Today is Bloomsday, the date of Leopold Bloom’s meanderings and musings through Dublin as created by James Joyce in the great 20th century novel, “Ulysses.”
I’ve been revisiting some of my youthful passions lately — France, European painting, foreign art films, hours spent daydreaming over a world atlas — and Joyce is one of them. In fact, during my college years I was one of those irritating Joyce fanatics. I threw a birthday party for Joyce one Groundhog Day (Joyce was proud of the association with this iconic rodent).
During that period, I made a visit to relatives in Trieste, where Joyce spent 11 tumultuous, penurious years writing the novel before decamping for Paris and fame. He also perfected his mastery of Italian and the Triestine dialect there, made friends among the multi-cultural polyglots of the former Austian-Hungarian port city who deeply influenced his thinking about his main themes, language and exile, and began a lifelong indulgence in crisp white wines. Imagine my delight when I found myself walking down one of the stone staircases built against the city’s many steep hills and noticed the plaque at the end marking it as the “Scala James Joyce.” (The city later ignominiously renamed the staircase something more nationalistic and bland.)
Imagine my further delight when I spotted a copy of Joyce’s brother Stanislaus’ book in an aunt’s library. Stanislaus followed James to Trieste and settled in for the rest of life, becoming an English teacher at the university. Said aunt had studied with him. I was TWO DEGREES REMOVED. That night before bed I looked out the window and saw my first shooting star. (Remember: this was during my youth.)
Language and exile: two themes that have been in constant play in my own life and probably underscored my attraction to Joyce. I’ve lived through countless moves on four continents and my parents were immigrants. But of course, that’s true for so many people. Maybe that’s the abiding allure of the story of Joyce, how we relate to his experience of exile and the fact that in the end it resulted not in misery but a new art and the opening of a new frontier of the mind.
For my entire adult life I’ve been engulfed in radical changes. It’s a blessing and curse, no? But what it has had the potential to do is exile old ways of thinking, and create opportunity for continuous enlightenment. I’m still getting there.