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When I first read Ulysses it was Stephen I identified with. I was going to be a poet too – and there was a chance I could be as good or as bad a one as Joyce had been. But at a later reading I was nearer the age of Bloom, and had been both married and divorced. Stephen haunts the book, just as Rudi, the prematurely deceased child of Molly and Bloom, does, but Bloom inhabits it fully. He is foretold in the opening chapters, and he is uppermost in Molly’s thoughts, and upside down in her bed, at the end.
A hundred and ten years on from the first one, Bloomsday remains…Bloomsday! Not Stephen’s Day, nor indeed Molly’s.
I’ve seen essays on Ulysses that I didn’t even understand the title of. University Departments have been dedicated to study of this book. Professors have made their careers, and livings, out of it. Far more, I suspect, will have been earned by them than Joyce ever saw from it!
Yet a writer like Anthony Burgess (Here Comes Everybody, Faber, 1965), can exhort us to believe that is really just an ‘ordinary’ novel, to be read for enjoyment. If that is indeed true, then it’s what appears to happen to the characters, and what they appear to think about it, that must hold our attention.
Breakfast at number 7 Eccles Street in Dublin is the beginning of our acquaintanceship with Leoplold Bloom. He eats ‘the inner organs of beasts and fowls’, ‘with relish’ and some of us choose to do something similar on the mornings of 16th June that we encounter!
Bloom’s day starts the way it will continue: we ride his consciousness through the routines of an ordinary life. H.E.Bates, writing in a Preface to one of his collections of short stories tells how he decided to stop ‘sucking the significance’ out of trivial events…Joyce sucks for all Leopold Bloom is worth. The opening chapter of this second part of the novel (it’s main part) sees Bloom make breakfast for his wife and for himself (including a trip to the butcher for some of those inner organs), and then a trip to the Calypso’s Grotto of the privy where he – reader I can put no finer point upon it – opens his bowels.
It was this level of domestic detail (among other, later things) that outraged the post Edwardian literary scene onto which Joyce elbowed his way. George Moore (let’s not forget him), had done something similar with the 1894 publication of Esther Waters, which, in this 1936 introductory note gave us the ‘straightforward presentment of men and women in their ordinary life.’ Moore’s previous four books had been banned from circulating libraries for ‘offending against Victorian proprieties’. Back to Ulysses, all through which, Bloom’s inner voice adds a commentary to Joyce’s own. Bloom is an advertising canvasser, and he frames the ads that might suit, or have fitted, many of the items he finds, sees, seeks and encounters as his day unfolds.
The comparison with the contents of Stephen’s mind is worth reflecting upon. To my mind, Stephen’s musings upon the cosmos and the nature of being, seem yet inward looking, while Bloom’s thoughts about the minutiae of what impinges upon his own life, seems to embrace the universe. Mostly, repeatedly, and with a wistful longing, Bloom reflects upon Molly. One of the things, for want of a better word, that this novel might bring you, is a sense of the gulf that Joyce was portraying between the immensity of Bloom’s longing for his wife, and her understanding of it. When we finally meet Molly and live for forty pages within her drifting thoughts, at the end of the day, we may do so in the context of Bloom’s thoughts about her. Because of her position – not in the bed! – at the end of the book, and because of the originality of Joyce’s presentation of her, there is a temptation to think that Ulysses is all about Molly, but my readings have led me, over and over again, to think that it remains, true to its original, all about the Irish Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. He journeys out from home; he journeys back: surely the most difficult journeys for anyone to undertake?
Telemachus was the son of Odysseus, and the first three chapters of Joyce’s novel parallel those in Homer’s original, telling the story of the Dublin student who might be Joyce’s proxy in the book. Joyce didn’t name his chapters in the published editions, but critics almost always do! Telemachus, Nestor and Proteus form the trio that open the book. In them we see Stephen Dedalus, recently bereaved, and planning to leave the Martello tower where he lives with the medical student Buck Mulligan, a man above his class, but below his wit.
An Englishman called Haines – the French for ‘Hatred’ some have pointed out – is in residence. Joyce was in the Martello tower on the morning of the day in question, with the two men parodied, satirised even, in that opening chapter. An incident took place during the night, not entirely dissimilar to the one described, and, so legend and story has it, it set Joyce off on his own Odyssey of travel, and of storytelling. Following this opening chapter in which the three men breakfast and go for a swim, Stephen surrendering his key to the tower, we see Stephen teaching in a local school, and, in the third chapter, walking on the beach.
