(Re) Joyce: Bloomsbay in the San Francisco

Given the global reach and the timeless appeal of James Joyce’s epic novel, Ulysses—which was first published in 1922—it’s safe to say that someone, somewhere is reading it every day of the year and especially now, on its centennial anniversary. The United Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco, the Consulate General of Ireland, The San Francisco Public Library and the Mechanics Institute, plus the UC Irish Berkeley Studies Program, have come together to coordinate a series of cultural events in June and July that will honor “Bloomsday,” as it has traditionally been called. This year for the first time, it has been renamed “Bloomsbay” to reflect the variety of events taking place from San Francisco to Berkeley.

Laura Sheppard has been the events director for the past 21 years at the famed Mechanics Institute on Post Street. She has celebrated the publication of Ulysses every year for the past 21 years, and, while she doesn’t call herself a “Joycean,” she does call herself as an “appreciator” of the novel which she describes as “epic, intimate, bawdy, intellectual, funny, satirical, lyrical and musical.” At more than 700-densely packed pages, Joyce had ample room to spread out, explore, exaggerate, expand the English language and depict ordinary Dubliners going about their daily lives on one day, June 16, 1904.

Sheppard and her team at the Mechanics have assembled not one but two programs for Thursday, June 16, 2022. One is a Zoom event at noon with a recording from a real Joycean in Dublin, Ireland. That Zoom also features the publishers of a new illustrated edition of Ulysses by the Spanish artist, Edwardo Arroyo, who interprets Joyce’s novel for the 21st century. Arroyo’s brilliant, zany 1992 portrait of the author graces the cover of some editions of Ulysses. The second event at the Mechanics begins at 5 p.m. and requires registration ($15 to $20 per person in advance.

“We will have live Irish music, wine and whiskey,” Sheppard tells me. “People will be able to eat some of the food that’s described in the novel. They can also hang out and schmooze.” The music will be performed by Anne Bingham Goess (fiddle, vocals), Eamonn Flynn (piano, vocals) and Jason Pollack (flute). Veteran actors, Bruce Bierman, Josiah Polhemus, Esther Mulligan and John Illyin join the festivities. Attendees are invited to wear costumers and read from their favorite passages in Joyce’s works.

Is Sheppard Irish? “No, I’m Jewish,” she says. “We’re all ists of one kind or another.” That was Joyce’s idea too.  Harvey Smith majored in English literature at UC Berkeley, but didn’t plunge into Ulysses until he attended a ten-week extension course taught by John Reid. “That course opened up a whole new world and changed my life,” Smith tells me. “It introduced me not only to Joyce’s novel, Irish history, Irish literature, but also especially to Irish theater and specifically to Wilde Irish Productions. I made friends in the class who are still my friends.” (That’s Wilde, as in Oscar Wilde) Smith still has his dog-eared copy of Joyce’s novel. On the flyleaf he wrote, “Berkeley Ulysses.” Those words put a smile on his face.

Professor Catherine Flynn, a native of Dublin and the Director of Irish Studies at UC Berkeley, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Ulysses, which Joyce himself described as “an epic of two races (Israelite-Irish).” Flynn, who speaks with an Irish accent, is the author of Joyce and the Matter of Paris, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. She is also the co-host of the podcast “U22 the Centenary Ulysses,” available on iTunes and Spotify. She has assembled a mammoth of a book titled The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses: The 1922 Text with Essays and Notes. It contains a facsimile edition of the 1922 Shakespeare and Company text, Joyce’s errata, plus maps, photographs and footnotes. There are essays by scholars from around the world on each of the novel’s eighteen episodes, including “Nausicaa,” which led to censorship of the novel in Ireland, the US and elsewhere.

Professor Flynn knows the novel inside and out, as well as its immortal characters—especially Stephen Dedalus, the author’s alter ego, Leopold Bloom, the modern day Ulysses, and Molly Bloom his wife and a professional singer with a sleazy lover named Hugh “Blazes” Boylan. Flynn urges every reader of Joyce’s novel to become a literary detective and “embrace its complexities.”

She’s bemused and mildly surprised that some of the male students in her Ulysses course are shocked when “irrepressible” Leopold Bloom, (known as “Poldy”to his wife), masturbates in public while he observes Gerty MacDowell, a young woman who leans back seductively and invites Bloom to look up her skirt. Inspired by that memorable scene, the American lawyer, Edward de Grazia, wrote a classic titled, Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius. Lawyers, judges, publishers and readers broke the ban on the censorship of Ulysses, though it took a decade. In the end, genius defeated the Philistines.

With help from Irish actor Maria Doyle Kennedy, and Adam Harvey, an animator and “Joyce geek,” as calls himself, Professor Flynn has created “the Penelope Animation Project” that brings to life parts of episode 18 of Ulysses. The world premier, a free, virtual event, is available beginning at noon on June 16.

Adam Harvey grew up in Lubbock, Texas, hardly Joyce territory. In high school he tried to read Finnegans Wake, but gave up after only a few pages. Years later, he returned to it and studied Joyce’s other works of fiction, including Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For years, Harvey has run a weekly James Joyce reading group in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He publishes his views on JoyceBlog.

On June 5, 2022, from two p.m. to four p.m. in the Koret Auditorium the San Francisco Main Library will screen Shalom Ireland, a documentary about the “history of Irish Jewry.” It’s free. The documentary shows that whatever the Irish in Ireland were doing in the 20th century, except for attending mass and going to confession, Jews in Ireland were also doing, including running guns for the Irish Republican Army.

After the screening, there’s a discussion with filmmaker, Valerie Lapin Ganley, and yet another UC Berkeley professor of English, Dr. Joshua Gang. Two days earlier, on June 2, The World Literature Book Club discusses Ulysses from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 in the Latino/ Hispanic Room

From June 11 to October 13, 2022, on the sixth floor of the SF main library, an exhibit titled “International Joyce” offers snap shots and information about the author’s peripatetic life in Dublin and Paris, where the arch-bohemian, Sylvia Beach, the founder of Shakespeare & Company, first published Ulysses.

There are other opportunities to participate in Bloomsbay. On June 18, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the United Irish Cultural Center in SF (2700 45th Avenue in SF) there’s an open mic and more to honor Joyce’s novel.

Not to be outdone by “Bloomsbay,” the Irish in Dublin, Ireland, (a UNESCO City of Literature), hosts the 28th International James Joyce Symposium from June 12 to June 18. The Irish began their festivities in February, with special attention paid to Molly Bloom (who has long been in the shadow of her husband, Leopold), with food, drink, walking tours and exhibits. If you can’t fly to Ireland you can go to the Mechanics Library, the SF Public Library, or stay at home and read Joyce’s novels and a biography or two about him, and hunker down with Catherine Flynn’s The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses.

For more information see https://irishculturebayarea.com/bloomsbay/

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.