Fleur Macdonald

Across the literary pages: reinventing ‘Bloomsday’

Across the literary pages: reinventing ‘Bloomsday’
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Although it's over seventy years since his death, the attitude quoted under the OED entry for 'Joycean' from Eric Partridge's World of Words still persists: 'Joyceans are artificial, but, except at the cost of a highly gymnastic cerebration, unintelligible'. This 'Bloomsday', an annual celebration on the day the novel is set, Radio 4 decided their listeners needed a gentle mental workout.

First, a warm-up with Thursday's edition of In Our Time as Melvyn Bragg was on hand to help us decipher the playful complexity of an author who readily admitted: 'I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.' Then, on Saturday, the five and a half hour heavily edited version of Ulysses began in earnest. Interspersed with commentary from Mark Lawson, and irritating aperçus of modern day Ireland (it's bad, don't go), the reading was broadcast in real time starting at 9am with 'nutty gizzards' and finishing at around midnight with Molly Bloom's erotic recollections on her chamberpot.

Despite acknowledging that it inevitably straightened out some of the novel's daedalean form, Tom Payne in the Telegraph conceded that 'the very features of the book that make it so difficult, such as the transcribed sound effects, and the word-mishmashing streams of consciousness, are what make it ideal, even accessible, for radio'. In the Observer, Fiachra Gibbons called it 'the very epitome of Radio 4 flamboyance, a finely calculated compromise, erring strongly on the side of caution.'

Indeed none of this, nor the far more strenuous twenty-nine hour version on German radio running from 8am to 6am the next day, would have been possible had the copyright not expired at the end of last year. Control over Joyce's oeuvre had been so strictly enforced by the author's grandson, Stephen Joyce, (compared by some Joyceans to "a tsar or a shah or any dictator"), that even Kate Bush had to wait twenty years before releasing the full version of a song based on Molly Bloom's soliloquy. And now they no longer exert jurisdiction, perhaps the Joyces will have to go the way of the Francis Bacon Estate and release some tasteful merchandise. Rather than belts, beach towels and T-Shirts blazoned with his face, a line in nainsook, stockingette gusseted, cami-knickers and garters might work … 'Bloomers.