Monday, June 15, 2009

Sackville Street regained

Tomorrow is Bloomsday in which scores of silly sods descend on Dublin dressed in Edwardian costume to reenact various scenes from Ulysses. To make the sorry business worse they don't even do the thing whole-heartedly: a proper reconstruction would see them jerking themselves off on the beach while leering at a sexually precocious young floozy, getting into a fight in a pub with a GAA fan about anti-Semtism and finishing the whole thing off in a brothel somewhere in the northside of Dublin.

Admittedly there might be logisitical problems with some of these (the days in which Monto was Europe's largest red-light district are long gone) and the gardaí might try and spoil the fun; but I reckon they are not insurmountable. And surely if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing properly.

For one thing it might help rescue Joyce's novel from the poseurs and academics. Becuse no amount of fannying about in Edwardian dress in modern-day Dublin will get you to the heart of the place Joyce was trying to recreate. A new book by Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us, surely has a right idea; to offer us a guide to a half-familiar place the better to uncover its hidden byways and mysteries. Kiberd himself notes the supreme irony that:

The book has become a notoriously incomprehensible bore, almost wholly the property of academic Joyceans, and is seldom if ever read by anyone not forced to the task. (Surely an exaggeration?) As he sums up: “A book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them.”

The only solution is to read the damn thing: just because it requires a bit of effort doesn't mean it won't be enjoyable. Admittedly as an experimental novel, some parts of the experiment are more successful than others; but I would endorse Kiberd's approach. It's explained more fully in a piece in The Times here.

It is time to reconnect Ulysses to the everyday lives of real people. The more snobbish modernists resorted to difficult techniques in order to protect their ideas against appropriation by the newly literate masses; but Joyce foresaw that the real need would be to defend his book and those masses against the newly illiterate specialists and technocratic elites.

If you haven't visited the Dublin of 1904 before, give it a chance. Best of all, like Joyce himself, there is no need to be physically present in the modern Irish capital.

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