James Joyce & Bloomsday: Talking Ulysses

A literary celebration of the Irish novelist every June 16; this time unveiling the importance of Joyce’s time in Trieste

A statue of James Joyce looking over the Canal Grande in Trieste | Photo: Wiki Commons

Bloomsday: Talking Ulysses

When Miss Dunne typed in: “16 June 1904,” she fixed for once and ever the celebration of Bloomsday. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, this is the day on which all the action involving protagonist Leopold Bloom takes place and that has become the day for the celebration of James Joyce himself, as the pioneering novelist of the unconscious.

James Joyce has chosen this particular date deliberately. Not only did he send a postcard to his brother Stanislaus on Jun. 16, 1915 where a first draft from Ulysses can be found, but it was also the day when Joyce had his second date with Nora Barnacle, his future wife. Allegedly, that’s what Nora told her friends: It was the day when James Joyce “became a man.”

After nearly 80 years James Joyce’s great novel continues to fascinate. Ulysses, written in 1922, is the subject of symposia and street festivals all over the globe, from Chicago, Illinois in the United States, Melbourne in Australia, Trieste in Italy (where the first part of the novel was written) or Tokyo in Japan, people celebrated in honor of Joyce’s novel. In Dublin, however, where the story is set, people carry this day to extremes.

It wasn’t always like that.

While Joyce himself invited his friends to a “déjeuner Ulysses” on Jun. 16, 1926, the first “real” Bloomsday celebration took place in 1954 in Dublin, on the 50th anniversary of the fictional date. Then, five men (among them artist John Ryan and writer Flann O’Brien) traveled round Dublin to the places mentioned in the book.

But it was not until 2004, its 100th anniversary, that Bloomsday began to receive so much recognition. With the five-month-long ReJoyce Dublin festival from Apr. 1 to Aug. 31, thousands of Irish and people from all over the world honored the work of James Joyce.

In 2010, the Bloomsday celebration went on for a week, Jun. 12 – 16, with most of the attention on the day itself. For Joyceans it’s a tradition to dress up in Edwardian costumes (the Edwardian era is the period of King Edward’s VII reign from 1901 to 1910) and reconstruct Leopold Bloom’s route around the Irish capital. The festival includes Ulysses dramatizations, traditional Irish music and pub hopping; some enthusiasts even hold marathon readings of the novel.

Joyce in 1904 | Photo courtesy of the C.P. Curran Collection

There was also a symposium at the University of Vienna. The Department of English and American Studies organized speeches, with celebrants mostly from Ireland. A gathering of about 50 people in the old chapel of the building that was part of the former Allgemeine Krankenhaus (General Hospital) had been the setting for this years’ Bloomsday lecture by Prof. Franz K. Stanzel, who has a senior professorship in English at the University of Graz.

Talking right next to an altar and with an echo in the small hall, it somehow reminded  me of the opening scene in Ulysses where character Molly celebrates in front of an altar.

“I hope my lecture won’t turn into a black mosque,” joked the 86-year-old Joyce scholar. His topic, “The Irishing of Joyce’s Austrian Years.”

In 1904, when Joyce was in his 20s, he and Nora moved to Zurich where he had been offered a position to teach English. As this turned out to be a swindle, they soon left for Trieste which then was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where he again couldn’t find a job. The couple ended up in Pula (now Croatia) for a few months and after this odyssey, they got back to Trieste where they lived for almost 10 years.

There, Joyce had met Ettore Schmitz who he became close friends with in 1907. He is supposed to be the role model for the character Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.

By stating, “I hate this Catholic country,” Joyce made clear what he thought about Austria-Hungary. Still, it’s undeniable that he met people who were important influences in writing Ulysses. But would he have written the novel if he hadn’t been in Austria?

“I’m quite sure he would,” said Prof. Stenzel in his lecture. “But how this Ulysses would be different from the Ulysses we know, that’s another question.”

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