“He laughed to free his mind from his mind’s bondage.”
James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922
T. A. Wellington (TW): How did you first get acquainted with Joyce’s works, and more specifically, Ulysses?
Dave Schurman (DS): I started reading Ulysses while at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in 1964 as I was intrigued by difficult, controversial and ambiguous literature.
TW: What made you decide to found Festival Bloomsday Montréal?
Judith Schurman (JS): It started as an idea from a McGill study group (MCLL- McGill Community of Lifelong Learning) on Ulysses in the fall of 2011. It was well known that there were many locations in the world doing this so Dave and I decided to try it here, as some money was available in a grant to MCLL.
TW: How did the first edition of Bloomsday Montréal go? Do you have any interesting or funny recollections?
JS: The first Festival Bloomsday Montreal was only 3 days long and too much was crammed into the timeframe. We had great success with Ulysses readings held outside on the McGill campus – and it did not rain!
TW: Was the idea of Bloomsday celebrations spanning over multiple days always part of your group’s plan, or did you first want to start out small with events taking place on June 16th?
JS: The first Festival Bloomsday Montréal was a three-day affair in June 2012. For three years Bloomsday Montréal was administered by the McGill School for Continuing Studies with the participation of many key Montreal educational and cultural institutions. In 2015, Festival Bloomsday Montréal became a registered non-profit organization, managed and organized entirely by volunteers. All funds obtained are used entirely for the direction and production costs of the activities. Activities are open to the public and many are free of charge.
TW: What edition of Ulysses would you recommend to new and upcoming readers? Annotated or non-annotated? Any audiobooks of mention?
DS: My 50 year old copy of the Bodley Head edition (1960) is very well marked up, but the one we use now is the Penguin Edition, which is the Bodley Head ed. reset (1992). It is not annotated but there are a number of annotated editions (eg: 2012 Edition edited by Sam Slote, et. al. based on the 1939 Odyssey Press Edition) Audio versions are available on line and free and the one we have used is: www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/ulysses/
TW: Favourite character in Ulysses and why?
DS: My favourite character has to be Leopold Bloom, the ‘anti-hero’ and everyman- an industrious Jewish guy living his day in Dublin in 1904 and always trying to learn new things, be helpful and happy, but also steering a delicate path amongst many obstacles. These include: his wife Molly and her affair with Blazes Boylan, the anti-Semitic citizen who is a rabid Irish ‘separatist’, trying to come to terms with the intellectual young Stephen Dedalus, experiencing his many moods and passions, etc. You can relate to Bloom and his wife Molly as they are real people.
TW: Favourite episode of Ulysses and why?
JS: Hard to say, but probably the Sirens episode in the Ormond bar. It is the centre of the novel and is set in the style of a musical fugue. Lots of music here and lots of Leopold thinking about the unfaithfulness of his wife Molly… all happening at the same time as he is in the bar! And of course, the last episode is marvelous and is given over entirely to Molly in a tour de force stream of consciousness.
TW: Which event are you most looking forward to for this year’s edition?
JS: We always look forward to the closing talk on Bloomsday (June 16) and this year is no exception with Abby Bender’s keynote lecture at the Jewish Public Library. We also love the readings from Ulysses earlier in the day on the 16th…wonderful to hear this fantastic book read out loud by pros. We also have to add that the academic sessions that are held at Concordia on June 13 and 15 will be wonderful. An event which is particular to this year is The Bloody Irish! on June 13– a film of the musical about the Easter Uprising – Bloomsday’s salute to the 100th anniversary of this pivotal event.
TW: What is the process of casting individuals for the dramatic readings? Do you have auditions, do people step forward without auditions, etc.?
Kevin Wright (who organizes the Bloomsday reading): Most of the people who are Bloomsday readers have some experience working with the public. Some are writers who have been interviewed about their work. Some are former teachers who are at ease reading before an audience. Some are actors, whether professional or amateur. Some work in broadcasting. Some I have heard read in previous years. We do not have auditions, but if we are looking for readers for the next year, we usually have a list of people who have proved themselves. If someone can’t do the reading, he or she can usually suggest someone who can do a good job. So far, we have rarely been disappointed.
The distribution of roles is not complicated either. Often there are not that many female voices in the scripts, but I don’t treat that as a barrier. Some of the male roles are read by women and that is not a problem. We don’t discriminate. Everything works out in the end.
TW: One of Joyce’s many friends and rivals was a young Samuel Beckett. Mr. Andre Furlani’s talk this year tackles one of Beckett’s characters, Winnie (Happy Days, 1961), as a reimagining of Joyce’s Molly Bloom (Ulysses, 1922). Do you think that any of Joyce’s writings were specifically influenced by the work of his protégé?
Andre Furlani: Many texts echo Joyce. Beckett himself said to his publisher that his first book, More Pricks than Kicks, “stinks of Joyce, but I hope before I die to endue my work with my own odours.” He did, and the influence becomes more oblique, e.g. the blind poet Hamm served by the menial Clov in Endgame has been taken as a portrait of Beckett’s period as the blind Joyce’s amanuensis.
TW: Favourite Pub of the Day from last year’s event?
JS: We and everyone in attendance really enjoys the Irish Embassy Pub where Kathleen Fee does her annual Molly reading from Penelope… as she will again this year.
TW: What events would be appropriate for an absolute beginner to Joyce, Ulysses, and Bloomsday Montréal to attend?
DS: The walking tours (June 12) are very popular and give a sense of Irish Montreal heritage. Sylvia Hill’s workshop (June 14) introducing people to Ulysses should be on everyone’s list even if you have read it! And of course the dramatic readings from the book on June 16- one of the highlights of the Festival- which gives you a good sense of this great book.
TW: Why do you think Bloomsday Montréal has had such a positive reception since its beginnings in 2012?
DS: There’s a very solid and growing number of people who respond to great literature and this great writer, James Joyce, is worth celebrating not only for his works but for his influence on modern literary writing.
TW: If you had a chance to have a drink with James Joyce, what would you want to ask him or tell him?
DS: Why did you decide to write Finnegans Wake which is the single most difficult book out there? Did you have even an inkling that Ulysses would become so popular and that a whole series of festivals around the world would be created to praise this work?
TW: Any hints on what may be in store for next year’s Bloomsday Montréal?
JS: We are working on getting another great keynote speaker and also on a musical event. Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’, from Dubliners, has been made into a chamber opera and we might put it on here.
The Bloomsday Festival runs from June 12 to June 16. Details HERE.