What will you have for breakfast this Thursday, June 16? Anything special?
I’ll probably have a slice of toasted Seed Feast loaf from last week’s bake with a smear of peanut butter and pour-over coffee. I’ll raise my first steaming cup to Jennifer and wish her a happy Bloomsday.
On the other hand, Leopold Bloom will have burnt fried pork kidney for his breakfast. The same as he has every year on this day, otherwise known as Bloomsday.
A different person from a different time
Not the most appealing start to a day. To me, anyway. Leopold is a different person from a different time. But you’d love the guy as soon as you met him.
Leopold Bloom is the main character of the novel Ulysses by James Joyce, which takes place over a single day, June 16, 1904. And that’s the reason we’re celebrating Bloomsday this Thursday.
Bloomsday’s famous among Joyce enthusiasts around the world. Parties are thrown in honour of the novel; guests appear dressed as characters, and they quote favourite passages. Good old nerdy fun. The kind of fun that Joyce himself would have a few cutting words for! Like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” for the literary set.
Not just for the literary set
Ulysses is one of the great novels in the English language. I don’t think many would disagree. It’s a challenge to read, but it is loved worldwide for its colour, language, humour, poetry and grim beauty. This year, 2022, is the 100th anniversary of its publication.
Famously, the book was deemed obscene in the United States, even before its first publication 1. Censors and religious groups burned copies of the book. It remained unavailable in English-speaking countries until 1934 when a court finally overturned the obscenity charge.
Musicality, intimacy, humanity
When I first started reading Ulysses, I couldn’t imagine how I’d make it through the 800 pages. The language was too dense; complex sentences with little punctuation, odd syntax, and strange words. I forced myself through the first 30 pages, and then something clicked: I began hearing an Irish lilt speaking the words to me. They were musical, laced with intimacy and humour and humanity.
As I read, I felt inside the mind and body of our man, Leopold, or at different times, his wife, Molly. A third character, a school teacher named Stephen Dedalus, is more cerebral in contrast. Yet I felt close to his thinking as well. Hearing the voices in Ulysses, the music, and poetry was no longer an intellectual stretch; the language gave a revelatory insight into the characters going through the otherwise mundane events of one day in Dublin, 1904.
Once I understood what Joyce was doing — using the “stream of consciousness” more effectively than other work fiction before it — I was hooked and didn’t want the novel to end.
You’d love Bloom as soon as you’d met him
I read it twice more over the years. I’m reading it now for a fourth time in audiobook format. 2 It’s as breathtaking as it was the first time I read it.
Molly’s had an affair with a fellow named Blazes Moynihan. Leopold’s in a bit of a crisis over this, but he accepts his place. Bloom is an earnest character devoted to Molly despite her infidelity.
He’s a bit of an outsider, anyway. Over the day, he attends the funeral of a friend. He thinks about his wife, her infidelity, and the death of their child. He helps his friend, Stephen Dedalus.
In the spirit of Bloomsday celebrations, here’s a memorable passage, one that first struck me 45 years ago (sigh). It’s our first glimpse of Leopold Bloom. He’s making Molly’s breakfast. She’s still in bed, though he’s already been to the butcher to buy a pork kidney for his breakfast. He loves kidneys, among other organ meats:
Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all, he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
James Joyce, Ulysses
Molly’s breakfast is tea and toast. He fries his kidney as he prepares her tray.
While he unwrapped the kidney the cat mewed hungrily against him. Give her too much meat she won’t mouse. Say they won’t eat pork. Kosher. Here. He let the bloodsmeared paper fall to her and dropped the kidney amid the sizzling butter sauce. Pepper. He sprinkled it through his fingers ringwise from the chipped eggcup.
He takes Molly’s breakfast to her; delivers a letter addressed to her in the morning mail. Bloom knows it’s a note from her lover. He sees her hide it under a pillow. They chat for a few moments until she smells something burning.
—There’s a smell of burn, she said. Did you leave anything on the fire?
—The kidney! he cried suddenly.
He fitted book [he was holding] roughly into his inner pocket and, stubbing his toes against the broken commode, hurried out towards the smell, stepping hastily down the stairs with a flurried stork’s legs. Pungent smoke shot up in an angry jet from a side of the pan. By prodding a prong of the fork under the kidney, he detached it and turned it turtle on its back. Only a little burnt. He tossed it off the pan on to a plate and let the scanty brown gravy trickle over it.
Small in detail, epic in scale
Bloom sits down to enjoy his kidney with tea and toast (soda bread).
… He sat down, cut and buttered a slice of the loaf. He shore away the burnt flesh and flung it to the cat. Then he put a forkful into his mouth, chewing with discernment the toothsome pliant meat. Done to a turn. A mouthful of tea. Then he cut away dies of bread, sopped one in the gravy and put it in his mouth. What was that about some young student and a picnic? He creased out the letter at his side, reading it slowly as he chewed, sopping another die of bread in the gravy and raising it to his mouth.
I don’t like organ meats so that you know. But as Bloom starts the day, this picture of him, his sensuality and apparent devotion to his wife … it’s the tip of an iceberg for what happens throughout June 16, 1904. It ends well, Yes!
The novel is exhilarating in its small detail but also epic in scale. It’s a timeless story and has now endured a mere 100 years since its first publication.
Cinnamon-Raisin bread, an enduring Happy Monk favourite. And here’s proof of Mildrith’s (the wood-fired oven) recent health check, as she just baked 41 loaves of this (and another 40 of Seed Feast) with lots of heat left to spare. Long live Mildrith and long live Cinnamon-Raisin bread!
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It was a dirty day, Wednesday. The sky hadn't been washed, the ocean was soiled, and the air was muggy and smelled oily. Then, moments before the rain started, the sun shone through and a glorious slash of colour opened up. And a rainbow! No unicorns, sadly....
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Always time for a quick selfie at 4 a.m. while the bread puffs up and its aroma fills the darkness. This Friday morning the scent was deep and floral from the Cinnamon Raisin Loaf. Makes the juices flow, rumbles in the tummy, drives you crazy for a hot slice and schmear of butter.
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I’m listening to the Penguin Classic audiobook, narrated by Patrick Gibson, whose voice and performance are perfect! Listening to this would be a good way into the novel the first time for a first-time reader. ↩