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Celebrating Bloomsday and James Joyce

June 14, 2012 | 12:04 pm


On Saturday, Angelenos can celebrate one of the greatest novels of the 20th century -– by gathering together and raising a glass of Guinness.

June 16 is Bloomsday, so called for Leopold Bloom, the main character in James Joyce's "Ulysses." The notoriously challenging novel blasted through formal conventions and become an iconic work of modernist fiction; its 600-plus pages take place in Dublin over the course of a single day, June 16, 1904.

Although it has now become the focus of public celebrations, “Ulysses” was, at first, the stuff of hushed words and darting glances. Serialized by an American literary journal in the late teens, part of Joyce's novel -- involving masturbation -- was ruled obscene in 1921. Expatriate Sylvia Beach, owner of the famed Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, published the complete "Ulysses" abroad in 1922, yet it was officially banned in America. In 1933, Random House’s attempt to import copies of the controversial novel were at the center of a major court case; “Ulysses” won, helping to prise open laws regarding “obscene” content.

Of course, just because American readers had access to “Ulysses” didn’t mean it was accessible. The novel is the stuff of semester-long seminars and Ph.D. theses – making it an odd candidate for marathon public readings, city tours and evening dancing.

“The really big breakthrough was in 1982, celebrating the centenary of Joyce's birth with a large Joyce symposium in Dublin,” Dr. Vincent Cheng, co-editor of 2009’s “Joyce in Context,” writes from this year’s conference in Ireland. “Bloomsday 2004 in Dublin was the first time that it felt like a fully public celebration, with lots of locals and tourists joining the Joycean academics in celebrating the day.” People lucky enough to be in Dublin this year can download the JoyceWays iPhone app, three years in the making, a literary tour through the city circa 1904.

Joyce enthusiasm has spread across America, where Symphony Space in New York has presented “Bloomsday on Broadway” for 31 years; this year’s performance will be streamed live online. Also online will be a classic reading by Alec Baldwin, Wallace Shawn and others at Pacifica Radio; at seven hours, it’s still only a portion of the 600-plus-page text.

At the Hammer, which hosts LA’s premiere performance-and-participation Bloomsday event, actors will be reading the book’s “Aeolus” section, or, more plainly, the part of the novel set in the offices of the Freeman’s Journal newspaper. It also includes a visit to a pub.

The Hammer will be offering happy hour Guinness from 6 to 7:30 p.m., accompanied by Irish music. Joyce enthusiasts can arrive up to two hours earlier to participate in an open “Ulysses” reading. When the performance is done, there will be more music, and more Guinness.

Is all this drinking and dancing an appropriate way to celebrate a brilliant work of literature? “I think Bloomsday events absolutely do a service to Joyce's work,” Cheng says. “Not only are they a lot of fun for Joyce aficionados, but they get people who have never read Joyce (and who might otherwise never dare try such challenging reading) interested in looking at these wonderful (but very difficult) books, especially ‘Ulysses.’"


2010: Bloomsday all over

After 22 years, Kate Bush gets to record James Joyce

2011: 8 ways to celebrate James Joyce and Bloomsday

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Celebrating Irish heritage and Bloomsday, named for James Joyce's "Ulysses," at the Hammer in 2011. Credit: Hammer Museum