June 16, 2010 by Reader's Connection
On June 16, 1904, James Joyce stepped out for the first time with Nora Barnacle, who would eventually become his wife. In loving tribute, he would set the action of his 1922 novel Ulysses on that day. Leopold Bloom and the other characters would awaken, eat, go to the bathroom, work, attend funerals, walk the streets of Dublin, sing, get drunk (Bloom doesn’t get drunk) and in at least one case commit adultery, all on the day that has since been christened Bloomsday.
Hold on a second. I’m not going to try to shove Ulysses down your throat. You may already love it or hate it or intend to avoid it for life. I’ll not interfere. But surely Bloomsday is an appropriate occasion on which to salute another Irish novelist.
According to the liner notes on the two novels I´m reading, Joseph O’Connor lives with his wife and their two sons in Dublin, though his website has them moving around a bit. Star of the Sea (2002) tells of the 1847 voyage of a ship of that name from Ireland to the United States. Aboard are a fallen aristocrat and his family, a man who has been assigned to murder the aristocrat, a woman they have both wronged, and an American journalist and would-be fiction writer. In steerage there is an impoverished and starving multitude, fleeing the potato famine of the 1840’s.
Much of the action takes place aboard the Star of the Sea, but there are also lengthy flashback accounts of the lives of the major characters. I should tell you that much of what occurs, on land and at sea, is horrific. People behave terribly. If you’re looking for something jaunty–luck of the Irish and all that–stay clear of this vessel.
Having issued my warning, though, I have to say that the book is immensely satisfying; and I was delighted to learn that O’Connor’s 2007 novel, Redemption Falls, is a sort of follow-up.
The Western township of Redemption Falls at the end of the American Civil War is the setting, but like its predecessor, this story sprawls wherever and whenever it needs to–Ireland, Australia, all over the U.S.–to tell the stories of an escaped Irish criminal who becomes “governor” of the said township, his (at least in the part I’ve read) estranged wife, the runaway slave who serves as his cook, and the young woman who was (if I’m getting this right) born during the fateful 1847 journey described in the first novel. In that novel’s tradition, there are multiple narrators and incredibly vivid scenes.
I feel compelled to say that I didn’t know, until just now (really) that O’Connor is the brother of singer Sinéad O’Connor. My excitement about his writing has nothing to do with his family connections.
Did you really believe I wasn’t going to say anything else about Ulysses? Ha Ha. Declan Kiberd’s 2009 title, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece, presents the idea that the Big Book of Dublin was meant to be read by all sorts of people, not just by scholars, and that everyone who skirts the experience is missing out on a great book of life-teachings.
My excuse for swerving back toward Joyce: Joseph O’Connor himself has something to say about this new study: The most exciting book I know on the most exciting novel ever written. Declan Kiberd’s brilliantly informed and highly entertaining advocacy liberates Joyce’s greatest book from the dungeon of unreadable masterpieces and restores it to being what its maker intended: a treasury of joys, a guide to enlightened living. Ulysses, finally, is a book about a friendship between a sometimes difficult young genius and a man made wise by life. No novel ever had a more understanding friend than Declan Kiberd.
So there. Happy Bloomsday.