February 9, 2022

Putting Everything In Play — James Joyce By the Numbers

By Stuart Mitchner

Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honor of bringing out your Ulysses?

—Sylvia Beach (1887-1962) to James Joyce (1882-1941)

The dates on James Joyce’s grave are 1882-1941, not 1887-1941 as they appeared in last week’s book review. By the time I noticed the error, it was too late to do anything but correct it on the website. After searching an extensive online list of people born in 1887 just now, I found Sylvia Beach, who not only published Ulysses but is buried in the Presbyterian cemetery in Princeton a short distance from Sylvia Beach Way, which runs behind the public library. Although this explanation for the accidental transmigration of birth years makes a kind of incestuous Joycean sense, I wrote most of the column before I figured it out, so I’m staying with the idea that in the world of Ulysses, mystery is a theme, a poem, and a fact of life, the more mysterious the better. Hence the return of Joyce’s “man in the macintosh.”

Hearing Joyce

Last Wednesday, on Joyce’s 140th birthday, still smarting from the 1887 mishap, I slid a CD into the car stereo and listened to Joyce reading from the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter of Finnegan’s Wake. Five times I heard the nine-minute recital, five Anna Livias for each year mistakenly added to Joyce’s birth date. I drove to the lake, around town, to Kingston, and played the last two Hail Anna Livias during the longer drive to and from Hillsborough, all the while with Joyce’s melodious voice softly, swiftly singing the song of the rivers.

Seeing Joyce

There’s a hint of man-in-the-macintosh mystery in the British painter Frank Budgen’s image of Joyce at their first meeting in 1918 at a Zurich cafe not far from the cemetery: “He was a dark mass against the orange light of the restaurant glass door, but he carried his head with the chin uptilted so that his face collected cool light from the sky.” As Budgen continues, he could be describing “the blind stripling,” another nameless character prowling the streets of Ulysses — “as he came nearer I saw his heavily glassed eyes and realised that the transition from light interior to darkening garden had made him unsure of a space beset with iron chairs and tables and other obstacles.”

Suddenly, before you’re ready, Budgen brings you face to face with Joyce: “Behind the powerful lenses of his spectacles his eyes are a clear strong blue, but uncertain in shape and masked in expression. I notice later that in a moment of suspicion or apprehension they become a skyblue glare.” After describing a complexion of  “bricky red, evenly distributed,” a high forehead “with a forward thrust,” jaw “firm and square,” lips “thin and tight,” Budgen steps back and pictures Joyce as “an alchemist … moving around in a room full of furnaces, retorts, and books full of diagrams.”

Matching Birth Years

Considering Joyce’s belief in the symbolic significance of birthdays — the first copy of Finnegan’s Wake had to be in his hands on February 2, 1939, as did the first copy of Ulysses on February 2, 1922  — he was pleased to learn that he and Budgen had been born within a month of each other in 1882; better yet, Budgen had come into the world on March 1, a match for the date in 1914 when Joyce began writing Ulysses. Twenty years later Budgen would publish James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, reprinted in 1960 by the Indiana University Press, with a foreword by esteemed critic Hugh Kenner, who called it “the best possible introduction to the Joyce world, an unpretentious, reliable, highly animated guide to what the new reader will find in Ulysses.”

Numbers Gone Wild

You don’t have to be a “new reader” to appreciate Budgen’s book. In fact, it was he who guided me to the passage in the Ithaca chapter concerning the relative birth dates of Stephen and Bloom. “I am writing Ithaca in the form of a mathematical catechism,” Joyce tells Budgen in a February 28, 1921 letter. “All events are resolved into their cosmic physical, psychical etc. equivalents, … so that not only will the reader know everything and know it in the baldest coldest way, but Bloom and Stephen thereby become heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze.”

And how do Bloom and Stephen become wandering stars? It’s all in how you do the numbers.

“What relation existed between their ages?” is the cold question that provokes the prodigious calculus of the answer: “16 years before in 1888 when Bloom was of Stephen’s present age Stephen was 6. 16 years after in 1920 when Stephen would be of Bloom’s present age Bloom would be 54. In 1936 when Bloom would be 70 and Stephen 54 their ages initially in the ratio of 16 to 0 would be as 17 1/2 to 13 1/2, the proportion increasing and the disparity diminishing…”

At this point, with fractions entering the scene, there’s nothing for it but to surrender to Joyce’s calculations. So, here goes (some brave soul can check the math) — “ … according as arbitrary future years were added, for if the proportion existing in 1883 had continued immutable, conceiving that to be possible, till then 1904 when Stephen was 22 Bloom would be 374 and in 1920 when Stephen would be 38, as Bloom then was, Bloom would be 646 while in 1952 when Stephen would have attained the maximum postdiluvian age of 70 Bloom, being 1190 years alive having been born in the year 714, would have surpassed by 221 years the maximum antediluvian age, that of Methusalah, 969 years, while if Stephen would continue to live until he would attain that age in the year 3072 A.D., Bloom would have been obliged to have been alive 83,300 years, having been obliged to have been born in the year 81,396 B.C.”

