No self-respecting James Joyce scholar would fail to be in Dublin on June 16, 2004; but this year, anyway, Berkeley is the place to be.
Joyce, the Irish novelist who probably changed the face of literature more than any other person this century, has something of
By setting his master-work, “Ulysses,” on June 16th, 1904 - an un-newsworthy day in Dublin when most everything happens in the minds of those you meet - Joyce revealed the everyday as epic poetry.
As a result, the day’s a holiday. Called Bloomsday (after the protagonist of “Ulysses,” Leopold Bloom), it’s the day all the Joyceans will see the road rise up to meet them on their way to Dublin in 2004 for the centennial celebration and accompanying literary conference.
But this year the Joyce conference, called “Extreme Joyce/ Reading on the Edge,” is in Berkeley.
“We have people here from Uruguay, Germany, Spain, France, England, Ireland and all over the states. This conference occurs every year,” said UC Berkeley English professor, John Bishop, one of the conference organizers. “Every odd numbered year in North America, every even year in Europe, and it floats from city to city.
“Last year it was in London, year before in Charleston, S.C., year before that in Rome, Bishop said. “So this is Berkeley’s turn to play host to all the people who play host to us.”
The conference is taking place at UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr campus throughout the week, and Tuesday night the program brought a number of performers to the Krutch Theater from the Bay Area and far beyond.
Interwoven with some Irish singers performing the traditional ballads and limericks Joyce’s work is full of, the night was highlighted by a drama and a set of dramatic readings from Joyce’s work.
The drama, performed by Rory Johnston’s Strolling Players, presented a collection of excerpts from Joyce’s last and most-difficult work, “Finnegans Wake.”
“That ‘Finnegans Wake’ play was the West Coast premier of a play that was written by the Irish playwright, Denis Johnston,” Bishop said. “The director is the playwright’s son. It was kind of hard to follow if you don’t know Joyce’s work, so I wish it had been set up better.”
The set of dramatic readings were entitled “Joyce’s Women.” They enlivened, with a welcome passion and sensuality, some of the richest passages in all of Joyce’s work. Performed by the Bay Area Bloomsday Players, a quartet of women who - transplants from Ireland, garbed in period dress - had brogues to accompany them.
“(Grania Flanagan) did a good job of reading Molly (Bloom from ‘Ulysses,’) and that reminded me of what a strong feeling Joyce had for, let’s say, the physical actuality of a woman’s life,” said Sheldon Brivic, professor of English at Temple University and author of “Joyce’s Waking Women: An Introduction to Finnegans Wake.”
“Even though (Joyce) was born in the 19th century and had certain old-fashioned attitudes,” Brivic said, “his attention to the psychological lives of women was very important. It influenced and impressed a lot of women at the time, (especially) women writers.”
Some might wonder who comes to these things - if it’s just academics, or maybe just people with a stunning likeness to Joyce - but Bishop says there are others.
“There’s many academics or people who are really devoted to Joyce, but there’s also a lot of lay people,” Bishop said, “who come regularly, who are unaffiliated with the schools at all. They may be into the arts, or just interested.”
Of course, the term “lay people” begs comparison to a certain type of religious commitment, and the Joyceans don’t deny it.
“(The Joyce Scholar) Fritz Senn said studying Joyce is a great substitute for life,” Brivic said with a grin. “I’ve been studying Joyce for 35 years. It’s something that engages, keeps you discovering new things. I’ve written four books on Joyce, and I’m doing something else right now, but I hope to get back to it.”
Michael O’Shea, professor of English at Newberry College in South Carolina, perceived a distinct difference between students of Joyce and those who spend their time with other authors.
“Of all the literary groups I’ve been involved with, this one seems able to retain a sense of enjoyment of literature,” O’Shea said. “The work is serious in the sense of being rigorous, methodical, thoroughly-researched and examined, but most of the people working with Joyce’s texts retain a sense of humor and retain the capacity to weave that humor into their work.”
They look a little more ragged than they do on their respective campuses, where, wearing their collared-shirt uniforms, they stride absently between desks and podiums.
This week they wear blue jeans, beat-up sneakers and conference t-shirts, shabbily tucked, which say things like “Extreme Joyceans” or “Unmitigated Joyce.” They look like kids with lollipops. Their candy – James Joyce.
So is the Joyce conference the literary equivalent of a religious gathering, a world entered yearly by a group of devotees who find true community perhaps only with each other?
“‘Ulysses’ is about two people who are alone, and they come together at the end and sit down and drink cocoa and talk,” Bishop said. “So I think Joyceans - just because they like the book - are drawn toward the value of communion and coming together. Everybody I know that comes to these things, or almost everybody, likes joke-telling and song-telling and nonsense and being a little off-color – the things that Joyce is.”
He looked across the verandah of Krutch Theater to the staircase and the people milling out and off towards downtown and Beckett’s Irish Pub to rejoin the rest of the crowd.
“We also have kind of a bash,” he said.
Tonight: A two-hour, one-man show, sampling Joyce’s work along with commentary, performed by Trinity College Don and Joyce Scholar David Norris. Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Avenue Admission: $10. Call the box office at 925-798-1300