“Eh, you know Joyce has already done that?”
At best, it is a question every Irish author encounters at some point in their career. At worst, it is a reality with which they wrangle for their entire writing life. Physically, the man is everywhere—from the literary festival posters to the airport souvenir shop mugs/tea towels/cushion covers; from the bronze statues lurking on street corners, to the school notebooks you are handed at the tender age of five. He is our greatest export, and also the albatross around our collective neck (that is, if albatrosses wore boater hats and nerdy, rimless specs).
Creatively, too, his is an unavoidable presence. The mere whiff of a stream of consciousness or a bodily function next to a philosophical thought and you are instantly, second-handedly Joycean. Dare to write a coming of age narrative, and you must be lazily emulating A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Any snowfall that happens to occur during a short story is a shameless channelling of “The Dead.” If your novel, for whatever reason, takes place over the course of a single day, well my goodness! Talk about Ulysses redux! More generally—and even more ironically—any attempt at formal play, at breaking the linguistic rules and rendering something wholly inventive and new, is swiftly attributed to a dude who began his career over a century ago.
The critic Derek Attridge once said that “we are indirectly reading Joyce … in many of our engagements with the past half century’s serious fiction.” However, more recently, Attridge seems to have given up on any sort of nuance, insisting that actually all novelists are either deliberately following or deliberately avoiding Joyce.
It was no surprise, then, that when I started work on my fourth novel, the literary giant began cropping up in conversation. However, this was even more so the case than usual, given my novel was in fact inspired by the history of the Irish Jewish community. This usually led to two reactions: “What? There are Jews in Ireland?” Followed by: “But of course—Leopold Bloom! Eh, you know Joyce has already done that?”
The albatross, it seemed, was alive and well.
The more I began to research, though, the more I began to discover that actually, since Bloom, there has been a real lack of fictional Irish Jews. The reason for this, I suspect, is that writers have been too anxious at the prospect of treading on Joycean toes (at least, even more so than the inevitable) and have thus avoided the topic altogether. But what a shame! For there is so much more to the Jewish community in Ireland than one guy swanning around in 1904. There is the key role Jewish politicians and artists played in the fight for Irish Independence; there is the troubling stance Ireland had on Jewish refugees during WWII; there is the wonderful story I kept hearing about Jewish immigrants arriving to Ireland by “accident,” bound on boats for New York, but disembarking when they heard “Cork! Cork!” instead.
So eventually I decided, with what more than one reviewer has termed “chutzpah,” to ignore those toes; to write the novel I wanted to write; to build my own fictional world around this group and their fascinating history.
As it happens, much like mine, Joyce’s fascination with the Jewish community first began with him identifying a number of parallels between the Jewish and the Irish peoples. For him, both were alike “in being impulsive, given to fantasy, addicted to associative thinking, wanting in rational discipline.” He also identified with Jewish ideas of wandering, intellectual inquiry and a rejection of the mind/body dualism, while the theme of exile or “chosen isolation” again united both groups. Elsewhere, Joyce enjoyed comparing Moses and the former Irish revolutionary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, who, like his Biblical predecessor, succeeded in bringing his people to the brink of freedom: “like any other Moses,” Joyce wrote, “[Parnell] led a turbulent and unstable people from the house of shame to the verge of the Promised Land.”
Eventually, Joyce channelled his fascination into Ulysses, which follows the day-long perambulations of the twice-baptized, uncircumcised Irish Jew, Leopold Bloom. Though published in 1922, the book is set the same year as Ireland’s only-ever pogrom, which occurred after the anti-Semitic rantings of one Fr James Creagh in Limerick in 1904. And indeed, throughout the novel Bloom himself is subject to varying degrees of hostility. Again and again his peers resort to lazy clichés—“mean bloody scut;” “old Shylock”—while others directly echo Fr Creagh’s slurs, bemoaning how “jew merchants” are the “signs of a nation’s decay.” More generally, Joyce uses Bloom’s outsider status to interrogate questions of identity, such that in between the strolling, the stinky cheese sandwiches, and the “scrotumtightening” sea, we are invited to muse on concepts of diaspora, nationhood and belonging. Meanwhile, the text itself incorporates a wide range of Talmudic formal techniques, the prose resplendent with references to Jewish folk tales, scriptures and rituals.
