“First-time” Stories, 2011

First time is always hard. Always. Whenever Joyce fans meet they invariably get around to discussing how they made it through the book that first time. We try to get a few of these stories in every Bloomsday, I’m sorry to get this one out to you so late on a very busy June 16th, but Bloomsday has become a very worldwide event this year and, even here in Philadelphia, we’re running on Dublin time. This is from Rob Maher, a new friend to ULYSSES “SEEN”, and can be found in full on his blog “The Eponymist”.


Ulysses Prime
Like most things in life, I came to ‘Ulysses’ late. I was twenty five, in the second year of an astrophysics degree (I’d also come to university late), but having serious doubts about what I was doing. Astronomy was something I’d had a passion for since I was young. I’d spectacularly failed to apply myself at school, but having done a foundation year in physics and maths at night school, working my backside off in the process, I talked my way onto my preferred course at Cardiff University. Once I got there, I didn’t really a have a clue about what to do next.
So, after an indifferent first semester, in which I just scraped through exams, I did even less work during the second and flunked almost every subject. Taking re-sits over the summer, I did a single night’s revision for most subjects, managing to pass everything but the Theoretical Physics module and had to wait a year before I could sit the exam for a third time. I shouldn’t have gone back, but once I did, you’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson and applied myself. But no. I was spectacularly failing all over again. And these were the conditions under which I first read ‘Ulysses’.
It took three weeks that first time. I should have been studying Schrodinger’s wave equations and logic circuits, but instead I was playing ‘Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time’ on the N64 and reading ‘Ulysses’. My reward for finishing a dungeon on Zelda was that I got to read a chapter of ‘Ulysses’. An odd way ‘round to do things, I know. I probably didn’t understand one fifth of what I was reading (I missed the Blazes Boylan subplot entirely), but I knew that what I was reading was a revelation. Countless times people had told me that such-and-such a novel or play was a masterpiece and I had read them and always felt let down. It wasn’t that they weren’t great works, but appreciation is a matter of expectation and if you expect genius and find merely brilliance, there’s an sense of underwhelming disappointment. ‘Ulysses’ was the first book I read that exceeded those expectations.
In many ways, it is an experience from which I have yet to truly recover. I dropped out of university soon after. Astronomy may have been my first love, but another obsession had been creeping up on me those last few years. What I really wanted was to be a writer. It was something for which I seemed to have a talent. I think I thought it would make a good career. I’d had no artistic pretentions, the life of a hack would suit me just fine.
Reading ‘Ulysses’, all I could think was, “You mean you’re allowed to do this? Why did no one tell me?” My literary third eye had, to paraphrase Bill Hicks, been squeegeed clean. A whole new world had opened as to what literature could achieve. You weren’t limited to telling a story at the surface level, the syntax and associations of the words you chose to employ could tell another story entirely.
I worked for a year, then went backpacking around Europe (another late first), taking ‘Ulysses’ with me and reading it again. I read Joyce’s other masterpieces. When Jim Norton’s unabridged reading of ‘Ulysses’ was released, I listened to that and got a handle on the few chapters that were still troubling me. And all the time I was teaching myself the skills that I thought would make me a better writer. I knew that I would never be as good as Joyce, but that was fine. Joyce was (and is) my high water mark. Joyce is an unscalable peak, always ahead of me, reminding me to never stop climbing.
It is therefore no coincidence that in making one of my first attempts to write a short story, I turned to both Joyce and Greek legend for inspiration. In ‘Eden Stir Her Laceless Veil’, I borrowed Joyce’s switching between the passive and active voice in ‘Eveline’ (from ‘Dubliners’) and appropriated the myths relating to Jason and Medea, performing the same Viconian transformation that Joyce had made on the legend of Odysseus when writing ‘Ulysses’.
Giambattista Vico was a 17th/18th century Italian political philosopher who theorised that all of human history moves through three cycles, The Age of Gods, The Age of Heroes and The Age of Man, before the Ricorso, the time of chaos before everything resets itself and begins the whole cycle again. In ‘Ulysses’, Joyce transforms Odysseus into Leopold Bloom. Whereas Homer’s hero is a brutal hothead, Joyce’s ‘Poldy’ is a thoughtful pacifist. God’s and nymphs are replaced by the ordinary men and women of Dublin and great signifiers of power and virility become objects of the commonplace.
In writing ‘Eden Stir Her Laceless Veil’, I studied the legends connected to Jason and Medea in great detail and sought mundane modern equivalents to their key events. Ultimately, I don’t want to write like Joyce. As brilliant as he is, his later works are so opaque and obscure that they put most people off. Few people read the classics as it is and I’d rather find a happy medium between art and popularism. I want to be read. That said, I wanted to write a short piece where virtually every word had meaning: where, like Joyce, no other word would do than the one I had chosen. For a first effort, it’s not bad, although I’ve written better since (you can read it here: http://bit.ly/mk2Ypz along with some companion pieces).
‘Ulysses’ remains not only my favourite novel, but my favourite work of art, period. With each successive reading, I discover subplots that I hadn’t noticed before and new nuances to the text. It is the book that just keeps on giving. ‘Ulysses’ had a profound effect upon me on that first reading and I am still reeling from the effects over a decade later. I may spend the rest of my life as an enthusiastic amateur, eeking out a living from writing reports, but it’s a life affirming path with some breathtaking views. And there’s always the next reading of ‘Ulysses’ to look forward to. I envy anyone reading Joyce for the first time.
-Rob Maher
Thanks, Rob! He also has some very nice things to say about the comic. I’m too shy to record them here, but too flattered (and wise enough in self-promotion) not to send you again to the link.

