Tim Rutten: Bloomsday and James Joyce

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[Tim Rutten is a columnist for the LA Times.]

"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

Wednesday, people around the world will gather in libraries and theaters, pubs and restaurants, streets and squares to commemorate a precise set of events that included the preceding snatch of conversation and that occurred between daybreak and midnight in a provincial European city on June 16, 1904 — events they know full well never happened.

This, of course, is Bloomsday, the annual celebration of the 20th century's greatest novel, "Ulysses," and of the genius of its author, the Irishman James Joyce. How he and his masterpiece came to be lionized so widely is one of cultural history's strangest and most instructive stories....

From the start, "Ulysses" enjoyed a tumultuously divided reception. The American editors of the Little Review, which serialized the novel as Joyce wrote it, were prosecuted for obscenity. Customs authorities in England, Ireland and the United States seized and destroyed copies of the completed novel. The era's greatest writers felt differently. T.S. Eliot called it "the most important expression which this present age has found," a "book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape."

Wednesday, Dublin will be awash in commemorations, from dramatic readings to special breakfasts including the kidneys that Leopold purchased and fried for Molly before he set out. Thousands will consume the lunch he ate in Davey Byrnes, "the moral pub" — a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy. Joyce's alma mater, University College, will confer a medal named for him on the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

"St. Joyce has replaced St. Patrick in the new, post-Catholic Ireland," the columnist and critic Fintan O'Toole once quipped to me....

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