, which was proscribed and vilified in 1922 as obscene and immoral, is now seen as epitomising the Irish spirit, especially the unique character of the city of Dublin and its citizens.  On that day it is customary to dress up like Bloom, in a black suit, bowler hat, walking stick like a middling advertisement canvasser of the Edwardian period; women wear flouncy dresses with a deep neckline to emulate Molly’s embonpoint.  Joyce himself appears with his thick dark glasses, neatly clipped moustache, boater, colourful waistcoat and patent leather shoes.  Of course, he also strolls about with his ashplant.

What makes Bloomsday locally relevant and challenging is the last chapter, Penelope, which is mainly set in the Gibraltar of the mid-nineteenth century.  The entire chapter is made up of Molly’s reminiscences of her youth spent in Gibraltar.  Molly is the offspring of a Spanish Jewish woman, Lunita Laredo who, amazingly, is buried in the Jewish cemetery at North Front and Major Tweedy, an Irish military man stationed in Gibraltar.  Penelope is peppered with local references: Bell Lane, the Roman Catholic cathedral with Fr Villaplana and the rosary he gave Molly, the Moorish Castle, the Alameda Gardens, the Bay spread out in the golden light of a sunset, Spy Glass and Aix House with its prize-winning bread.  Incredibly, Joyce never visited Gibraltar, but managed to cull enough local detail and colour from his reading to create a credible picture of this outpost of the empire when Britain was still feared, and its power was unquestioned.  However, Molly prefers the social, sexual and racial mix of the fortress to its strict military role.  Joyce employs Molly as an outspoken critic of British militarism and lavishes all his poetic power on her last words in the novel which ends with her repeated orgasmic ‘yes,’ uttered under the wall of the Moorish Castle.  In a way, Bloomsday is also Gibraltar day, even though it has never been celebrated here.

I have a confession to make. I haven’t read all of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s not out of intimidation either, which is what tends to get readers nervous about Joyce in general and Ulysses in particular. A fear at the language, the themes, of not understanding it, and at the length of the novel itself, all 732 pages of it. When I was growing up, I absorbed this idea that everything and anything was valid to read and belonged on the shelf. Partly because I didn’t grow up with the internet algorithms telling me how to think and feel. Also because I had excellent English teachers who passed along all sorts of things to read, and parents who valued reading, no matter what it was. So I read comics and classic literature and Stephen King, and I came to realise everything is just story, no matter how much elitism has tried to gatekeep certain works of literature.

So my reticence at reading Ulysses is not out of intimidation. I suppose it just feels like an event. Like I need to do it over a summer and dedicate myself to it entirely. And I keep saying to myself that one day I will, and the book sits there winking at me from time to time.

What I have read is the end of the book. This is something I don’t tend to do, but a few years ago I discovered that the character of Molly Bloom is from Gibraltar. This realisation did make me feel a little bit ignorant. I didn’t know there was a statue of Molly Bloom in Alameda Gardens. I didn’t know that the pub I had frequented so much in La Linea when I lived in Gibraltar had a local connection in its name. I read her soliloquy, all 22,000 words of it with no punctuation. Like a big gulp. I was fascinated by the description of Gibraltar in it. By the allusions to Greek myths, some of which are set on our shores. As a writer, it’s like someone had told me when I wanted to I could throw out the rulebook. No punctuation! Mostly what fascinated me was the idea of memory attached to a place, this feeling of nostalgia and longing. I don’t live in Gibraltar anymore, but I write about it a lot. The Gibraltar in my work is obviously not real, because I write fiction, but it’s a Gibraltar built from memory and imagination.

It was interesting to find out that James Joyce was not living in Dublin when he wrote Ulysses. That it was the same idea, he was writing a Dublin of his mind and memory. I have read another book of Joyce’s, Dubliners. It’s more a series of sketches or short stories about life in Dublin. I read the book before I even knew who Joyce really was, or the impact or legacy or prestige he had as a writer. It’s pretty freeing to read something this way, and to like it because you like it and not because you’re supposed to like it. What struck me about Dubliners was how much it felt Gibraltarian, with its descriptions of characters strolling around the streets and its particular language. I’ve always wanted to write a book like that. I’d call it Llanitos. Stories about Main Street, and the lanes of Upper Town. Of women hanging up washing between buildings and young men out to Irish Town for a Friday night and the hidden wealth contained in the old houses of Gibraltar. One day.

This coming Friday 16th June is Bloomsday. People race around Dublin recreating scenes from the book and visiting locations and reading excerpts out loud. The Gibraltar National Book Council has proposed doing our own version of it in Gibraltar, in celebration of Molly. There are lots of ideas floating around for next year. I should have at least started Ulysses by then.

This week is busy for literary events. Wednesday 14th June is Mrs Dalloway Day, celebrating the novel Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which takes place on a ‘Wednesday in mid-June.’ I’m not sure if there are any Gibraltar connections to Virginia Woolf, other than that she didn’t have a particularly positive reaction to Ulysses. The novel follows Clarissa Dalloway around during the course of a day in London. You can do walking tours of the route she takes. There are events at the British Library. Mostly I think you should have a cup of tea, read the book, and buy some flowers for yourself.

I came to Virginia Woolf in the same ‘wrong’ way as I did Joyce. I watched the film The Hours, which dramatises part of her life, based on a novel that uses Mrs Dalloway’s plot and style as a template for another story. There’s something to be said for building your own thing from something that came before, especially when you’re repeatedly told you have no literature or culture of your own. I like the idea of wandering. I wrote the short story ‘Luz En Nueva York (1992)’ which was shortlisted for the Aurora Prize, based on a Mrs Dalloway type idea but using a character inspired by Camarón De La Isla’s wife and native of La Linea, La Chispa.

Maybe you don’t like modernist novels, but I hope this coming week you find some time to read. With a cup of tea or a cervecita en Eastern Beach. Whatever works for you. Find some time to write too, if it’s something you do or you’ve always wanted to do. Llanitos are natural storytellers. We’re constantly at it. I’ve come to realise this. Main Street is full of stories. And those lanes that lead up to the Rock too. That’s what books are about, stories. And wandering.