At this point I should probably confess that, despite growing up in Dublin and earning an undergraduate degree in English Literature, I didn’t actually read Ulysses until I moved to America. Halfway through grad school, at the age of 21, I was taught Joyce by a lovely Canadian professor who had a soft spot for putting the Ulysses audiobook on his iPod and taking strolls around New Haven, Connecticut, imagining he was Bloom himself.
Needless to say, I never gave this “method” approach a try.
Given everything that followed, I would like to say that reading Ulysses served as some sort of Eureka moment—that, as some Irish writers insist, after finishing those thousand-or-so pages of filth and flair I realized, in literary terms at least, nothing could ever be the same again. In truth, I struggled through the book with the aid of every study guide I could lay my hands on, produced a half-decent paper on Joyce’s use of animals (of all things!), and bid the lovely Canadian professor farewell.
However, what was already taking hold around this time were my own observations on the similarities (and tensions) which exist between the Irish and Jewish peoples; my own thoughts on diaspora, nationhood and belonging; my own fascination with Judaism and its complex role in the history of the Emerald Isle. So I spent the next three years researching Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, digging through museums and archives, meeting with members of the Irish-Jewish community to listen to their stories. And yet, wherever I went, I could never escape the Bloomian spectre which loomed large in the background—whether it was in Dublin or Cork, London or even Israel. (For the record, it turns out Molly Bloom’s pub in Tel Aviv serves an excellent pint of Guinness.)
It was only when I came to actually writing the novel I realized I had a choice. Either I could ignore the Bloom thing—could try to pretend it wasn’t there—or I could embrace it. It seemed, whether I liked it or not, Joyce was always going to be the literary elephant in the room (again, I’m inappropriately picturing an animal in a boater hat), thus I decided I may as well have a bit of fun with it.
So when I needed a name for my male protagonist, I chose Shem, after “Shem the Penman” from Joyce’s painfully-difficult third novel Finnegan’s Wake (interestingly, the Irish-Jewish editor David Marcus once described the language in Finnegan’s Wake as distinctly Yiddish-esque—one which you spend a great deal of time decoding and debating, but can never quite speak). The name “Shem the Penman” was also particularly pertinent since my character is in fact mute, and thus can only ever communicate by writing stuff down.
Then, when my other Irish-Jewish protagonist Ruth needed to go for a swim, I sent her down to the Forty Foot in Sandymount, there in the shadow of the Martello Tower—the one which features on Ulysses’s opening pages. Ruth also works as a midwife, and at one point compares the bellybuttons of the world to telephone lines, linking us all together. But the metaphor isn’t mine—it is (originally, at least) Joyce’s, so by stealing it I was linking my book to his—wink-wink nudge-nudging so that the reviewers and the inevitably-disgruntled Joyce scholars didn’t have to.
In the final section of the book, set in 1941, I mention “the death of a certain Mr. Joyce” and also the ensuing “festival of mourning where all the restaurants in Dublin served kidneys and gizzards, strange things Ruth had never tasted in her life.” This festival directly recalls the Bloomsday Festival, which is celebrated around the world every year on June 16th in commemoration of all things Leopold Bloom. Here, there are boater hats galore, “nutty gizzards” and “grilled mutton kidneys” for breakfast, just how Bloom liked it, followed by readings and literary performances and Joyce-themed pub crawls.
But amidst this wonderful celebration, there is rarely any mention of the hostility Bloom experienced; the anti-Semitism which lurks on every page of Joyce’s masterpiece. What’s more, it is all well and good getting enthusiastic about a fictional Irish Jew, but what of the actual Irish Jewish community itself? How many, as they tuck into their offal, are familiar with the Jewish man who was once Lord Mayor of Dublin? Or of Cork? How many are conscious of the chilling telegrams which passed between Eamon De Valera and Rabbi Herzog, during the Nazi atrocities? How many realize that the Jewish community in Ireland now stands at a mere 2,000, with many citing a latent anti-Israel sentiment as their reason for departure? Couldn’t Bloomsday also be an opportunity to learn about a group whose real-life stories may soon be forgotten?
Writing Nine Folds allowed me to uncover new aspects of this group; to shine a light into unknown corners and show that there is so much more to them than just one man on one single Dublin day. It feels more important now than ever to consider questions of cultural diversity and “otherness”; to explore Irish nationalism and what it really means to belong. So this Bloomsday, let us hold up the “cracked lookingglass” of the past to take a closer look at the here and now.
Ruth Gilligan’s Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan is available now from Tin House.