Bravo, Darantière

I keep thinking of Darantière, the long-suffering printer in Dijon, who “had been obliged” to have been given the task of navigating the 1,001 billion twists and turns in the labyrinth of an alien language. In her memoir, Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach includes a facsimile of one proof sheet “with changes by the author” that include, at rough count, some 50 additions, a river of names flowing down one side of the page and filling up the bottom margin, names ranging from Jack the Giant Killer to John L. Sullivan, from Cleopatra to Adam and Eve and the Bold Soldier Boy, from Dark Rosaleen to Napoleon Bonaparte.     

Even now, with the end of  the journey in sight, Darantière is faced with these gargantuan numbers. At least Joyce provides a way out with his answer to the next question (“What events might nullify these calculations?”) — “The cessation of existence of both or either, the inauguration of a new era or calendar, the annihilation of the world and consequent extermination of the human species, inevitable but impredictable [Joyce’s spelling].”

Budgen considers Ithaca “the coldest episode” in the book: “The same toneless, unhuman voice invites us to contemplate tragic and comic happenings and happenings of no importance. The comic of Ithaca is the terrible comic of masks, the comic of the comedian who always keeps a straight face.”

No wonder Joyce once told Budgen that Ithaca was his favorite chapter: “It is the ugly duckling of the book.” 

The Mystery Man

Last week, after tracking the man in the macintosh as far as the dream world of Nighttown, I decided that from my point of view his most significant association is with the Macintosh I’ve been writing on for the past 20 years. I saw this as an example of the way Joyce “puts everything in play.”

On a recent gloomy afternoon, I returned to his first appearance, at Paddy Dignam’s funeral in the Hades episode. When a reporter taking down the names of the mourners asks Bloom “who’s that fellow over there in the …,” Bloom fills in the blank with “macintosh,” which the reporter jots down as “M’Intosh” on his notepad, moving away before Bloom can call him back. As a result, that evening’s edition of the paper lists “Mr M’Intosh and L. Boom” among those present at Dignam’s funeral.

After surfacing in the aftermath of Bloom’s long distance sexual encounter with Gerty MacDowell (“Ask yourself who is he now. The Mystery Man on the Beach, … And that fellow today the graveside in the brown macintosh”), he appears, in a new spelling, as “yon guy in the mackintosh” during the drunken babble at the end of the Oxen of the Sun episode: “Seedy cuss in the Richmond? Rawthere! Thought he had a deposit of lead in his penis. Trumpery insanity, Bartle the Bread we calls him. That, sir, was once a prosperous cit….”   

Follow the mystery man into the depths of “Dear Dirty Dublin” and Joyce puts in play a pun on temporary insanity that resonates in 2022.

The Rainbow Girl

Joyce’s “mentally ill” daughter Lucia makes a brief appearance at the end of last week’s 100th anniversary celebration of Ulysses. To call Lucia “mentally ill” and leave it at that would be like calling her father “an Irish writer in exile who died of a perforated ulcer.” In spite of the destruction of her letters to and from Joyce, and seemingly everything in print related to the seismic disturbance she created in the lives of her family, Lucia, named for luce, “light” in Italian, is Joyce’s “wonder wild,” Issy, the “rainbow girl” of Finnegan’s Wake, a “fantastic being” with, in Joyce’s words, a mind “as clear and unsparing as the lightning.” According to Carol Loeb Shloss, the author of Lucia Joyce: To Dance at the Wake (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux), her birth in 1907 “brought about a creative release for Joyce,” who had been “stalled” over the writing of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce thought that her psychosis was inherited from him: “Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and it has kindled a fire in her brain.”

She’s there in the closing passage of Finnegan’s Wake: “My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning, ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair!”

Lucia died in a Northampton asylum in 1982, the 100th anniversary of her father’s birthday.


The image shown is from the cover of the 1989 Oxford Univ. Press edition of James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses. The quotes in the article are from the 1960 Indiana Univ. Press edition.

See the story in this issue on “Open Secrets: Ulysses at 100,” the Robert Fagles Memorial Lecture by Fintan O’Toole, which will be presented online via Zoom webinar on Friday, February 11 at 4:30 p.m.