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Gillett's Wake

PostPosted: Tue Mar 08, 2011 8:05 pm
by Tom McPhillips
The week before last assumed a particularly Irish flavour. It wasn’t something I’d given much intention to, but it certainly turned out that way. Now my friend Rick and I have both at some point in our lives got smitten with the whole James Joyce thing. I’ve never actually participated in a Bloomsday celebration or reading, but Rick has, including one particularly surreal event he stumbled across in Cape May down in New Jersey one summer which will forever go down in the annals of absurdity.

Our wives’ eyes generally glaze over whenever we reminisce about our individual odysseys through Ulysses, remembering the false starts and the subsequent accumulation of synopses and “allusions” books. (I think they put it in the same category as “Top Gear” - you know - boy’s stuff) Anyway, we both ended up being big fans of Joyce and his convoluted telling of the events of that June day in 1904. So, not long before Christmas out together for dinner we were somewhat taken aback when Sue, Rick’s wife, announced that perhaps she should really like to make the effort to read the novel and see what all our fuss was about. Since it had worked well for me I recommended that she tried out what I did to make it through the book.

I should say here in case you were wondering, that ultimately, it’s worth it, there’s so much great writing, and even the parts that seem tedious and opaque the first time through eventually become familiar and mostly understandable, I reckon this is my fourth time through now, and I’m still finding connections I didn’t make before and further appreciations of the glory of the writing.

I started Ulysses several times, beginning from when I was 18 or 19 - I usually made it through the first few chapters, but my attention and enthusiasm always drifted away some time after the introduction of Leopold and Molly Bloom. I think one reason for my success at least with the first chapter was seeing what I think must have been a Wednesday Play, a vague memory of the Martello Tower in blurry black and white... However eventually I decided to make a greater effort. Thinking it would help to get an overview before starting the tome proper I decided to try listening to it first. Thus my way into the book was enabled by a brilliant but very abridged dramatization that the BBC put out on cassettes in the early 90’s. I listened to these in the car a couple of times through, and when I did tackle the text, I already had a sense of the whole novel, and that helped me to endure the more tedious bits, knowing what I had to look forward to. However I lent those tapes to another friend years ago, when he too was embarking on his own marathon.

So, I thought, those tapes would be a perfect Christmas present for Sue, who is always hard to buy for... I doubted that the tapes still existed anywhere, but checking out Amazon I found I could not only buy them, but get them new and for a knockdown price! Well, except that nobody owns a cassette player any more - or at least you can’t take it for granted that they will... So to get the tapes into a more usable format, I bought a cheap tape player to mp3 set up - I had my doubts about that, but it turned out to work like a gem, and I converted the tapes to CD. Of course the transfer has to be done in real time - the result was that I listened through the performances all over again, and once again it inspired me to embark on yet another proper reading which I started on that very week before last. My new trick this time, given our present state of technology is to read and listen to it simultaneously on my iphone which I think is very cool.... Joyce put a lot of popular musical references into Ulysses, (it reminds me of the way Murakami peppers his novels with jazz and pop references), and it is to music we go next with all this Irishness...

My wife discovered that the Chieftains were playing that weekend in York PA, not far from where we live. I thought we’d left it too late for tickets, but there were a few left, and so it was that Sunday afternoon we were taking our not too bad seats at the Strand Capitol Theater ready for the show. I don’t think either of us had particularly high expectations, only three of the originals were still left in the band - Paddy Maloney, Kevin Coneef and Matt Malloy. To me the glory days were the early albums, the ones that rewrote the book on Irish Music, a considerable improvement on the forgoing dark decades of inane “Wild Rovers” and “Fine Girl Y’Ares!”

So we were somewhat unprepared for a dazzling afternoon of music and dance (but especially dance). On stage with the three originals, were Triona Marshall on the harp, Jeff White and Deanie Richardson from Nashville, two Canadian brothers Jon and Nathan Pilatzke - Jon played fiddle most of the time, but would join his wife Cara Butler and his brother for some breathtaking Irish dancing. They also brought onstage a local pipe band and a troupe from a local Irish dance school which added a nice local flavor to the proceedings. One of the revelations was fiddler Deanie Richardson who seamlessly flitted between sublime jig, bluegrass and Hot Club of Paris-ish jazz. They also had Alyth McCormack who came on for a rendition of "The Foggy Dew" and a bit of mouth music. Overall the musicianship of the whole show was extraordinary, a cleverly crafted enrapturing performance that was at times thrilling, at times emotional and at times just plain good fun.

Well, you’ve probably made the connection by now, but there is a poignance to all of this, and as Paddy started to introduce some selections from their last album “San Patricio” the one they did with Ry Cooder, my thoughts inevitably turned to Saint Patrick’s Day 2010. That very same San Patricio CD has been languishing in my car for the past year, so on the way home when my wife mentioned that in her view the only bum moment in the whole show was when the guitarist Jeff White made a brave attempt to pull off Ry Cooder’s “On the Sands of Mexico” from that album - but despite a good effort he really didn’t have the gravitas, anyway she’d love to hear the original and how it had to be better and as if by magic I was able to pull the disk out on the spot and offer her instant gratification...

Of course the point about the CD being in a state of languishment in the glove compartment is the whole poignance. Over the course of the year every time I picked it up, the title, the Irishness and the Cooderness would remind me that it was on St Patrick’s Day that we lost Charlie, and I’d choose another disk or something else off the ipod. So it’s almost a year, and as always, the time’s both flown by and yet it already seems a long time ago. Not only because Charlie’s gone, but World Music itself has been so severely culled from the airways - indeed from the very places where he was its great proponent and pioneer - the World Service, Radio London and Radio 3.


