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Higgins: Observing Bloomsday

When one reads a biography of a long-dead author, the ending very rarely comes as a surprise. And yet, there I was, sitting on my cot in a dingy, cold Irish hostel, in tears. I had just reached the last sentences in Richard Ellmann's incomparable biography of James Joyce. Ellmann writes, "In whatever he did, his two profound interests - his family and his writings - kept their place. These passions never dwindled. The intensity of the first gave his work its sympathy and humanity; the intensity of the second raised his life to dignity and high dedication." I was a mourner very late to this funeral.

I followed James Joyce to Ireland in the summer of 1995, before my senior year of college. I prepared for the trip by buying a huge backpack and filling it with books like that 900-page biography. As I bought more books along the way, I threw out clothes to make room.
Joyce lived from 1882 to 1941 and is one of history's most celebrated and influential writers, yet his work proved so scandalous during his lifetime that his career reads as one long-running battle with publishers, censors, and the courts.
A child of poverty, he was prone to extravagance, living well beyond his means. His sentences stumble, spark, and take flight, charged with similar extravagance, whole new worlds opening before our eyes. Ulysses, published in 1922 and crackling with linguistic and narrative invention, is widely acknowledged to be his masterpiece. The novel tells of Leopold Bloom's wanderings around Dublin on June 16, 1904 . He eats breakfast, frequents stores and pubs, sightsees at the shore, rescues a younger friend from a brothel, and comes home.
Joyce famously claimed that if Dublin were ever reduced to ruins, the city could be rebuilt stone by stone using his book. It's possible, as I did that summer, to retrace Leopold Bloom's route through Dublin, visiting nearly every site Joyce describes. But to read Ulysses is to enter into a city of the imagination far more indelible and enduring than any city built of brick and wood and steel could ever be.
This imaginary city, its inhabitants, and its author are commemorated every year on June 16, a day that has come to be known as Bloomsday. Today, on the 110th anniversary of Bloomsday, there are celebrations and marathon readings in Dublin and in cities and towns around the world - it's a festival, a roving literary feast, when Joyce's words ring out in theaters, in pubs, and on the street.

For me, here in Waterbury, the party will be decidedly more low-key. I'll take my battered 20-year-old copy of Ulysses off the shelf and return for a while to this strange, dreamscape Dublin, consoled once more by the realization that, so long as we keep reading, every writer is granted a kind of immortality.

Darren Higgins is a writer and editor living in Waterbury Center who writes about topics including fatherhood, history, literature, and the environment.
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