(Host) This week is the hundredth anniversary of Bloom’s Day, and around the world thousands will celebrate events that never happened. Commentator Peter Gilbert explains.
(Gilbert) June 16 is Bloom’s Day, and it has nothing to do with flowers. Bloom’s Day takes its name from Leopold Bloom, the fictional hero of James Joyce’s masterful novel Ulysses. Through Joyce’s artistic genius, Bloom, a mediocre advertising-space salesman but a hero of rationality and endurance, has taken on legendary proportions.
Joyce’s Ulysses is a modern adaptation of the Greek poet Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, thought to have been written in the eighth century B.C. The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, or Ulysses, as he’s called in Latin, and his event-filled ten-year journey home from the Trojan War.
In Joyce’s novel, the ten-year epic journey is reduced to a one-day walk around Dublin, Ireland – on June 16, 1904, a hundred years ago. In Ulysses we follow three people: Leopold Bloom walking around Dublin; Bloom’s sensuous wife, Molly, at home in bed, and not so faithful as Penelope, the wife Odysseus left at home; and Stephen Dedalus, a young would-be writer with whom Leopold crosses paths during the day. Dedalus corresponds to Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, in Homer’s story, and Bloom becomes something of a spiritual-father figure for him.
Each chapter of Ulysses corresponds to an episode in The Odyssey. In Joyce’s novel Circe’s island becomes a brothel. The Cave of the Winds, which Ulysses visits, becomes, appropriately, the office of a newspaper full of hot air. The Cyclops’ attacking Ulysses becomes an anti-Semitic ultranationalist throwing a biscuit tin at Bloom. Homer’s bow, with which Odysseus slays his wife’s suitors, becomes “reason” in Joyce, who despised violence.
The publication of Joyce’s novel is also a great story. Written during the First World War and published in France in 1922, it was banned in the United States until 1933 on the grounds of obscenity. Now it’s widely considered one of the greatest books of the twentieth century. It’s not an easy read: its mingling of realistic descriptions and characters’ interior consciousness, its variety of styles and allusions, often make it a challenge. It helps to have a good guide or teacher. My advice? Listen to it on tape — or better, read it aloud with friends; the plot, irony, and especially the humor pop right out.
On Bloom’s Day, in over sixty countries worldwide, Joyce fans don period attire and recreate the events of that fictional day. There are look-alike contests and marathon public readings of Joyce’s work. In Dublin, thousands retrace Bloom’s steps around the city hoisting many a pint of Guinness along the way.
And so, on June 16th, raise your glass and toast Leopold Bloom, the immortal progeny of James Joyce’s abundant imagination.
This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.
Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke to us from our studio in Montpelier.