The narratives, as is almost obligatory with this novel, are mostly interior. Joyce puts us inside Stephen’s mind, reflective rather than speculative, measuring always, the world against himself, and himself against it. There is some jaw cracking language: the ‘ineluctable modality of the visible’ springs to mind, but that’s the sort of lad Stephen is.
We’ve met him before. He was the ‘Young Man’ that the ‘Artist’ was portrayed as in Joyce’s first published novel, but A Portrait was not Stephen’s first outing. There is a famous, earlier novel manqué. Consigned to the fire by Joyce, but rescued by his sister, Stephen Hero is a wordier, less structured book, and has been kept in print solely by the fame of its creator, and the paucity of works published by him. Even as a school-kid, I couldn’t resist getting a copy to complete my collection. I’m not convinced though, you would read either of these two novels for ‘fun’.
Intellectual, self absorbed, somewhat priggish, Stephen, who, in this early manifestation, has had a sexual encounter with a prostitute, seems curiously uninterested in the goings on that Ulysses was banned for. Even in the brothel, late on Bloomsday, Stephen doesn’t show any real interest in the women. A good dose of Molly Bloom, perhaps we are thinking, would make a man of him. She certainly speculates about that possibility.
The artist portrayed in Joyce’s rendering of Stephen is the one without love, without compassion. His cleverness has trumped his humanity. The Joyce that was celebrating the day he embarked upon his lifelong relationship with Nora Barnacle is showing us, perhaps, the boy he left behind.
I recently picked up a copy of Professor Walter Allen’s The Short Story in English (Oxford, 1981), and spent a pleasant evening taking his Cook’s tour around a hundred or so short stories he describes and analyses.
He’s writing about the ‘modern’ short story, seeking to disconnect, rather than re-connect it with ‘the earlier form’, and he dates that disconnection, as do others I have read, from the generation of 1809…Hawthorne, Poe et al. His analyses are thoughtful and thought provoking, and there are a good many stories he touches on that will go on my ‘must read’ list, some of which I have seen referenced before, and others that I was surprised not to have heard of.
As with all these compilation books, what’s put in and what’s left out might tell us more about the putter and the leaver than it does about the genre as a whole, and recognising that led me to wonder what it is we make of such studies, and what we could, or even ought to make of them. What provoked me in this volume (and something always does, quite properly I expect) was Professor Allen’s dismissive reference to O Henry.
In barely a page, and referencing one story only of Henry’s massive output, Allen calls him a ‘bad influence’ on American writing, and a master of the ‘trick-ending’. This tag has been used by others in dealing with O, whether following Allen or preceding him, I’m don’t know. I blogged recently about several adaptations of O Henry stories (http://bhdandme.wordpress.com/2014/07/27/o-henrys-full-house/ ), and have written elsewhere about what is probably his most famous tale, The Gift of the Magi. In popularity this must rival Dickens’ Christmas Carol, though it is without doubt on a much smaller scale of ambition, and reach. But popularity cuts no ice with Allen, and neither should it, yet, I find something irksome in the professor’s closing remark on this remarkable American storyteller:
“He reduced the short story precisely to a trick, his reward being the naïve reader’s gasp of surprise at the end.”
Well, I’m not sure he did, and I’m not sure it was, always. What I am sure about is that getting a response from the ‘naïve’ reader is no bad thing. Perhaps Professor Allen had a different background to me, and all children are different, but I do wonder didn’t all readers, however knowing, or even cynical – which might be thought of as just a darker shade of naivety – begin as naïve readers? The remark reminded me of an outraged party-political friend, who after a table-turning election back in the 1970s, complained to me that people ‘who had never voted before’ were responsible for the losses his party had incurred. I’ve quoted elsewhere C.S.Lewis, from his book of essays ‘Of Other Worlds’, in which he berates the ‘non-literary’ reader for ‘flooding wretched material’ with his own imagination. There’s something unwholesome in this approach, whether it is to politics, or to literature, I feel. We have to see things through our own eyes, however weak or unfoccussed they might be.
Perhaps some O Henry stories might evoke a wry chuckle, rather than a gasp and not only from the naïve, and perhaps, to assess his achievement more fully, we have to consider more than one of the hundred stories of his that are still in print.
