Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

James Joyce Pilgrimage, Published in the Santa Barbara Independent in the Week of Bloomsday 2004, co-authored with Jim Read

Joyce's grave, Fluntern Cemetery, Zurich

June 16, 2004 will find over 10,000 people crowding O’Connor Street in the heart of downtown Dublin, seeking out a breakfast of fried kidneys. The breakfast, sponsored by Guinness Brewery, duplicates one a fictional Irishman, Leopold Bloom cooked for himself on June 16, 1904, as described in James Joyce’s Ulysses. City officials estimate that up to an extra hundred thousand will inundate Dublin that week, eating Gorgonzola cheese sandwiches in Davy Byrnes’s Pub and having drinks at the Ormond Hotel. What kind of novel, or novelist, could inspire such a gathering, perhaps the largest of its kind in history?

As we stood in front of the counter at Sweny’s Chemist on Lincoln Place in Dublin last January, I remembered the words of one of our teaching colleagues. When she heard that we were going to spend our Christmas vacation seeking out the places where Joyce had lived, she likened our pilgrimage to a “literary Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Would we forge a closer connection to the man responsible for Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, and Finnegan’s Wake, or would we end up pursuing a trail colder than the ubiquitous Dublin porter?

“This is probably going to sound odd,” Bob stammered, but the middle-aged Dubliner behind the counter at Sweny’s cut him off. “You’re here for the lemon soap, aren’t ya now?” she said as she reached for a box of faux lemons. Our purchase duplicated an obscure purchase Leopold Bloom made on Bloomsday. Prior to the  Hades episode, the purchase of soap by Bloom perhaps paralleled Homer’s Odysseus’s possession of the magical herb, Moly, a charm that would allow him to be protected from the treachery of Circe and to visit safely the land of the dead to get the information he needed to return home. It seemed a fitting purchase for us as we began our literal journey to resurrect the life and times of an Irish writer who had died over sixty years ago.  Sweny’s had recently survived a fire, and the smoky odor in the small pharmacy suggested that we were lucky to stand in one of only three businesses mentioned in the novel that are still extant. Rumor has it that Sweny’s may soon be closed for good. In Dublin, the Joyce pilgrim is also helped along the paths of Dedalus and Bloom by plaques embedded in the inner city sidewalks, offering quotations from Ulysses and information about what happened on that spot during Joyce’s fictional June 16th, 1904.

In Dublin, the real and the fictional now intermingle. A short walk from Sweny’s front door will bring you to Oscar Wilde’s Dublin house on Marion Square, the very spot where Joyce arranged with Nora Barnacle to meet for their first date, and a block or two the other direction will take you to the old Finn’s Hotel (now occupied by another business) where the young Nora lived and worked as a maid, an escapee from a physically abusive stepfather in Galway, far out on the west coast of Ireland. Joyce never forgot the small details of these personal facts and meticulously embedded them into his fiction and from there they soon entered directly into the great tradition of English literature. The day celebrated in Ulysses, June 16th, 1904, was the date of their first outing, an evening walk to Ringsend and a sexual moment Joyce was never to forget; and, as for Finn’s Hotel (The old name is amazingly still visible in faded letters high up on its west facing red brick wall), its memory is preserved in the very title of Nora’s favorite book of Joyce’s, Finnegan’s Wake.

Today’s Dublin has embraced Joyce in a big way. The turn of the century, conservative, Catholic country shunned his “obscene” books during his own life, and he only visited the country twice after leaving in 1904. Joyce struggled for nearly seven years to get his collection of short stories, Dubliners, in print. Irish publishers and bookstores were afraid of gangs of decency zealots who threatened to break the windows of bookstores that sold such “offensive“ books. Our trip, in fact, would lead us away from Dublin through Italy, France and Switzerland, following Joyce’s own self-imposed exile, but today Dublin has (finally) reclaimed him as her own. On Usher’s Island in Dublin, is the newly restored house where Joyce’s famous short story, “The Dead,” was set. At Martello Tower, the setting of the opening pages of Ulysses, along the city’s southern coast, is now an important Joyce museum, beautifully flood lit at night. During Bloomsday 2004, thousands of pilgrims will tramp up and down the three stories of restored Joyceana located at the James Joyce Center on North Great George Street, perhaps genuflecting before the salvaged door to 7 Eccles Street. The original building on Eccles Street, the setting of Leopold and Molly Bloom’s house in Ulysses, has been sadly lost to demolition, but the door and the character of the Georgian row houses on the street give a glimpse into the Dublin Joyce knew.