Bloomsday Watch; New York

What are you doing in New York City on a fine June day? What are you doing right now? Well, why not put on your best frock or bowler and wander over to Bryant Park for the Irish Arts Center’s Bloomsday Breakfast?

“The festivities begin at 8 am with complementary Irish breakfast hors d’oeuvres, served in honor of the iconic opening scene of the novel. Entertainment includes musical performances by special guests Songs of Joyce and a selection of readings from Ulysses by Terry George, director and Academy Award nominated writer of Hotel RwandaJames Newman, “Tony” from the recent MTV series SkinsFionnula Flanagan, whose many movie credits include the 1967 film UlyssesAedin Moloney, founder and artistic director of New York based Fallen Angel Theatre Company;Isaiah Sheffer, founding artistic director of Symphony Space; andCharlotte Moore, artistic director at Irish Repertory Theatre. A donation of 100 copies of the novel will be given to New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library and Bryant Park Reading Room.”

And, of course, after breakfast, continue celebrating at the 30th Annual Bloomsday on Broadway, Symphony Space’s day-long homage to Ulysses, with a live radio broadcast all day on symphonyspace.org and after 8 p.m. on 93.9 FM WNYC. More details

Thick Giblet Prose

by M. Thomas Gammarino

Last year I had the pleasure of blogging here about the first line of Ulysses. This year, I jump ahead a few chapters to the beginning of the novel’s odyssey proper, where we first meet our (not-quite) titular (not-quite) hero dreaming of breakfast:

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

By this point in the novel, of course, the reader’s mind is no blank slate. A page ago, we followed the mind of Stephen, Bloom fils-spirituel, as it cast about Sandymount Strand musing on Aristotle and the fate of a drowned man before arriving at a vision of metempsychosis that is less proto-hippy than post-Nietszsche: “Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a urinous offal from all dead.” The sense of revulsion Stephen evinces for the body is typical of his dualistic sensibility. Living bodies, it turns out, don’t fare a whole lot better, and even the brothel becomes for him either a displaced classroom or confessional. He is—to appropriate a phrase from Robert Ardrey—a fallen angel, not a risen ape. Bloom, by contrast, craves urinous offal, and while he is not so beastly as the men who will later repulse him with their eating habits at the Burton Hotel, he enjoys his primate nature in a way that Stephen never could. By and by we witness Bloom enjoying a good bowel movement, and in subsequent episodes we’ll find him masturbating alfresco, and indulging in that rarefied pleasure of sniffing his own toenail. The riches of the intellect are not wholly off limits to him—he’s of an amateur-scientific bent and fantasizes about writing a sketch—but like his mythic predecessor, he delights in the world outside of his skull as well. It’s one of the reasons we delight in him, and Joyce’s masterful juxtaposition orients us this way before we’ve known Bloom for even a paragraph.

And what a paragraph it is! Like the exquisite ending to “The Dead” but in a very different mode, these few sentences showcase Joyce’s synesthetic ear. The words “thick giblet soup,” for instance, mean something, of course, but they also are something, and what they are–sonically, even visually (Gertrude Stein insisted she wrote to please her eyes above all)–is gibletty, the prose equivalent of a few thick gobs of oil paint.