A deeper concern that emerged as I read this scholarly book, and make no mistake, it is scholarly, and reveals an encyclopaedic knowledge of its subject; a deeper concern was that those of us who have less knowledge, and who have retained, perhaps more of our naivety, may feel that we are in the position of having to trust the Professor Allens of this world; whereas, in fact, what we can do is to read the stories for ourselves…..
Apparently the organisers of the festival don’t like to encourage local writers, and so the Pop-Up was not included in the festival programme. Celebrity writers are, of course, as I seem to need to remind people repeatedly, the white sliced bread and baked beans of the writing world. It is ‘local’ writers who are the artisan bakers and pastry makers! Wag Tongues tell me they have around 60 such artisans on their books at present, whose books they were selling at Wigtown.
In addition to an early flowering, Marilyn is at the stage of getting her recent crop of short stories into print. She has been performed by Liars League in New York City, and you can find her story online at their site. A surprise awaited us in Wigtown though, for her story The Feathered Army appears in the freshly baked Southlight 16, which was on sale at the Pop-Up! Southlight 15 carried 3 poems by Me, and the short story Lena, by BHD was in issue 13!
Another recent publication from Dumfries and Galloway is Annan From Above, creative responses to aerial photographs – a summer project 2014. A cross-border community initiative, supported by English Heritage and RCAHMS the project was guided, and the book edited by Vivien Jones (Perfect 10,White Poppies, both published by Pewter Rose Press). BHDandMe were both lucky enough to get pieces accepted in the anthology with a fictional and a creative non-fiction piece respectively.
BHD’s reading at Wigtown with Marilyn was a duet, of the duo of stories Perhaps Tomorrow and Perhaps Today, the latter written by Marilyn in answer to BHD’s previously written one. We’ll be bringing the same pair to Caldbeck Festival in our back to back reading from 1.30pm onwards at the Oddfellows pub, Caldbeck, on Saturday 4th of October. There will also be individual ‘sets’ from both of us, and a couple of drop in writers workshops too…oh, yes! And there will be a pop-up bookshop too! The festival runs from Thursday 2nd through to Sunday 5th at various venues in the village, with Open Mic word and music sessions every evening.
‘Norman Nicholson at 100, Essays and Memoirs’ brings together more than twenty pieces of writing about Cumbria’s most famous poet, and Cumberland’s second most! With contributions from those who knew him, and those who know and love his his work; analysis sits alongside speculation; memories rub shoulders with academic essays. Norman’s own voice is included too, not only in the quotations from his work, but also in the transcript of an interview undertaken by me back in the nineteen seventies, in the cosy gloom of Nicholson’s sitting room at 14 St. George’s Terrace, Millom.
The editors, Steve Matthews and poet Neil Curry also allowed me the opportunity to make a brief comparison between Nicholson and his near contemporary, Geoffrey Holloway, two poets whose similarities and differences intrigued me during the years I knew them, and have haunted me ever since.
Other contributors include poets Chris Pilling, Mary Robinson and Phil Houghton, academics like David Cooper, and Nicholson’s most recent biographer, Kathleen Jones. It’s an amazing collection of disparate opinions, avenues of approach, and areas of interest. Norman is viewed through the lenses of topography, religion, friendship, the green movement, and of course, of poetry.
I’m, of course, immensely pleased to be included among such distinguished writers, but most pleased to be able to pass on some of my own recollections of this widely admired local poet. It’s the scope and variety of what is recalled, discussed, and suggested, that makes this anthology so interesting.
It’s available from Bookcase, in Carlisle, at £10, and would, as they say, may an excellent present!
Another Cumbrian Cultural Landmark worth noting is the Caldbeck Festival of Culture, which runs from Thursday 2nd to Sunday 5th of October. Bringing together a wide range of activities and interests from choirs to cloggies, by way of poets and flash fictionistas, at various venues around the village, notably The Oddfellows public house! It’s in the bar here that Open Mike sessions for writers and musicians will be held each of the four nights (including a prize giving session for young writers who took part in the creative writing competition on the Thursday). There are poetry an d flash fiction sessions too, throughout the four days, including short fiction readings by (me as) Brindley Hallam Dennis and Marilyn Messenger, and ‘mini- workshops’ for writers led by (me as) Mike Smith on the Saturday afternoon. check it out on: https://www.facebook.com/Caldbeckfestival
One thing stood out for me, about the story, that I hadn’t fully realised from watching the old Gene Kelly movie. That was how the character Cosmo glues the story together, how he dominates it in some respects. Cosmo, in case your not familiar with the plot, is the sidekick and pianist of the ‘star’ of the show, and early on in the script that point is made. Don Lockwood is the star. Cosmo is the nobody. Don even lends him his coat, so that while Cosmo gets mobbed by the fans, Don can slip out of the theatre without being seen. But when Cosmo slips on the overcoat, the sleeves are way too big for him.
