Neither stately nor plump nor Buck Mulligan, I come to the stairhead of Joyce's tower at Sandycove and step out onto the roof. It's a cool, misty morning in the middle of May, and as I emerge into it from the cramped, curving stairway and walk to the round parapet that overlooks the sea, my overwhelming impression is of greyness, a grey so blanketing it must be spelled with the bland British 'e' instead of the more upbeat American 'a'. Grey sky, grey sea, long grey cargo ship inching across a grey horizon that might have been painted by Whistler, grey water splashing against dark grey rocks, on the coastal road a few yards below (the tower isn't tall at all) a gray-haired Garda officer leans against the grey stone retaining wall and works with intense concentration at a cigarette from which a pencil-thin line of grey smoke snakes upward. (Or at least that's the way I remember it now, a few years later, sitting at my desk in a far corner of a distant room in a house in rural Ohio a few days before the longest of the year, attempting to reconstruct the scene, flipping through old notebooks, fingering photographs like rosary beads, not so much recalling or reciting memories as creating them anew on the light-emitting screen of a technological device that probably wouldn't have surprised Joyce at all--as Beckett said, the man tended toward omniscience.) Even the tower itself is grey. I lean against the grey stone parapet and survey the roof, this empty space no more than 10 feet in diameter where the greatest novel of the 20th century, the Rosetta Stone of Modernism, begins. There's something missing here. It's a launch pad without a rocket. The old lapwing already flew. Whereto? Trieste-Zurich-Paris, as we all know. Yes... I turn around to face the land he fled. In Joyce's day the Martello tower was in a relatively desolate spot on a coastal headland, but today Sandycove is where suburbia meets the sea. It's a typical residential suburb of Dublin, distinguished only by the brightly colored houses that line the coastal road, part of a half-hearted attempt to 'brand' this stretch of coast as the Irish Riviera. The only bright spot, from my point of view, is that the coastal houses won't be here long. Year by year the sea encroaches upon encroaching suburbia. Landslips are moving within feet of the coastal road, and the retaining wall won't hold them back for long. Soon--sooner than the residents and realtors believe--suburbia will truly meet the sea... The mist turns to cool, grey rain, and I disappointedly trudge down the stairs while birds the color of melancholy soar overhead. The tower has run out of epiphanies... A few minutes later, walking along the winding coastal road to the train station, I glance back at the tower and appreciate its absurdity. Originally a lookout place, it now looks comically out of place, a stubby lingam of suburbia raising its unimpressive erection between a row of overpriced houses and a road that skirts the sea.
When I arrived at Dublin airport, a place so architecturally unprepossessing that it immediately reminded me of my old high school, an immigrations officer drowsily asked the purpose of my visit and I replied, "James Joyce pilgrimage."
He looked up. "James Joyce?" he asked, speaking the last name with a slightly suspicious emphasis. "You mean Ulysses? That fella?" (This moment gave me my first lesson in Irish pronunciation. The Irish pronounce the name of Joyce's novel with a strong emphasis on the first syllable: YOO-li-seez.)
"Yes," I replied, "that's the guy."
Still holding my passport, the officer gave me a penetrating stare and said, "That's a hard book... Have you read Ulysses?"
I paused for a few seconds to enjoy the moment. I was actually being asked--under penalty of perjury and deportation, no less--if I had read Ulysses. To hell with all the people behind me in line. This was a moment to savor. Glancing down at my passport still firmly held between his thumb and forefinger, I said, "Will you kick me out of the country if I say no?"
He paused before answering, perfectly deadpan: "That is a distinct possibility, sir."
"Well then, yes," I replied overenthusiastically, "Yes, I've read it several times. Yes, I have. Yes."
He handed me my passport and waved me into the country with a bored "Enjoy it anyway."
When I returned to central Dublin after my morning at Sandycove I walked up O'Connell street, passed the Rotunda, and continued north to another of the genesis sites of twentieth-century art, the studio of Francis Bacon. A few years after Bacon's death in 1991, his studio and all its contents (untouched since the painter's death) were transferred from Reece Mews in London to Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery. The studio is installed in a separate room at the back of the gallery, past a small but impressive collection of 19th-century French paintings (some of the best of which are jointly owned with the London National Gallery, the result of a massive and seemingly endless Jarndyce & Jarndyce-style legal entanglement that began when Lane died in the sinking of the Lusitania before he could clear up some ambiguity regarding the disposition of his paintings). The gallery is free, but Bacon's studio is not, so one must buy a ticket in the bookshop before trekking back to the dimly lighted room where a short documentary on Bacon plays perpetually. The doc is worth viewing, but the real attraction here is the studio. The Hugh Lane employed a team of archaeologists to map the London studio like an archaeological site, carefully noting the disposition of every scrap of paper, every discarded brush, every empty, tossed-aside paint can. It was all catalogued, removed and shipped to Dublin, along with the studio's walls, door and floor, and here at the back of the Lane all of the pieces were put together again. It's not a large room, for an artist's studio. It's slightly larger than a suburban living room. But it is heroically cluttered. 'Messy' doesn't describe it. This may be the most cluttered room I have ever seen--and I've known some pretty messy people...Yes, this is where Francis did his dirty work... Bacon likened the mess in his studio to the contents of his mind, so this room deserves its place in an art gallery, because it is in fact a work of art, an environment created by an artist as a portrait of his own mind, an objective correlative for the place his art really 'comes from'. And it also deserves its place in Dublin (city of Bacon's birth), for this is a most Joycean work of art, a work that in another medium marries the autobiographical imperatives of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to the encyclopedic surrealism of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A listing of the torn papers and illustration fragments lying at random around the floor would resemble one of the catalogs from the last two books and would constitute an index of the painter's interests. The studio is sculpture as surrealist autobiography... These thoughts came to me as I stood in the now permanently open doorway of Bacon's studio and stared through plexiglass at the interior. (Unfortunately, we can't go inside; we remain voyeurs peering in at the Baconian aquarium, trying to spot the sea monsters.) There are five orifices through which one can view the studio: the glassed-in doorway, two peepholes sunk into the opposite wall, and two windows in what was the exterior wall. Looking through one of these windows, I had the uncanny experience of seeing myself reflected in Bacon's oft-photographed round studio mirror. So I guess I did make it inside. The mirror captured my face, peering in like an intruder from the gallery's surrounding darkness.