Dublin today is a young town, bustling with young people—much like it must have been during Joyce’s lifetime. Modern Dublin pays homage to Joyce, and one senses that Joyce is recognized at last but perhaps not fully embraced. Just as the city paved over its original ancient Viking village on the south bank of the River Liffey recently to erect a bland government office building, Dublin seems to tolerate Joyce as long as he doesn’t get in the way of progress. For instance, Davy Byrne’s pub (where Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, swears off meat forever after realizing that the kidneys he had for breakfast smelled just like the men’s room) is still there. So are the National Library with its elegant, domed reading room; Sweny’s Chemist; the Ormond Hotel; and Bewley’s Oriental Café. Progress, though, threatens much of Joyce’s Dublin, and one gets the feeling that one is witnessing something that won’t be around for much longer. After all, if 7 Eccles Street can be obliterated, what could go next?

Like Joyce, when he was in his early twenties, we left Ireland for the continent. There’s a sign in the train station at Charles de Gaulle Airport that reads, “All Trains Lead to Paris.” For Joyce that statement rang true throughout his life. His initial flight from Ireland landed him in Paris in 1902, when he decided to attend medical school. It didn’t matter that he had done horribly in medical studies in Dublin. He also hadn’t really thought about his then lack of fluency in French, so when he attended lectures at the Sorbonne, he didn’t understand a thing. Broke and nearly starving, he returned defeated to Dublin—but he would eventually return as a celebrated writer to Paris later in his life.

With the publication of Ulysses in 1922 in Paris, Joyce became, overnight, the most famous writer in Europe and the United States—no mean feet, given that during the twenties he shared the city with such famous writers as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marcel Proust.

One can encounter traces of Joyce throughout Paris, from the Sorbonne where he dropped out of medical school, to the Rue Odeon cafés and bars on the Left Bank. Today, you can still get a drink in the bar at the Hotel Lennox just a few blocks from the Musee D’Orsay. The Lennox is being beautifully restored as a 1930’s period piece, and the amusing night desk clerk, after telling you that he only knows two words of English (“money” and “money”), will smile confidentially when you ask about Joyce living there. In his increasingly fluent and animated English, he’ll tell you, “Yezzz, T.S. Eliot, he told Ezra Pound to find thees Joyce a place to live in Paris, and zeen Pound en-quir-ed and got heem a room here.” Perhaps this was the bar where a drunken Joyce once insulted someone. Rather than have a fistfight with him, the frail and half blind Joyce turned to his drinking partner and said, “Hemingway, deal with him!”

We found that Shakespeare and Co., Sylvia Beach’s bookstore (Beach first published Ulysses), has moved since Joyce’s era, but browsing through the shelves just across from the Seine from Notre Dame brings back a bit of nostalgia for those days. The Paris bookstalls are still set up along the banks of Seine, and one can browse titles in the open air just as Joyce had done during his period of success. Bob purchased an 8 by 10 black and white photo of Joyce from one of the bookstalls, and he and the seller chatted about Joyce.

To the east a few blocks, on the narrow, often sunless rue Git-le-Coeur  (mentioned in the Proteus chapter of Ulysses), loitered the young student Joyce. He enjoyed the Parisian brothels along this shadowy street, and, when done with them, he could walk down to the Seine, cross a bridge to the Ile de la Cite, and stand alone in the back of the cavernous Cathedral de Notre Dame, listening to the mass sung in Latin. As the sunlight flooded through the stained glass Rose Window, he would muse on his lost Catholic faith, discarded forever, along with a promising career as a priest. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s character, Stephen Dedalus, is offered that prestigious vocation by one of his Jesuit teachers at Belveder  College: ”No king nor emperor on this earth has the power of the priest of God. No angel or archangel in heaven, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, has the power of a priest of God: the power of the keys, the power to bind and loose from sin, the power of exorcism, the power to cast out from the creatures of God the evil spirits that have power over them, the power, the authority, to make the great God of Heaven come down upon the alter and take the form of bread and wine. What an awful power, Stephen!”Joyce, like Stephen, however, chose to fall into “the snares of the world,” instead, becoming a priest of the imagination, an artist of life, one who would not be afraid  “To live, to err, to fall to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

