Friday, June 16, 2023

Quote of the Day (James Joyce, With a Comic Take on a Most Serious Subject)

“-How’s Willy Murray those times, Alf?

-I don’t know, says Alf. I saw him just now in Capel street with Paddy Dignam.  Only I was running after…

-You what? says Joe, throwing down the letters. With who?

-With Dignam, says Alf.

-Is it Paddy? says Joe.

-Yes, says Alf. Why?

-Don’t you know he’s dead? says Joe.

-Paddy Dignam! says Alf.

-Ay, says Joe.

-Sure I’m after seeing him not five minutes ago, says Alf, as plain as a pikestaff.

-Who’s dead? says Bob Doran.

-You saw his ghost then, says Joe, God between us and harm.

-What? says Alf. Good Christ, only five…What?….And Willy Murray with him, the two of them there near whatdoyoucallhim’s…What? Dignam dead?

-What about Dignam? says Bob Doran. Who’s talking about…?

-Dead! says Alf. He’s no more dead than you are.

-Maybe so, says Joe. They took the liberty of burying him this morning anyhow.” —Irish novelist and short-story writer James Joyce (1882-1941), Ulysses (1922)

Today is “Bloomsday,” named for Leopold Bloom, the everyman hero of Ulysses. All over the world, James Joyce aficionados are celebrating by reading, often in its entirety, this novel covering a single day in the life of this Dubliner and two people in his life: his wife Molly and the young man he’ll encounter in his contemporary Odyssey, Stephen Dedalus.

A college professor of mine once joked, “You wouldn’t believe how much it opens some people’s eyes once they realize that dashes in James Joyce represent quotation marks.” The author would definitely have chuckled—partly at the thought that he could flummox readers with the simplest of challenges to typographical conventions, and partly because, for all the deeply serious content of this novel, so much of it is the product of his wildly funny sensibility.

This dialogue sequence, from the “Cyclops” episode of the book, is a good example of Joyce’s antic muse. The arch highlight of this exchange in Barney Kiernan's pub —“They took the liberty of burying him this morning anyhow”—preserves in fiction a one-liner by the author’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce, told at home.

The dialogue illustrates Joyce’s gift for capturing the rhythms of speech—his “ear,” if you will. Hearing it spoken—preferably, by someone Irish—helps you appreciate its laugh-out-loud moments. (I urge you to click on this YouTube audiobook link of the chapter, read by Dubliner Tadhg Hynes, so you can better understand what I’m talking about.)

How did Joyce develop his ear? I think some of it represented a heightened aural sense that functioned as compensation for his severe visual impairment. His gift for mimicry was paralleled by his talent for music. 

As Natalie Kopp observed in this 2015 post from the blog “Musical Geography,” Joyce was “himself was an amateur musician, playing piano and singing. His father had been a tenor, and for a short while Joyce, too, aspired to the same career.”

The exchange among Joe Hynes, Alf Bergan, and Bob Doran (awakening, in utter incomprehension, from having passed out at the bar) also highlights Joyce’s challenge to traditionally sacred subjects—not just to Mother Church, but here, to death itself.

It took a celebrated film funnyman to pay tribute to a writer whose comic gifts are often overshadowed by his reputation for obscurity. The Oscar-winning script for Mel Brooks’ The Producers borrows the name of Joyce’s Irish-Jewish protagonist Leopold Bloom for his own mild-mannered accountant. I think Joyce would have relished Brooks’ alteration of earthy, even raunchy, humor with sly literary allusions.

(Michael Sherman’s blog, “My Journey With James Joyce,” offers up his take on other Joyce gems, including this passage from Ulysses’ “Nestor” episode:

"—Because you don't save, Mr Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don't know yet what money is. Money is power. When you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.

—Iago, Stephen murmured.")

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