Once a year, the sizzle of Leopold Bloom's frying pork kidney is heard around the world.
Every June 16, fans and scholars of James Joyce's novel "Ulysses" celebrate Bloomsday, the name now given to the anniversary of the day in 1904 when the novel's action takes place.
A giant, experimental novel built on an elaborate Homeric scheme and filled with allusions and literary tricks, "Ulysses" is a singular book in many ways, but especially because it is about a single day in Dublin.
It is not the first circadian novel — John Mullan of The Guardian bestows that honor on Victorian journalist George Augustus Sala for his "Twice Round the Clock." But with his ambitious novel, Joyce elevated the possibilities for a fictional day-in-the-life as a microcosm of a whole world and left future writers both a template and a target.
Bloomsday is gone for another year; but that doesn't mean we can't take a spin through some memorable one-day novels, and see what a difference a day makes.
"Ulysses" (1922) has three main characters: brooding student-writer Stephen Dedalus, peripatetic everyman Leopold Bloom and Leopold's wife, Molly. The novel comes by its difficult reputation honestly, as Joyce was a pioneer of the stream-of-consciousness technique, trying to give readers a sense of the inner thoughts and feelings of characters as they occur.
For example, Bloom in the kitchen thinking about his cat:
"They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me."
During his day, Bloom goes to a funeral, ogles a girl on the beach, argues with anti-Semites in a pub (Bloom is Jewish), and tries to avoid seeing or even thinking about Blazes Boylan, the lout who's sleeping with his wife. He also runs into Stephen Dedalus and rescues the inebriated youth from a bad situation. The novel closes with a famous, run-on soliloquy from the sleepy Molly Bloom, who thinks about her past lovers and suitors while still ultimately affirming her love for Leopold.
More than one fan of "Ulysses" has suggested that newbies skip the first three chapters, starring young Dedalus, preoccupied with the "ineluctable modality of the visible" and other smart-boy whatnot, and start in Chapter 4 with Bloom, who's much more interested in sex and lunch, but also is a kindhearted fellow.
Among its other charms, "Ulysses" is also one of the great newspaper novels: Bloom sells ads for a newspaper, reads a penny-weekly in the outhouse and fantasizes about writing a prize-winning story, visits the Freeman Journal office and imagines falling into the press and having the news printed all over him.
The windy "Aeolus" chapter is filled with mock newspaper headlines: "WE SEE THE CANVASSER AT WORK." A reporter covers the funeral Bloom attends and gets several things wrong, including Bloom's last name.
Readers tackling "Ulysses" on their own might want to pick up a guide to the book. The many available include Stuart Gilbert's "James Joyce's 'Ulysses': A Study" (1930), still in print, derived from notes that Joyce gave Gilbert and entertaining reading in itself.
If Joyce is the father of the contemporary circadian novel, then Virginia Woolf must be the mother, having given birth to two: "Mrs. Dalloway" (1925) and "Between the Acts" (1941). Woolf read "Ulysses" while writing "Mrs. Dalloway"; scholars have spent thousands of hours comparing and contrasting the novels.
Only in the famous, concluding Molly chapter does "Ulysses" give full voice to a leading woman. Conversely, "Mrs. Dalloway," also set on a June day, revolves around Clarissa Dalloway, a well-connected housewife, planning a dinner party at which the prime minister is expected. During her day, she thinks about and encounters the returning Peter Walsh, a restless adventurer she might have married instead of her stolid husband, Richard. She also hears about the suicide of Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked veteran, and reminisces about Sally Seton, a free-spirited woman she loved in her youth.
While Woolf doesn't play all the literary games Joyce does, she also pioneered stream-of-consciousness technique. In "Mrs. Dalloway," she dips in and out of the minds of Clarissa, Peter, Septimus and other characters, rendering their thoughts in an indirect manner that, not surprisingly for a novel concerned with mental illness, has a touch of mania about it:
"But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable, and when it came to that scene in the little garden by the fountain, she had to break with him or they would have been destroyed, both of them ruined, she was convinced; though she had borne about with her for years like an arrow sticking in her heart the grief, the anguish; and then the horror of the moment when some one told her at a concert that he had married a woman met on the boat going to India! Never should she forget all that!"
Both "Ulysses" and "Mrs. Dalloway" show up on many lists of the greatest 20th-century novels. As ambitious and masterful as Joyce's novel is, "Mrs. Dalloway" may be more influential, in terms of the novels people actually read. It's a beautifully written, closely rendered view of people's love problems, regrets and worries about the meaning and value of their lives: that generic summation sounds like many novels book groups are reading today.