Only poverty or Nazi Storm Troopers would remove the Joyces from the City of Light for a very long period of time. Despite his fidelity to the city, there are very few formal traces of Joyce left for today’s literary pilgrims. You can visit the grave of family friend Samuel Beckett in the Cimetiere Montparnasse; Beckett may have spurned the love of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, but that didn’t stop the Joyce’s from taking care of him after he was stabbed by a Parisian pimp. Still you have to draw these connections—there is virtually no recognition of the writer in Paris. We saw the medical school and the library at the Sorbonne where  Joyce spent his  days as a medical student reading French literature. There were several apartments, like the one on Rue du Cardinal Lemoine which Valery Larbaud loaned to the Joyces. But to us, it seemed that Paris had merely absorbed Joyce. It had been a good time and place to be famous and revered and to hole up in various hotels and apartments and write his final novel, Finnegan’s Wake, but the city itself seemed to have little emotional or artistic impact on him. Perhaps his greatest hymns to Paris remain Stephen Dedalus’s fragmentary interior musings on Bloomsday morning: “Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets. Moist pith of farls of bread, the froggreen wormwood, her matin incense, court the air. Belluomo rises from the bed of his wife's lover's wife, the kerchiefed housewife is astir, a saucer of acetic acid in her hand. In Rodot's Yvonne and Madeleine newmake their tumbled beauties, shattering with gold teeth chaussons of pastry, their mouths yellowed with the pus of flan breton. Faces of Paris men go by, their wellpleased pleasers, curled conquistadores.”

During both world wars,  Switzerland offered the Joyces the neutrality and peace that allowed him to continue his writing. In Zurich we found remnants of snowdrifts and we finally found something of Joyce. Joyce had seemed a tourist attraction in Dublin, as authentic as those leprechaun hats offered in the souvenir stores, his face staring out on the collages on tourist board pamphlets. In Paris he had almost faded into that most beautiful city, just another genius drawn to the city of light. Walking down Zurich’s Bahnofstrasse, though, we found evidence of Joyce everywhere. The restaurants and bars he patronized are still there, as are the various apartments the Joyce family was crowded into during their years there, and even the building where he produced Irish plays.

Zurich is a banking town, and the austere nature of the business is reflected in the buildings and the people we met. They seemed less outgoing than in Paris or Dublin, and when Bob approached one old woman to ask for directions, he soon found how reserved Zuricheans are. “Excuse me,” he said, “can you tell me where Augustinstrasse is?” As he asked this of an elderly woman, he punctuated his question with his closed-up umbrella. The face of the old woman looked horrified, as she shouted, “NO, NO” and darted away around a corner. For the Joyces, though, Zurich was a welcoming place. Although they had lived in Zurich earlier, it was the Nazi presence in Paris that drove them to Zurich where they spent the last years of their lives.

On the way to the tram station near the university, we walked past two of the houses on Universitatstrasse that they’d rented in which portions of Ulysses were written, including one where Joyce became famously infatuated with Marthe Fleischmann, a woman who lived [and undressed] just across the street. They could see each other through their windows. He sent her a book of his poems, and then erotic letters. They had a brief and bizarre encounter. In Ulysses, she and her limp became the virginal Irish siren, Gerty Mc Dowell, who leads Leopold Bloom deep into sexual fantasy on Sandymount Strand. On the steep, grinding tram ride to the Fluntern cemetery where James, Nora, and their son, Giorgio, are buried, one passes the University Hospital, where Joyce died suddenly at the age of 59, following surgery for a bleeding ulcer.