Quick digression: Ferdinand de Saussure may be the single name that looms largest over twentieth-century literary criticism owing to his on-the-surface-pretty-obvious observation that signifiers and signifieds are only arbitrarily linked. Even onomatopoeia is largely arbitrary, which is why a cat might say “meow” in English, “kurnau” in Finnish, and “ngeong” in Indonesian. Recently, however, I’m glad to see a few writers complicating this a bit. Roy Blount Jr., in his book Alphabet Juice, coined the word “sonicky” for words that sound like what they mean in some very physical sense (e.g. “fuzzy” vs. “sleek”), and V.S. Ramachandran in his new book The Tell-Tale Brain gets into the neural mechanisms underlying this sort of synesthesia. Essentially, they tell us that while language is by no means deterministic, it isn’t exactly arbitrary either, which, I’d suggest, is why no man in his right mind would call his girlfriend “pulchritudinous,” even if she is. It’s also why Mel Gibson, being disemboweled in Braveheart, had to cry “Freedom!” and not “Liberty!”—that latter of which, for reasons all but impossible to explain to a non-native speaker of English, would sound perfectly ridiculous.

Joyce was hyper-sensitive to these sorts of textual-textural nuances. He was a musician before he was a writer and in passages like this it’s clear he never really left that other vocation behind. Do this sometime: videotape yourself reading that meaty paragraph and then play back the video without sound. You will find yourself, more or less, chewing. What Joyce gives us here is no less than the music of mastication.

And before I leave cat speech altogether, I’d be remiss not to mention “Mkgnao” (and “Mrkgnao,” and “Mrkrgnao”) which even Ron Rosenbaum in his recent jeremiad against Ulysses (to which I can only say de gustibus non est disputandum) recognizes as felicitous. Cats don’t bend to our orthography and Joyce isn’t one to rest on orthodoxy. By circumventing convention and capturing some of the halting, glottal quality of cat speech, Joyce exhibits what Viktor Shklovsky in 1917 called ostranenie (literally “strange-making,” though usually translated as “defamiliarization”). According to Shklovsky: “Habituation devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stony stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” I don’t want to overstate my case, but let me anyway: Mkgnao, in its microcosmic way, embodies the governing aesthetic of this whole crazy novel: to take us to the universal by way of the sublimely particular; to make life lifey.

M. Thomas Gammarino is the author of the novel Big in Japan: A Ghost Story and The Abstraction Pool, a nice little piece of flash fiction, if we do say so ourselves.

Ulysses in Five Minutes!

Originally attempted as part of the Rosenbach’s “Bloomsday 101”  Program, here’s everything you need to know about Ulysses given in exactly five minutes.  This was actually filmed in a dark cave below the streets of Dublin, secret bunker and received no sponsorship from Guinness. At least not yet.



…and don’t worry. I did end up drinking that pint.

GIBRALTAR comes to Philadelphia

And I’m very excited about that.

I had the opportunity to see GIBRALTAR when Patrick premiered it in NYC last October. I was skeptical at first, but it won me over in an instant. A fuller review of why can be found here.

But it’s truly a fantastic play and a very loyal adaptation of the novel that I can not suggest highly enough.

So Patrick and I, along with support from my good friend Allen Radway, Artistic Director at Simpatico Theatre Project, worked hard at finding a way to bring it down here for Bloomsday in Philadelphia. So, with the help and support of  Rachel Dukeman and  Plays & Players, GIBRALTAR will be here for four shows around the holiday.

We wanted it to be a fun, intriguing and friendly adjunct for first-time Joyce fans at site close-by all of the Rosenbach goings-on. Just down the block. We’ve even found a friendly Irish Pub around the corner, The Black Sheep, willing to give us a deal on food and pints for the extended Bloomsday week. It’s shaping up to be a little “Odyssey”, a wandering through the Rittenhouse Square area of Philly as we celebrate and appreciate the holiday.

Plays & Players, for those of you who aren’t from Philly and might not know the theatre, celebrates its hundredth anniversary next year and is a classic beautiful space just a few blocks from the Rosenbach.

I must say, this is one of the best experiences with the text I’ve ever had. Patrick and Cara nail it, offering a presentation of the wonderful, erudite, scatological, challenging, modern and passionate language of the 732 page book into just under two hours of theatre. If you’ve not made it through the novel yet, this is your primer.