Even in the film, one can’t (or even cain’t) fail to notice Cosmo’s fabulous tour de force in the dance routine to the song ‘Make ‘em Laugh’, and to see the performance (brilliantly done by Stephane Anelli, in the Glasgow production) live on stage makes it even more so! I realised I’d been waiting for that song, but it’s not the only one Cosmo appears in. There are two others where he holds his own with the putative leads, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in the original filmed version. These are the songs ‘Good Mornin” and ‘Moses Supposes’. The two leads do, of course, get their duos, and the male lead, in what was – as with the Fred Astaire movies – a vehicle for the talents of the lead male dancer primarily, gets his extended ‘ballet’ – Gene Kelly’s term for the ‘Broadway Melody’ sequence, danced in the film with Cyd Charisse. And of course, there is the iconic, and eponymous, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ sequence, which in the stage show delightfully showers the front four rows of the stalls – we sat in the fifth, heh, heh.
Yet, Cosmo has something about him. When he is on stage he is orchestrating the actions of the ‘good guys’ in the faces of their adversaries. He comes up with the idea that will save the day, dubbing the songs of the brash Lina Lamont with the singing of the Debbie Reynolds character, Kathy Selden. He’s the one who thinks up the new title for the ‘talkie’ they are making, and the one who initiates drawing back the curtains on Lina as she mimes to the true heroine’s voice at the end. As a plot device, Cosmo is vital to the story, but I suspect he is more than that. He also the little guy who comes through, who makes good, who lives his life in the shadow of the great, but who, right from the start, when Don and he are Music Hall performers, is not overshadowed by them. The fact that he does so is not lost on us, for we are like him, or aspire to be and that gives him a potency on stage, and in the film, that doesn’t steal anybody’s limelight, but which is both palpable and reassuring.
Sidekicks and buddies, girlfriends and confidantes can be found in many stories. They are often wiser than the heroes they support. They are often long suffering. Look at Sam Gamgee in Lord of the Rings. But they are always valued, by the heroes themselves, and by us, in the penny seats.
At a Facets of Fiction session recently we got onto the subject of writing fear. Not the schlock-horror slasher chain-store massacre stuff, but that subtler, and not in the least comic slow-burn tension that you get in movies when the camera point of view tells you you’re watching through the eyes of some hidden predator.
There’s a particular favourite of mine, in literature, in the H G Wells novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and having cited this to the group I decided to go and read it again, in the deep darkness of later on! It’s the section of the story where Prendick, already unsettled by the appearance of M’Ling and other residents of the island has been driven out of the compound by the crying of the puma under the eponymous Doctor’s vivisectionist knife.
His unease increases as he encounters one of the beast people that Moreau has created, and then witnesses three more of them ecstatically reciting ‘the law’. A decapitated rabbit on the path adds to his sense of danger, but it is when he begins to realise that the light is fading, and that he has wandered far from the compound that Wells really turns up the tension. In the fading light, Prendick’s journey back, alone and unarmed, his head full of the images of the deformed creatures and the mutilated rabbit carcase, is tracked by one of the beasts. Prendick can see the creature through the thick undergrowth, but as the shadows deepen the tracking turns into a pursuit.
I had the pleasure of visiting the abandoned island of Mingulay a few years ago, not alone I might add, and neither was it entirely abandoned, for two ‘hunters’ were living on it, and spending their time shooting the local rabbit population, at the behest of Scottish heritage or some such body. The rabbits, in case you’re wondering, were, and probably still are, literally destroying the island. The open ground near to the ruins of the village was strewn with corpses, each neatly slit open, presumably to encourage the attention of scavenging birds, and my mind flashed back to Moreau’s island.