Zurich in Joyce’s day was an exciting nexus of counter culture movements and personalities, a gathering place for the intellectual refugees of Europe, the home of Tristan Tzara and Dadaism, as well as the city where one could consult with Carl Jung, Freud’s most famous student. Many critics have tried to draw a connection between Jung’s ideas and Joyce’s art, although Joyce maintained throughout his life that modern psychology had no influence on his work. One connection between Jung and the Joyces, though, did occur when Jung treated Joyce’s daughter, who suffered from what seemed then a baffling variety of emotional problems.

The heart of Joycean Zurich, though, can be found in the Zurich James Joyce Foundation. Endowed with over $5,000,000 by international banks, the center occupies a beautiful upstairs suite of offices in the pricey shopping area on Augustinergasse. The center resembles a Joycean old curiosity shop, with several fulltime staff, first editions of all Joyce’s works, hundreds—if not thousands—of critical works about the author, and an impressive amount of primary materials. If you charm Fritz Senn, the charismatic scholar who has created this center through his own efforts and will, he might even let you pick up the original Joyce death mask, or grasp one of Joyce’s walking sticks. Fritz may jokingly tell you he’s going to charge you to breathe the air inside one of Joyce’s suitcases, or threaten you with an original, heavy leather pandy bat, one of the actual ones with which the priests at Conglowes Wood College used to beat the young boys, like Joyce and his character, Stephen Dedalus, when they did not do their lessons.

Unlike Paris, there is an impressive Joycean awareness in Zurich. Fritz will give you a map to lead you to the Joyce’s numerous living places, all apartments, scattered throughout the city. Joyce’s favorite taverns and restaurant are listed on the map, including the Kronenhalle Restaurant, where Joyce ate the night before he died. There is another one on Universitatstrasse, whose name has changed, where he read the emerging sections of Ulysses to his close friends.

After they fled to Zurich in 1939, chased out of Paris by Hitler’s army, the Joyces spent evenings at nightspots like the Café Odeon, just a short walk down the street from the new Starbucks. Nora fought a life-long battle to limit Joyce’s drinking. He’d wait patiently for Nora to have to visit the bathroom, having encouraged her to drink a lot of beer, at which time he’d refill his glass from a wine bottle he’d hidden under the table. After writing all day, in the evenings he would drink his favorite white wine. He was not an alcoholic, like so many of his fellow writers, but he was susceptible to alcohol’s effects and would get quickly inebriated after just one or two drinks. The evenings would end up with Nora going home annoyed (In the early days, in Trieste, she used to sober him up quickly by threatening to have their children baptized!) Joyce and his cronies would keep drinking, and often Joyce would suddenly shout, ”Let’s go see Budgen!” They would all troop downtown to stare up at a naked statue high on a building for which Joyce’s close artist friend, Frank Budgen, had been the model. Then Joyce would do his strange spider dance, a sort of insect-like Irish jig, flinging out his long, thin legs and spinning on his cane, and then they would all finally drift home, perhaps to sing Irish songs at the Joyce’s apartment.

Zurich represents the beginning and the end of Joyce and Nora’s long, complex relationship. In 1905, when Joyce and Nora Barnacle ran away from Dublin, they first came to Zurich in hope of Joyce finding a job teaching English at the local Berlitz  School. They stayed the first night at a small hotel, the Gasthaus Hoffnung, near the train station and finally consummated their relationship, although they would not get married for three more decades when inheritance  issues for their children seemed to require at least a legal civil union. Joyce steadfastly refused to acknowledge the power of the church over his life, even if it would sometimes lead to difficulties for the couple.