There will be an exhibit of the “Calypso” artwork at Plays & Players as well as a gallery talk on Wednesday night. Seriously, you should join us.



Well folks, Bloomsday looms, and we have heard from our stalwart app coding partners that it doesn’t look like we’ll have Calypso as an iPad app ready for June 16th.  You will, of course, have Calypso available on the web  in time for Bloomsday.  But our slick app presentation will have to wait an additional two weeks or so.

This is a function of our trying to do too much with too little, particularly time– Apple has been grand, Bunsen Tech extremely accommodating, and Rob, Josh, Janine and Mike working around the clock.  However, we decided that all of Throwaway Horse LLC’s apps are going to have the same kind of robust discussion functionality that we recently introduced with our Waste Land “Seen” app (available now in the App Store!).  And that takes time.

We’re disappointed.  But, really, one of the pillars of this enterprise is exploring ways in which the open web interfaces with the walled garden, and, well, we’ll be experimenting with that a little more concretely this time around.  We expect to be up and in the App Store by July 1st, so look for us then.  Think of it like Little Bloomsday, Feast of the Joycean Epiphany…..

And now, for our next trick….

Martin Rowson's THE WASTE LAND "Seen" on the iPad NOW

What have we been doing with all that spare time in-between chapters? Good question!

As some of you may know, adapting Joyce is just the inaugural project for Throwaway Horse LLC and just the tip of slow-moving iceberg of ideas we’ve had for interfacing great works of literature with comics on a digital page. Sure, adapting ULYSSES is enough to keep my poor cartoonist hands busy for a decade or so, but what’s Mike to do with his time? Sit around and wait for me to draw faster?

Fortunately there are other great pieces of comix lit out there to keep his nimble brain active. It’s been awhile in the making, but we’re proud to announce the release of Martin Rowson’s THE WASTE LAND “Seen” for the iPad with commentary by Mike Barsanti.

From the introduction:

“It takes a lot of detective work to decipher modernist literature.  Trying to figure how grail legends, the Upanishads, and vegetation myths all link up has left scholars chasing their tails for nearly a century, and has left us ordinary palookas in the dust.  Lucky for us we have private eye Chris Marlowe, cartoonist Martin Rowson, and scholar Michael Barsanti to help shake out some of the clues and make some hasty repairs to a heap of otherwise broken images.

Throwaway Horse LLC is proud to present Martin Rowson’s THE WASTE LAND “Seen,” a re-launching of Rowson’s acclaimed The Waste Land comic first published in 1999.  The comic itself tells a story of betrayal, murder and intrigue in the best film noir tradition, haunted by various allusions conjured by T.S. Eliot’s most notoriously difficult poem.  The comic has been reformatted for the iPad, presented on Throwaway Horse’s Behind the Seen Reader so that it can be examined in relation to Eliot’s poetry, the development of modernist literature, the filmography of film noir, and the sweep of art history itself.

Rowson’s The Waste Land “Seen” is the second offering from Throwaway Horse, creators of theUlysses “Seen” website and iPad app.  As with Ulysses “Seen”, Throwaway Horse hopes that this project will help preserve interest in this challenging but essential work of art using the best functionality of tablet readers.  The app was coded by Bunsen Tech LLC, and is available now in the Apple App Store at the introductory rate of $9.99.”

A really great comic in a really great platform and, perhaps best of all, you won’t have to wait a few years to get the whole story. It’s all there now with Mike’s own unique guide to using Martin’s wonderful comic as a roadmap for understanding one literature’s most enigmatic poems. Comics like you always thought they could be.



A special treat for our subscribers

Its time.

Bloomsday is coming on fast and we’re working feverishly to get everything together with a re-tooled iPad app and website. But since some of you have been waiting so long and have supported the project is so many ways, we figured it was time for taste of Mr Bloom.

Here you go: 14 pages from the upcoming “Calypso” chapter. We’ve given it to you here as a thumbnail gallery/slideshow instead of as our usual comic pages while we re-tool that portion of the site. You can click on each individual thumbnail to view its corresponding page it at full size, or use the forward and back arrow icons underneath the full size-page image to read the entire set continuously.

The pages will start running on the regular comic reader beginning May 16th, just one month ahead of BloomsDay, and will be accompanied by our regular Readers’ Guide feature (written this year by the fabulous Janine Utell). But we thought you folks deserved a little taste!

Hope you enjoy it as much as I love drawing it.



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