The morning I arrived in Dublin, I passed Bono on the sidewalk. I didn't believe it, of course. After all, who really arrives in Dublin, takes a bus to the city center, drops his bag at his hotel, and steps out for a walk only to immediately cross paths with the world's most famous Irishman? Shit like that doesn't happen... Well, except when it does. Returning to my hotel later that day, I mentioned ironically to the desk clerk that I saw "some guy who looked like Bono." The clerk was unimpressed. "Yes, that probably was Bono," he replied flatly. "U2 owns the hotel around the corner from there, and they stay there whenever they're in the city." The next time I left the hotel, I fully expected to see Van Morrison ambling down Lower Baggot Street. Unfortunately, Van the Man was nowhere in sight.
One morning I sat in Stephen's Green and watched the Dubliners walking past. Every man and woman seemed to move inside his or her own story. How many interior monologues are criss-crossing here, I thought from my bench, what interweaving of minds. Who is this tall, gaunt man who wears his overcoat like a hanger, and why does he sidestep to avoid walking under the shadow of that grove of trees? Who is this young woman in a red coat walking with her head down and hair pulled back in a thick ponytail that bounces softly against her upper back as she strides along? Woman in red aside, Dublin is a city that wears black. Every man his own Dedalus, walking in perpetual mourning for that morning's fall in the stock market.
Every walk in central Dublin is a walk through Ulysses. The better you know the novel, the more names and places you'll recognize. Wandering in the cemetery from the 'Hades' episode, I seemed to see the last name of a Ulysses character on every other tombstone. Turning north just beyond O'Connell street, I passed Capel Street, home of the lending library used by one Leopold Bloom. Northeast of there, on Eccles Street, the home of the Blooms has been torn down, demolished to make way for a maternity hospital, but the other side of the street remains much as it was in Joycean times, allowing us to project its mirror image on the demolished side and see the street Joyce would've struggled to recall as he imagined it all in Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921.
Those dates still shock. Joyce started writing Ulysses the year Europe marched merrily off to hell in Flanders fields. Its writing spanned the whole of WWI, the Easter Rising, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Flu, and the Irish Civil War. He finished the novel not merely in a different city but a different world. An obvious and enormous question arises: how do the events of its years of composition impinge upon the novel?... I'll let you think about that one.
Ulysses turns up in the most unexpected places. Click here to see a reproduction (much too small, unfortunately; a slightly larger and clearer reproduction is here, thanks to Towleroad.com) of artist Paul Cadmus's 1931 portrait of his lover Jared French. Their illegally acquired copy of Ulysses is featured prominently in this portrait, which was recently acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio. The illicit book, presented upside down with French's phallic fingertip disappearing into a crack in its up-turned bottom, is an almost too-obvious symbol of gay male anal sex. Cadmus uses the smuggled book to smuggle into his painting an image of the unrepresentable. This painting deserves a place beside Meret Oppenheim's fur teacup in that small gallery of 20th century gay and lesbian erotic art icons. (I fell in love with Jerry [the painting's title] when I saw it a few weeks ago, and I will eventually be writing about it at length.)
Finally, here's a Bloomsday to-do list (one item for each chapter):
- Start the day with rich white milk, not hers
- Try to awake from your historical nightmare
- Telephone Eden on your navelcord
- Discuss the works of Paul de Kock.
- Stupefy them with Latin
- Plant Paddy Dignam and watch him, Bloom
- Kiss Molly's Royal Irish Arse
- Prove by algebra that Hamlet's father was his mother's uncle's brother's cousin's mother
- Stalk Father John Conmee SJ from central Dublin to the hill of Howth
- Tunefully tup Mrs. Bloom
- Explain by science the hanged man's erection
- Read Saintsbury's History of English Prose Rhythm
- Visit a Surrealist brothel and be as bad as Parnell was
- Buck yourself up in orthodox Samaritan fashion
- Insert long round end
- ...and yes I said yes I will Yes.