Even today, Fritz Senn wonders how the young Irish runaways signed their names in the guest ledger at the Gasthaus Hoffnung at16 Reitergasse, as Protestant Zurich would not have tolerated unmarried couples spending the night together. How they signed will remain a mystery, though—the River Sihl flooded a few years back, carrying the guest book beyond the grasp of today’s tenacious Joyce detectives. “It will always remain a mystery, ”sighs Fritz.  Today, where the hotel once stood, you’ll only find a street that looks like a modern monoculture street anywhere, Denver, London, Los Angeles:  a large brick and metal building houses a computer college, where students in black clothes line up outside classrooms filled with rows of glowing computer screens. Posterity has lost that monument to the brave and crazy love of the young Joyce and Nora, the Paolo and Francesca of their day, impetuous and impoverished young sinners, damned by the church, revelers in life, thumbing their noses at convention and middle class morality.  Zurich is the alpha and the omega of Nora and Joyce’s intense and devoted relationship. While the Gasthaus Hoffnung is gone (It became a sort of nostalgic shrine for them later in life), their graves stand as memorials high atop the mountain towering over Zurich. The cemetery is near the zoo, which pleased the grieving Nora, as she said that Joyce loved to hear the lions roaring. She would have been less pleased, perhaps, to see that her husband’s name remains misspelled ”Joce”on the cemetery directory.

For over three decades the Joyce family had crisscrossed Europe, and for three weeks we followed them, impossibly cheap inter-continental flights allowing us to trace their nomadic, Bohemian lifestyle in 21st century fashion. The final destination on our pilgrimage was Trieste, a city called “the meaning of nowhere” by British travel writer,  Jan Morris. Joyce has an obscure reference to it in Finnegan’s Wake: “And treiste, ah, trieste ate I my liver!”The astute Joycean is asking, by now, what trace of Joyce may remain in Trieste, a city on the very margin of western Europe, located at the southern edge of the former iron curtain on the end of a narrow strip of Italy that seems to dip south into Slovenia.

 Joyce and Nora ended up here in 1904, nearly utterly out of options, shortly after discovering that there were no teaching jobs in at the Berlitz  School in Zurich. But he was told of a job in Trieste, and he and Nora arrived as penniless exiles in dirty, smelly clothes. They got off the train in the morning, and Joyce left Nora sitting in the park next to the station, where she waited all day for him to return. His first day in Trieste ended up with him being thrown in jail with a group of rowdy English sailors for whom he had tried to intervene as a translator. He finally got back to Nora, and they soon discovered that there was no job in Trieste either, but the promise of one at the Berlitz School one hundred miles further south in Pola. After a year in Pola, they returned to Trieste and made it their home for eleven years. As Joyce scholar, Frank MacCourt has said, “Joyce was born in Dublin, but grew up in Trieste.” Trieste was at that time a very cosmopolitan city, a major seaport for the great Austrian-Hungarian Empire to the north.

Trieste is a refreshing, non-touristy city, a place past its several past glories, perhaps. Its most recent boom time was when 200,000 shoppers would pour in from Tito’s Yugoslavia every day to buy western goods, but with the fall of the iron curtain, this intense traffic quickly diminished. It is a busy and vibrant enough city, but its huge plazas and large stately government buildings belie much more important past, one when the huge Austrian navy was headquartered in its harbor.

In Joyce’s day, Trieste was a cosmopolitan, vibrant place, full of political intrigue and a rich mix of Austrians, Greeks. Slavs, Italians (anxious to return the city to Italy), and a large and often prosperous Jewish community. To the once provincial Dubliner, this new city offered a rich and intoxicating mixture of religions and cultures. In Trieste, We met an old friend, Eric Schneider, in the Piazza Grande the morning after we arrived by train. “Meet me in the piazza at the huge, ugly fountain,” Erik told us. We walked to our rendezvous through the busy post-Christmas shopping area, its side streets jammed with parked vespas,  and along the calm Adriatic seafront where we saw delicate, orange jellyfish slow dancing along the edge of the harbor. A large cruise ship lay placidly at anchor to the north. Erik was an old friend from Bob’s UCSB days in graduate school. He married an Italian, Daniella, and has two daughters. He is now the Director of the government funded James Joyce Center in Trieste.

We found the ugly fountain and Eric, who, after a quick stop at an espresso stand, took us on the first of several vigorous hikes through the city as it had been known by Joyce 100 years ago. We went to the old Berlitz School building, now being renovated,  and saw where Joyce and his brother, Stanislaus, spent many years teaching wealthy  inhabitants English. At a domed Greek Orthodox Church Erik pointed to a list of the wealthy congregation carved in stone-- “Many of those were Joyce’s students,” he commented. We realized in a sudden epiphany that we were in a city where Joyce could still be found.

