Books for the News

Bloomsday’s Backstory

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In celebration of Bloomsday, the anniversary of the single day on which the whole of James Joyce’s Ulysses unfolds, fans are dressing as characters from the novel, adapting it for Twitter, and engaging in festivities around the world.
What inspires such devotion? “The book carried me through to the far side of my body,” the novelist Colum McCann writes in his Bloomsday op-ed in today’s New York Times. “[It] made me alive in another time.”
Indeed, the novel’s time-capsule-like qualities are, in part, what made it such a rich source for Cathy Gere’s Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, in which she observes that “it is the astonishing achievement of Joyce’s prose—his ear for the exact cadence of people’s speech, his memory for the precise texture of everyday life, and his powers of description—that it can carry the reader back one hundred years to experience the labyrinth of modernism in its living, breathing actuality.”
Joyce accomplishes this vividness, Gere points out, though a method perhaps best illuminated by T. S. Eliot:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him.… It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.

But Eliot did not acknowledge, she adds, that the archaeology of Bronze Age Greece had already been using a mythical method of controlling, ordering, and giving shape to prehistoric remains. With Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism Gere unearths this fascinating story, beginning with British archaeologist Arthur Evans’s excavation of the palace of Knossos on Crete and tracing and its long-term effects on Western culture. Gere shows how Evans’s often-fanciful account of ancient Minoan society fired the imaginations of a generation of intellectuals and artists, including Freud, Georgio de Chirico, Robert Graves, H.D.—and, of course, the father of Bloomsday himself.