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In The Footsteps Of James Joyce

A literary walk around Dublin

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

In my first novel, A Mild Suicide,, which is set in Edinburgh in 1977, a character is described as having ‘spent a week [in Dublin] following in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom’ — an endeavour which involved ‘a good deal of drinking’. When I wrote this, I hadn’t been to Dublin, and my knowledge of James Joyce’s most famous creation was sketchy. I thought Joyce scholars, seemingly obsessed with the minutiae of his work, were a bit much. Although hadn’t the man himself rather encouraged this approach, with his neologisms and compound words (‘scrotumtightening’, ‘brightwindbrindled’) and his boast that Ulysses would ‘keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant’? As my own – never finished – PhD was on Joyce’s friend and sometime adversary, Wyndham Lewis, whose critique of Ulysses in his wildly ambitious and occasionally brilliant treatise, Time and Western Man, might be described as ‘damning with faint praise’, I tended to take a rather dim view of the Joycean oeuvre.

Happily, it wasn’t too long after this that I came to see the error of my ways. It started with a short story: ‘The Dead’, a beautifully measured depiction of a Dublin Christmas party, in Joyce’s collection Dubliners. Here was a work of exemplary realism, culminating in a lyrical moment of realisation — a Joycean ‘epiphany’. The story had humour, pathos, some slyly subversive political content… I decided to read Ulysses again, in a less dismissive frame of mind. So that by the time I came to visit Dublin, twenty-five years after my novel appeared, and considerably longer since the end of my postgraduate studies, I think I might reasonably have described myself as a Joyce aficionado.

What was fascinating about being in Dublin, a city immortalised by Joyce in a book that took him seven years to write, was that – famously – he had to leave the place to write it. Nor did he ever live there again. It became, for him, a city of the imagination — if one that bore a peculiarly symbiotic relationship to the original. ‘I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete,’ he said, ‘that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.’

So where better to begin than at the beginning, with the Martello Tower at Sandycove, which Joyce enthusiasts will know is the setting for the opening chapter – and indeed the celebrated opening sentence – of Ulysses?

           Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of 
                          lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

A short train ride had brought us to the little seaside town, on a day of fitful sun and cloud. Perfect weather for visiting this picturesque building, constructed in 1804 as part of the defences against Napoleonic invasion, and later used as a base by the Fortieth Foot regiment — until 1904, when it was rented by Joyce’s friend, Oliver St John Gogarty. Joyce stayed there for six nights in September of that year, leaving the tower after a quarrel with Gogarty, and, a month later, left Ireland forever, with his lover Nora Barnacle. The building is now a museum devoted to Joyce’s works, but it retains something of the atmosphere captured in the opening chapter of Ulysses. The central room is furnished with a bed, iron stove and table, complete with breakfast crockery, and the light streaming into the low-ceilinged, whitewashed room recalls the following:

…when the heavy door had been set ajar, welcome light and bright air entered.

But it is on the roof of the tower, which once housed a movable cannon mounted on a circular rail, that the feeling of having walked into the pages of the book is at its strongest. From here, one can look out across Dublin Bay, at the deep green sea so memorably described (‘snotgreen’) in those opening passages, and at Howth Head beyond. One can look down at the Forty Foot, a swimming pool surrounded by rocks, which also features in Joyce’s account, and which is still in use today. It is as if time has been, momentarily, suspended.

This feeling persists when, on returning to Dublin – bypassing Dalkey, where Joyce’s youthful alter-ego, Stephen Dedalus, works as a schoolmaster, and Sandymount Strand, where he goes for a walk on the beach – we found ourselves in Sweny’s chemist shop, in Lincoln Place. This is still much as it must have been in 1904, down to the Edwardian shop fittings and medicine bottles lining the shelves above the counter. Here, with the book’s unassuming hero, Leopold Bloom, having eaten his pork kidney and taken his wife Molly her breakfast in bed at their home at 7, Eccles Street (sadly now demolished), the next thing to do was obviously to buy a cake of lemon soap, as described in Chapter 5:

Mr Bloom raised a cake to his nostrils. Sweet lemony wax.

