Longest way round is the shortest way home

Photo credit: The Rosenbach Museum and Library
Photo credit: The Rosenbach Museum and Library

Been reading the essays in that Nuala O’Faolain book and saw that one of them is about Bloomsday, which I meant to tell you about earlier this summer and haven’t yet. So why don’t I do that now?

We do a Bloomsday celebration here in Philadelphia in the form of a day of readings from Ulysses. Dozens of prominent folks are scheduled in advance to stand up to the microphone on a gorgeous leafy street of brownstones in downtown Philly, outside the Rosenbach, a rare books museum. Brothers A.S.W. and Philip Rosenbach, who were book dealers and collectors, acquired the original Ulysses manuscript back in the day, so since the museum has the precious thing they host this day of readings and music every year on June 16th, the date on which all the events depicted in Ulysses take place. The Rosenbach’s Bloomsday might be my favorite thing that happens in Philadelphia. I go every year, and when the wonderful actress Drucie McDaniel does the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end, I always, always cry.

I spent some time in Ireland several years ago, and while I was there the subject of James Joyce (inevitably?) came up with a friendly acquaintance. I proudly told him that we do Bloomsday in my city too. “That must be a bit difficult!” he laughed, because of course in Dublin, Bloomsday entails tromping through the city on foot, retracing the steps taken by Stephen Dedalus in the novel. I felt kinda silly at the time.

In a piece O’Faolain wrote for The Irish Times in 1997, she talked about how Dublin has changed so much that it is no longer the city we see in the novel. She didn’t mean the that the buildings were gone, though some (but not all) of them are. She meant that the novel depicted Irish city life in a way that was intimately realistic and familiar to Irish people. It was the life of the wanderer, of people without much money or jobs or even any thought of a job, who spent their days roaming, stopping in on friends and drinking in pubs. The kind of living in public that people do because, as O’Faolain wrote, they had a place to sleep, maybe, but not a home. That Dublin “was alive until money killed it,” she wrote.

In these columns O’Faolain often wrote about poverty and the way it characterized and shaped Irish culture and thinking, and about what it meant when—in the 90s, abruptly—the money came in. I was there during Ireland’s boom, and I remember seeing cranes everywhere in Dublin, building new offices and stores and apartment complexes every day. I saw how shopping as a hobby, still a relatively new concept anywhere in the world, was brand new there, giddy and doomed. Thanks to that influx of money many people were able to find a way out of poverty, get educations, travel, get jobs and then better jobs. But some of the changes I saw scared me because they lagged behind the ones that happened here, so I felt like I should warn everybody that they wouldn’t all turn out so great. That icy feeling of alienation, people afraid to look each other; pissed-off women driving gleaming SUVs. Never having enough (or any) money is awful, and having enough (plus a little extra) is so sweet. But it seems like when there’s too much of it things start to get nasty.

O’Faolain described the old Dublin as having a sense of a condition shared. I’ve been thinking about what that might have felt like. Not having been a part of it, I can’t say for sure what it even looked like. I can say that Philadelphia is a place of a lot of just-getting-by, and as a big old European-style city, it’s certainly a place where a lot of our living takes place in public, as compared to suburbs and cities developed after the invention of cars, where people can avoid being around each other much of the time. In the neighborhoods folks still have some of those old ways, I’d say. I like to take long epic walks all around the city, through neighborhoods I know as well as down blocks I’ve never been on before, looking at buildings and people and trees. I do my errands that way too, out of necessity: I’ve never learned how to drive, though that itself is a choice. But there are other people here in this city who have much more time than I do to wander and roam, or who know their neighbors because they’ve lived next to them for 40 years, and both of them have parents and grandparents who lived in the neighborhood too. It was beautiful to read what O’Faolain wrote about those folks from the old Dublin. She didn’t romanticize poverty; that would be stupid. But she knows that they had something special that you can’t really borrow if you don’t come by it naturally. “We are provincials, compared to their urbanity.”

Tell it like it tis

An update, for those of you who were waiting with bated breath: That bookstore in the Poconos did not let me down. I’ll stop being coy about it now and tell you, the shop is called Sellers Books & Fine Art and it’s located on the main street (one of only two streets) of Jim Thorpe, PA, a tiny, unusual town of gothic Victorian buildings cut into the side of a mountain. There’s nothing much else around there, just woods and lakes and guys in trucks, though the town itself was an important hub 170 years ago, with lots of money flying around thanks to the lucrative coal mines there, a railroad where switchback technology was invented, and a major opera house where Mae West, Al Jolson, and performers on the Vaudeville circuit once graced the stage. Over this past weekend the rollicking little town—with a handful of very good restaurants and a few lively bars, it’s still a hub—had an added carnival atmosphere because the Pennsylvania Burlesque Festival took place there both nights, and we kept spotting tough, tattooed ladies with awesome hair strolling around the sidewalks, eating ice cream.

But the bookstore, well that alone was worth the trip. Two cats live there, and one of them (named Zoe) followed me everywhere I went and let me stroke her head while I read. I found the biography section first and almost immediately spotted a book I’ve never seen anywhere else: A Radiant Life, which is a collection of Nuala O’Faolain’s journalism. Score! Nuala O’Faolain wrote two of the most beautiful memoirs I have ever read, and I had the great privilege of hearing her speak at the Philadelphia Free Library a few years before she died. She was so smart, and stayed pissed off and truthful until the very end. (The last line of her obituary in the New York Times is a quotation from an interview she’d recently given: “I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me,” she said. “The world said to me, ‘That’s enough of you now, and what’s more, we’re not going to give you any little treats at the end.’ ”) So I’ve got that book and have been enjoying reading bits here and there. This kind of short-form journalism never really holds up in book form; what seems impressive for its ability to get across complex ideas and feelings in short piece when you read it in an overstuffed newspaper seems a little superficial and lacking when you’re holding a book in your hand. But it feels like a rare treat to have this book, and more of her writing to read for the first time.

The other find was a pretty-looking novel by Helen Garner, an Australian writer I’d never heard of before. Apparently she’s very well known and successful in Australia but to my knowledge has not gotten much attention here (though actually a quick search shows me that my city’s library system has a number of her books, so maybe it’s just me). The book is called The Spare Room and it looked like just the sort of thing I most like to read: A contemporary story, written by a woman about relationships. I understood when I bought the book that it was about a long-standing friendship between two women, one of whom comes to stay with the other for a few weeks’ visit. Nothing in the book’s back matter gave away what the story was really about, which is that the visitor is terribly ill with cancer and close to the end of her life. I think it’s understood that this book is some version of a story that really happened to the author. It read that way to me, and when I looked into it I saw that Garner is indeed known for her journalism, and that some of her detractors have criticized her for publishing “novels” that are not really fiction. I don’t consider “writing from life” to be a failing in any sense, though I do think it can be a problem—or at least a distraction—when something in the writing stands out to the reader as being different than it’s meant to be. I’ve always been vaguely confused by roman à clefs, for example; why not call it what it is? I wish that we could open up what is considered acceptable in the form of memoir (some necessary collapsing of details, tricks of memory, and poetic license) so that we could name these things more accurately. That way a memoir that reads like fiction could still be called a memoir, and those critics who get all butt-hurt about their need for fiction to be this incredible invention would be mollified.

Anyway, it’s a beautiful book and I plowed straight through it. Very sad; I did a lot of crying in this kitchen as I finished reading it yesterday. I plan to dig up more of Garner’s books in the hopes that her eye for detail and compassionate truth-telling will keep me good company for the rest of the summer.