The many children of "Mrs. Dalloway" include Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" (1998), the interlocking story of a day in the lives of three women of different time periods, including Woolf herself. In "Arlington Park" (2007), Rachel Cusk has spread Clarissa Dalloway's angst out among five mothers of young children in a posh English suburb. In his review of the book for The Guardian newspaper, James Lasdun writes "Cusk stakes everything on her ability to make a kind of stately, classical art out of the frictions and details of ordinary life, and it is a testimony to her resourcefulness that she so often succeeds."
Irish novelist Deidre Madden's "Molly Fox's Birthday," published earlier this year in the U.S., is one of the more cheerful offspring of "Mrs. Dalloway" (and another one-day-in-June book). And in a guest post on Maud Newton's blog, James Hynes explicitly stated his debt to Woolf in writing about his new novel "Next":
"I read it twice during the writing of my book, and I open the book with two epigraphs from Woolf . ... I didn't make any rigorous study of the narrative technique or her prose style, but instead just hoped that whatever I needed to learn would percolate into my brain. When people asked what I was working on, my standard gag was, 'It's a novel about a day in a guy's life. Kind of like Mrs. Dalloway, only funnier.' I ... tried to emulate the narrative's laser-like focus on the quotidian and the way it could effortlessly shift between the present moment and memory in an instant, sometimes in mid-sentence."
But "Ulysses" has descendants, too. John Lanchester's "Mr. Phillips" (2000) might be described as Leopold Bloom meets The Jam's "Smithers-Jones," or "Ulysses" in London without the word games. Like a hornier Bloom (were that possible), Victor Phillips wanders around the city all day thinking about sex; unlike Bloom, Phillips is an accountant, with an almost compulsive trait of numbering, classifying and inventorying everything. For example, he grades his sexual dreams from one to 10, based on the explicitness of their content. To further take the measure of his mind, Phillips' extraordinary fantasy about shooting down the loud, annoying airplanes that fly over his neighborhood is presented as an elaborate, deadpan set of minutes for a neighborhood watch meeting.
A circadian book that can actually be read in one day, or even one afternoon, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1962) eschews long flashbacks and tricky technique for an almost-documentary simplicity.
Solzhenitsyn, who drew from his experience as a political prisoner in a Soviet gulag, follows ordinary prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov on a cold day in a labor camp. It turns out to be a good one: Shukhov escapes being sent to solitary confinement for an infraction, scores extra bread and an extra bowl of gruel, stays warm by working hard as a mason and finds a bit of hacksaw blade he can work into a cobbler's knife.
The prisoner, who has a wife back home, thinks little about the past and the future:
"Shukhov stared at the ceiling and said nothing. He no longer knew whether he wanted to be free or not. To begin with, he'd wanted it very much, and counted up every evening how many days he still had to serve. Then he'd got fed up with it. And still later it had gradually dawned on him that people like himself were not allowed to go home but were packed off into exile. And there was no knowing where the living was easier — here or there."
Circadian stories give writers the chance to look at how the past intersects with the present. In skilled hands, they can also provide a heck of a ticking deadline, as fans of TV's "24" would tell you. In Dean Koontz' "Odd Thomas" (2003), the first of a series, a small-town short-order cook is also a powerful psychic who can see lingering spirits of the dead (including Elvis) and evil forces and also has precognitive moments. He becomes aware that a mass murder will occur in his California town and spends his frantic and increasingly dangerous hours trying to figure out where and when while getting as many of his friends to safety as possible. Unlike Jack Bauer, both Odd Thomas and his creator have a sense of humor. This is one popular novel that even lit-snobs can enjoy.
For many people, acts of terrorism, especially 9-11, have heightened both the meaning and fragility of any given single day. Contemporary novelists have picked up on this.
From the opening pages, the memory of 9-11 sits in the background of British heavyweight Ian McEwan's "Saturday" (2005), the story of one February day in London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne's world. He sees a burning airplane through his window in the morning, setting a tone of menace for a book that will later include a large political demonstration, an auto accident and a home invasion.
Welsh novelist David Llewellyn's succinct novel "Eleven" (2006) actually takes place on 9-11, in a Cardiff financial office; Llewellyn tells the darkly comic story through a series of e-mails.
Like his literary godfathers Leopold Bloom and Peter Walsh, Kevin Quinn, the fifty-something protagonist of James Hynes' "Next," thinks about sex, stalks a young woman and frets about the difficulties of his love life. The difference is, while waiting for a job interview in boiling Austin, Texas, he spends his mental down time mulling over recent terrorism in Europe and the ever-present possibility of a surface-to-air missile striking the "can of Pringles" he flies in.
Reviewers almost unanimously praise Hynes' mordant humor before pointing out how he shifts the novel into emotional warp drive for its final segment.
In praising that ending, reviewer Ken Harvey writes:
"We are left with the feeling Mrs. Dalloway expresses in Woolf's novel and that Hynes quotes at the beginning of his: 'She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.' "
A Day In The Life
Once a year, the sizzle of Leopold Bloom's frying pork kidney is heard around the world.