Inspired by this, he goes for a Turkish bath (the best we could do was a swim and sauna at our hotel). Then, lemon soap in hand (or pocket), we continued our wanderings around Joyce’s book — and the city.

Eschewing a visit to the Glasnevin Cemetery, setting of Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Ulysses, and skipping the section of the novel set in the newspaper offices, we decided to emulate Bloom by going – by way of Bachelor’s Walk and O’Connell Bridge – for lunch (‘a light snack’) in Davy Byrne’s pub. A half of Guinness and a cream cheese bagel is as near as we could get to Bloom’s Gorgonzola sandwich and glass of Burgundy, but it set us up for the next port of call on our pilgrimage: Trinity College. Because although Bloom has already passed ‘Trinity’s surly front’, we still had to explore the green courts behind the imposing gateway, which in Joyce’s day admitted only Protestants (Joyce himself attended University College for this reason). Joyce’s resentment of the fact is perhaps betrayed by the disparaging remarks he has Bloom make about Trinity, and its Provost, one Dr Salmon:

Provost’s house. The reverend Dr Salmon: tinned salmon. Well tinned in there. Wouldn’t live in it if they paid me.

Not a feeling one can share, since the Provost’s House, with its handsome Palladian design, is one of the most magnificent Georgian buildings in a city which has more than its fair share of them. Moving on from Trinity’s graceful courts, we decided to go shopping. Because if Joyce’s novel captures anything to perfection, it is Dublin’s street life — from its trams ‘ingoing, outgoing, clanging’, to its milling crowds, gazing, as we were, at the enticing goods for sale in the windows of its main shopping street:

Grafton Street gay with housed awnings lured his senses. Muslin prints, silk, dames and dowagers, jingle of harnesses, hoofthuds lowringing in the baking causeway.

Bloom thinks of buying a pincushion for Molly; we were after another kind of souvenir — which meant retracing our steps to Lower Ormond Quay, via Merchant’s Arch (where, at his wife’s request, Bloom looks for a saucy book) and the Ha’penny Bridge over the Liffey. We had bypassed the National Museum (where Bloom looks at the statues of naked goddesses) and the National Library (where Stephen and Mulligan engage in a debate about whether Shakespeare was the ghost of Hamlet’s father) and – pausing only to salute the Ormond Hotel, where Joyce’s bronze and gold Sirens, Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy, eternally preside over their ‘reef’ – arrive at the Winding Stair.

This, as Dublin regulars will know, is not only a bookshop but an excellent restaurant, where my companion and I plan to return for dinner. However, our first concern is with the books, of which there are many — not all of them written by James Joyce. Because this is a city rich in literary associations, from Swift to Wilde, and from Yeats to Beckett. It soon becomes apparent that if we are to pay homage to all of these – taking in Merrion Square, and the now somewhat dilapidated former home of Oscar Wilde, or the Yeats memorial on St Stephen’s Green – then following in the footsteps of Mr Joyce might prove rather too much for one weekend.

And so, reluctantly, we decide to cut short our literary pilgrimage (no encounter with the Cyclops, vision of Nausicaa on the beach, or visit to the maternity hospital for us) and to limit our wanderings to the heart of the city — Temple Bar and its magnificent pubs. Some, like the opulently furnished Stag’s Head, were favourite haunts of our man, and so we’ll still be paying a kind of homage. ‘Nighttown’ and its unsavoury delights will be replaced, in our version, by listening to Irish music – both traditional and contemporary – in some of the area’s wonderful bars. And that’s after all how my story started — with an imagined pub crawl around a city that was, to me, still very much a literary construct. Having been there, I’m not so sure I’ve changed my view. What a city — and what a book: impossible to separate them, really.

Christina Koning has published nine novels, of which the latest is Out of Shot, the fourth in a series about blind detective Frederick Rowlands, which is set in Berlin in 1933.

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