What’s interesting to me about this imagery and the way writers, and film makers use it, is how the power of the threat it implies is often in inverse proportion to the extent of the danger that is made explicit. What is hinted at, but not revealed is usually far more potent than what is shown. I call this the Trollenberg effect, in memory of a film I watched as a child. The Trollenberg Terror lived up in the mountains, shrouded in movie mist, and was terrifying, but when the jelly-blob of second-rate special effects was revealed you reached for the crying-with-laughter box of tissues. As with images, so with words.
M R James, in his Whistle and I’ll Come to You Lad pulls a similar trick, dropping the hints that make our wildest imaginings run free. For the key to this is not what’s happening on the page, so much as what is lurking in our subconscious. Our fears are what scare us, and the good storytellers, in film or language, hitch a ride on those fears, knowing that they will carry them far further than will any horror that they imagine will scare us, or as the old blind monk said. once upon a time, to a character called ‘grasshopper': it is your fears that pull you down!
I’ve been involved in discussions with the editor of an anthology, who had accepted my story Perhaps Tomorrow for publication in next year’s edition…Don’t hold your breath: it won’t be there (though you should be able to read it in my forthcoming collection from Sentinel if all goes to plan.) Things don’t always go to plan, do they?
What I’d missed, actually I hadn’t looked for it, which we’ll get back to, was the House style! Always check out “The House Style”. It’s advice I’ve been given, have passed on, and have frequently overlooked! Let’s face it, we’re always tempted to believe that in our “special case” the story, poem, or whatever will be deemed so irresistible that “The House Style” will be chucked out of the attic window, or locked in the basement for the duration. It probably won’t be.
In this case though, I’d simply not considered “The House Style”, and sent my story off with thoughtless insouciance. The acceptance was nice, but also, potentially more useful, in that it came with the offer of some editorial input.
The input came through, a few notes added down the side of the digital manuscript. All referred to the lack of “speech marks” in my MS.
Those of you who have read/read my stories, will know that speech marks “are a thing of the past for me”. I gave them up several years ago. It has become my House Style to do without them. I got the idea from George Moore’s novel Heloise and Abelard (Doubleday, 1921 – I think). He wasn’t the first I’d encountered who did without them, only the first I’d consciously noticed. James Joyce, of course, doesn’t use them, nor Cormac McCarthy. There are others too.
I had to explain to the editor, who tried to persuade me to relent, saying that “they would make the story ‘stronger’”. Personally, I find them “bloody irritating”, but that’s as may be. Being a reasonable sort of chap – “Ho, ho, ho”, I hear you say – I ran the quandary past a few writing friends. The first, who shall be referred to as “the nameless one”, was circumspect. “How would you feel about translation?”, he said. Translation, like adaptation, is fine… but you’d have to put ‘translated by’ or ‘adapted from’ as the bye-line. I ran this past my editor, mostly because I found it rather amusing…but the editor did a “Queen Victoria”, and wasn’t at all.
So, I asked another writer for an opinion, whom I shall refer to as the “nameless two.” ”Read this,” I said, and after they had, “and tell me if you think it would benefit from ‘speech marks’”. They thought not. The sentence “You don’t use ‘speech marks’” cropped up.
In for a penny, I asked an artist friend of mine what she thought. Okay, we’ll call her “nameless three.” She got almost as upset as I had. She’s a visual artist, and could see that the inclusion of “them” would profoundly alter the reader’s perception of the text, even before a single word was read.
The editor had been busy too… garnering other “nameless ones,” the one I saw concurring with the “stronger” theory, and also putting the finger, or thumb, on the point about “House Styles” I referred to earlier.
This was the comment that made me realise it was my “House Style”, because up till then I’d let myself react by playing the game of giving “my reasons in writing.” I’d explained about George Moore, and how reading his “speech-mark-less” text had been a bit of a struggle, and that I rather liked that – because it made me pay attention, and wanted to go for the same effect; that and the fact that I think “speech marks” rather isolate what’s being said from the narrator telling the tale – as if there really were other people in there who were actually talking, which is “Not What I Want To Do!”
But beyond all that, it struck me, eventually, that though explanations of the ways that writers and other artists work can be interesting and instructive, you don’t have to justify it them anyone but yourself. You do sometimes, however, have to accept the consequences of your beliefs.
My nameless three interlocutor had one other interesting observation to make, one potentially of more use than anything I’ve written above. It was that “when you make something you are going beyond what you know you are doing” – actually that’s me paraphrasing.
I hope this little blog has been worth waiting for.