We traveled quickly, following Erik’s long strides up increasingly narrow and winding streets into the Citte Vecchia, or old city, where Joyce frequented the osterias, bars, shops, and brothels of the old 16th century city, where the cobbled streets are not wide enough for a single car and the buildings rise up eight or more stories. “Here is where Joyce was writing the Circe episode of Ulysses, which takes place in a Dublin brothel”, said Erik, pointing to a fourth story window on one side of a dark and narrow street, “and over here,” he added, pointing to the other side,”is where the brothels were.”

In Trieste, as a writer, Joyce often only had to look out his window to do his research, to hear the sights and sounds of the street. “That is God…, “says Stephen Dedalus enigmatically in the Nestor section of Ulysses, “…a shout in the street.” By this time, art had become Joyce’s new religion, and Joyce, like the Irish priests of his childhood, who daily turned wine and bread into blood and flesh, transformed the everyday, the ordinary, the sordid into art, breaking the numbing restrictions of the Victorian Age whenever  possible. Ulysses, after all, includes the first actual bowl movement  and audible farts in English literature.

All across Trieste, there are some 45 plaques that commemorate places important to Joyce. Here he gave lectures on Irish history and politics. Here he bought his pastries. Here he ate his meals. Here he wrote for the Piccolo della Sera, a local newspaper. Here is where he taught the multilingual, multicultural men and women who became characters, or parts of characters, in Ulysses and, later, Finnigans Wake. This is where he swam in the deepest current of ideas, of socialism, of Futurism, of Judaism. While Joyce wrote exclusively about Dublin, he lived perhaps most fully as an engaged and active citizen of the world in Trieste. Because of his teaching and private tutoring he met and associated with wealthy people from all of the many cultures and social levels of the city. Of all the impressive cities we visited to unearth the life of James Joyce, in the plazas, taverns, and narrow, winding streets of the Citte Vecchia is where we felt we came closest to some sort of approximate resurrection anywhere in Europe. Perhaps this is partly because the Common Market has awarded Trieste with a huge urban renewal grant to restore its inner core of the Citte Vecchia: the old city is being impressively restored in a huge urban renewal project, and soon parts of the city best known to Joyce, will be completely renovated.  Walking through this project, we thought of Dublin’s city fathers burying forever the well-preserved medieval wooden buildings of its Viking founders forever beneath a modern building.  But in Trieste, the preservation and resurrection of the past in new and useful forms is an impressive fact.

Another hike with Erik the next day took us up into the wealthy neighborhoods in the hills high above the old city, and he showed us large houses where Joyce did private tutoring. His protagonist in Ulysses is Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew who converted to Catholicism but remains stubbornly secular, one who has origins in Hungary, features not at all unlike the experiences and backgrounds of Joyce’s many clients in the mixing pot of Trieste. Even the names, Leopold and Bloom (Blum) were taken from individuals he knew well during his  life there. We hiked on, up to the church of San Giusto, one of the highest points in the city, where Joyce was best man at his sister Eileen’s wedding to an Austrian bank clerk, Frantisek Schaurek.  Joyce did not have a suit, but he borrowed one that was three sizes too large. In spite of his aversion to the church and its holy matrimony, Joyce behaved very well on that day and evidently gave a wonderful speech.

Beneath San Giusto (an easy walk from where Joyce lived when he started his novel , Ulysses) Joyce certainly knew what all tourists who come there find out. The foundations of the church were once those of a great pagan temple. In his art, Joyce endowed the apparent random, accidental, and even careless experiences of Dedalus and Bloom in Ulysses with a deeper and more enduring foundation provided by the underlying structure of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Perhaps Joyce’s life in Trieste, a city with a deep and rich past and a exotic, innovative  present caused him to understand  in clear and precise ways, exactly  how what is past and present is ever present, and are eternally manifested in the common, the  ordinary and the everyday.

Ha'penny Bridge, River Liffy, Dublin, Ireland