Neither Joyce nor the Chieftains have much in common with Charlie, (even despite the band’s wider and more worldly repertoire - possibly due in no small part to the movement that Charlie himself was reflecting - he’d have preferred music from further away and closer to the source), and from what he wrote here, his literary tastes tended to the hard-boiled and not much to the long-winded. I’m sure he’d have enjoyed the Harry Hole series that I’m also reading at he same time (maybe as an antidote to JJ’s “proper lit”?) a lot more than the adventures of Mr. Bloom.

I did have a go once at Finnegan’s Wake, but that utterly defeated me. But, talking of wakes, while the Chieftains concert might well have been a bridge too far for Mr Gillett, in retrospect its World focus, virtuosity, humanity and basic celebration of life and art was a fine occasion for me to offer up to Charlie’s memory. And it was close enough to St Patrick's Day to be approximately timely...

I’m sure more fitting tributes will be made here and elsewhere, in the weeks to come -- but that concert was a reminder and at least to me personally, as I inhabit my own complex Ulyssesean web of occasions, coincidences and muddled correspondences, it represented a great memorial to The Man... Charlie’s Wake indeed!

Re: Gillett's Wake

PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2011 5:00 pm
by garth cartwright
Nice one, Tom. I've never finished Ulysses either - one day I attempt to sit down again with it. Maybe my next Canary holiday?

Re: Gillett's Wake

PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2011 5:35 pm
by Tom McPhillips
Thanks Garth - good luck with Ulysses - but I warn you - it's a three month project, and once past the first chapter, you need to get one of the synopses - (there's two I like "JOYCE'S ULYSSES FOR EVERYONE: OR HOW TO SKIP READING IT THE FIRST TIME"
by John Mood, which promotes the idea that Ulysses might be wordy but it's really fun and then Harry Blamire’s more serious "The New Bloomsday Book" which will give you the deeper references...) then read through the synopsis for each chapter before you go to the text. Otherwise it's easy to get lost and miss the plot, which at times Joyce might move forward in an easily missed sentence or a phrase hidden in the musings... It's worth remembering that others have been there before and have kindly figured it out for you!

Re: Gillett's Wake

PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2011 5:43 pm
by NormanD
I only got as far as the movie (dir. Joseph Strick). Leopold Bloom was played by Milo O'Shea, and his credibility was completely shattered as I'd already seen him as Duran Duran in the later "Barbarella" (maybe that shoulda been called "Bob O'Reilly").

Sorry, not a great addition to this literary discussion.

A great post, as always, Tom. Thanks!

Re: Gillett's Wake

PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2011 6:14 pm
by Hugh Weldon
Ulysses sings and coruscates, you don't need a concordance, just your finely honed ear and linguistic and literary antennae at the ready. There's not much of a story to follow anyway, it is halfway between the elegant classicism of Portrait of the Artist and the surreal glossolalia of Finnegans Wake, and probably nearer to an experience than a narrative.

Re: Gillett's Wake

PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2011 6:38 pm
by Tom McPhillips
Hugh Weldon wrote:Ulysses sings and coruscates, you don't need a concordance, just your finely honed ear and linguistic and literary antennae at the ready. There's not much of a story to follow anyway, it is halfway between the elegant classicism of Portrait of the Artist and the surreal glossolalia of Finnegans Wake, and probably nearer to an experience than a narrative.


I sort of agree, and reading and hearing it at the same time is a great way to experience it (and hearing a proper Dublin brogue is absolutely key) ... but as I say this is my fourth time through and I guess I'm about quarter of the way already (it does go faster after the first time), and I'm still finding plot elements that I'd missed... there's more to the story than there appears to be at first glance.... and, I wouldn't have said this before, but this time I find myself thinking it's more narrative than experience... Plus you'd have to have a lot more lit antennae than I'll ever have, since many of the allusions are so topical to the time as to be entirely opaque without reference to a concordance...

Re: Gillett's Wake

PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2011 10:12 pm
by Hugh Weldon
Actually Tom you're probably right, I just realised my last go at it was about ten years ago, so a re-visit is probably overdue.

I find the number of books, films, records that really repay revisiting get smaller as the years pass. I can't imagine Ulysses would disappoint, but some things like Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being which somebody urged me to look at again recently turned out to be ok, but....certainly not the major piece of work I thought it at the time.

Re: Gillett's Wake

PostPosted: Thu Mar 10, 2011 12:10 am
by Tom McPhillips
ditto "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" - first time round I thought it was so profound, when I revisited it more recently, it seemed peripheral - I think it's got a lot to do with when you read it... There's another meaning to "being past it".... as in actually having traveled past those milestones and onto a place where different preoccupations preoccupy one....

Marquez, Durrell and Hughes stay important for me though - (though could be me unwilling to admit that my previous determinations have grown invalid... I hate being wrong ne?)

I'm definitely aware that this time reading Ulysses, in age I'm closer to Dedalus pere, and Bloom is no longer a nearer contemporary but is at the age when I still lived in London (38)... When I first attempted the book it would have Stephen that I would have related to...

Although my father was born in 1912, and Bloomsday predates him, to me it's very familiar - this is the Dublin and the Ireland that he told his stories about and had his memories of, and it's a Dublin that even I can relate to when I stayed there as a child with relatives over the summer and would explore Dublin on my own, way before I was a teenager... seems incomprehensible now, but I'd set off from my Aunt's house in Drimnagh most mornings and walk the entire city, the Quays, Phoenix Park, O'Connell Street... could a child do that now I wonder?...