Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Yesterday was Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s novel Ulysses takes place.

All day long, I kept thinking “today’s some day, some anniversary, some...” and I went through birthdays and anniversaries of friends and family, of things that may have happened in my own life on June 16th, but couldn’t associate anything with it. Then, when I was clicking through a few of the blogs I check regularly (if not daily), I landed on Soho the Dog’s picture of Critic-at-Large Moe on the beach with a description of a dog running on the beach. I went from thinking “wow, Matthew’s really changed his literary style” to “this style is too much like James Joyce,” something I thought I’ve read before. And then at the end, he attributes the quote to Joyce, from Ulysses. Aha, then it dawned on me.

When I was teaching at UConn, I spent part of a summer reading James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and actually made it past page 200 before thinking, “ya know...?” and put it aside. I had read some of Dubliners, most of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and had started Ulysses several times, each time getting a little further into it. The problem is, usually I’m in more of a Henry James mood than a James Joyce mood and the two do not mix very well. In fact, during a round of would-be-novel writing back in the ‘80s, I’d come up with a character (a would-be novelist) named Henry James Joyce, who found it difficult to write because of all these conflicting emotions and aesthetic ideals, unable to find some natural sense of voice and rhythm. But I digress...

Living in New York City back in the late-70s, I spent many a fine spring afternoon, an old tattered paperback copy of Ulysses in hand, lounging in Central Park or Riverside, either on a park bench or stretched out on the grass, floating along on page after page of Joyce's unfurling mesmerizations. On one of those Bloomsdays, there was a marathon reading at a bookstore on Broadway called Bloomsday Books which was also broadcast live on (I think) WQXR. Richard Thomas had told me he would be reading one installment but I missed catching him either live or on the radio. The whole thing probably took 36 hours. Some of the day I spent at the store, some of it at home listening on the radio, some of it following along in the book. As a result, I found it easier to focus if I read out loud, then, something not always recommended even in Central Park (though today, it probably wouldn’t even gaurantee me a seat on the subway).

This spring, I’d begun Tolstoy’s War & Peace for the third time with the new Pevear / Volokhonsky translation. I’m not enjoying it much – mostly because the numerous paragraphs of French (and some German) are translated only in the footnotes, not in the actual text (because Tolstoy included these passages or expressions in their original languages himself). I find myself thinking I may switch over to Anthony Briggs translation instead. I am now over 200 pages into it and gearing up for the Battle of Austerlitz...

Without a lot of time for leisurely reading (or, when it is too leisurely late at night, staying awake), I’ve found if I read while using the treadmill, the one stone/two birds approach can be quite productive: I tend to read for longer stretches without interruption and I tend to walk more without getting bored. The book nests comfortably on the handles and a clip-on lamp allows for good lighting regardless of the time of day. One would assume, reading War & Peace on a treadmill, I should easily lose 15 pounds long before the war is over, but it doesn’t work quite that simply. Even as it is, I do aonly about 30 minutes, rarely 40-45, a day, but still, both exercises are good for me, much better than just putting on something to listen to, passively.

Walking was always something I enjoyed, especially on the back roads where I live now, or on the many trails through the woods around UConn. This was a great time to free the mind for creative work, eliminate the daily stress and the destructive influences of everyday reality. But I can’t stop on the treadmill to watch a bluebird or a butterfly (even though, looking out my windows, I can watch the chipmunks and the mourning doves on my porch without needing to stop) much less to jot down an idea or a phrase or some kind of reminder so that when I would get back to my piano I could pick up where my mind left off. The hope has been, after a good walk-think, I could sit down at the piano, my brain refreshed, and let everything pour forth.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Timing, first of all, is usually not on my side. With my afternoon work-shift, I don’t have the five hours of creative time I used to manage, going in later in the day. Quite frankly, the brain has been creatively comatose at the end of the day: even for the more mundane busy-work that is often an important part of composing, writing in the evening after dinner has been marked by a lack of focus. The next morning, I find I had made too many miscalculations or simple errors in judgment or just came up with something so really awful it was unusable.

So last night, I thought I would get out my copy of Ulysses – one I’d bought ten years ago and, this last time, made it to page 399 – wondering, even if I read just 15 pages every Bloomsday, “how old would I be if I lived to finish it?” Hmmm, June 16, 2034... Within minutes of settling into my favorite reading chair, I was surrounded by cats who, presumably, wanted to go along for the ride, but before I had managed to turn two pages, I was sound asleep, not even muttering, as had Molly Bloom on the final page,

"...yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

- Dr. Dick

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