I guess my title of this post gives it away, doesn't it? The Death of a Joyce Scholar by Bartholomew Gill is the first book I've read for the Irish Reading Challenge for this year. I've read a couple of the Peter McGarr mysteries before, many years ago, but this is my first one in some time. I found it second-hand, and grabbed it because I thought, well, it's about Joyce and Ulysses, and once upon a time a very good friend of my father's loved Ulysses and thought it the greatest book ever written in the English language. I think that was supposed to encourage me - me, an English Literature Honours student! - to pick it up, but sadly it made me afraid to read it, because if it was the best novel ever written, what hope was there for me as a hopeful writer to even bother writing? So I plugged on with my writing and kept Ulysses on the back burner. But I never forgot it. Who knows what Fate had in mind when I picked up The Death of a Joyce Scholar in early February?
In The Death of a Joyce Scholar, Kevin Coyle, a professor of James Joyce and Trinity Professor, is found stabbed to death on Bloomsbury, the annual June 16 celebration in Dublin , the day that Ulysses occurs over in the book. Kevin is such a James Joyce scholar that he has had one book about Joyce published, and a new one just about to be - 5 days before his death. He also has such a fine voice and good memory that he is able to quote pages and scenes from the book, and plays the role of Stephen Dedalus from the book on a tour he runs with his colleague, Fergus Flood. It was at the ending of this annual night's tour of Dublin following in the footsteps of the two characters in Ulysses as they move through Dublin over an 18-hour period, that Kevin is killed. His body is discovered in the night, and moved, and it is only when Kevin's wife seeks out Peter as 'one of us' that his murder is discovered. For she has his body at their home, propped up on their bed.
And this is the beginning of a remarkable book. Not just because it's a good mystery, but because the author has managed to write themes from Ulysses into the characters and themes and of course, the setting. Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr has not read Ulyssess, but after the first couple of days of investigating the case, so many of the people involved in and around Coyle are Joyce specialists - his colleagues, past-over student, publisher, who all quote James Joyce and Samuel Beckett to McGarr and the investigating team as a way of showing their superiority and intellectual prowess - that after his own wife guesss that McGarr hasn't read Ulysses, he decides he should, if he is going to understand the myriad threads that make up the motives of the characters. So we see him settle down to read Ulysses, one night well into the investigation. Along the way, he stops to think about what he is reading, and says:
"In his earlier attempts to read Ulysses, McGarr had discovered that the only availing approach for the novice reader was to consult the 'guide' often and in depth. But he now found himself forgetting the many allusions to symbol, history, and myth and merely "listening" to the words on the page, much as he would listen to a piece of music.
"It was a particularly Irish song, he understood from the first page, and a particularly Dublin ditty - now melodic and fine, later rough and raspy, then rambling and vague and what McGarr thought of as ethereal, counterbalanced by a focus as sharp and unsparing as any microscope.........
"The novel reminded him of the complex weave of voices raised in complaint, laughter, song, noise, and lament that he had heard all his life in one or another Dublin licensed premises, which could not have changed since Joyce's era."
It is that last sentence that caught my eye, and above all, convinced me to haul down my own copy of Ulysses, and open the first page. There were Stephen Dedalus, and Leopold Bloom, the originals, on the morning of the day in question, June 16, shaving in the early light. And on page 7 I had to stop and catch my breath, for a phrase leapt off the page and I saw it, the way I've seen it so many times back when I lived on the sailboat, the light of the sun and the clouds on the sea's surface: "A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, shadowing the bay in deeper green." I know exactly what that looks like, what it feels like. That's when I knew I have to read this book now, finally.
So The Death of a Joyce Scholar is a mystery that has become much more than just a mystery for me. The way the book ends also is deliberately written to echo the ending of Ulysses, with a modern woman in a soliloquy over a man, and ending with the very end of Molly Bloom's soliloquy about yes, which is a fine way to end both this mystery and a novel about a day in the life of Dublin.
I can hardly wait to read Ulysses now, even though I am still nervous. I like the idea of it as a novel about the song of life pulsing through Dublin, all the lows and highs and thoughts and memories, songs and faith and tears that make up a city where people live together. I think it will be interesting to see how much this novel is of Ireland, and if I understand any part of the melody, if being Irish isn't just being born in Ireland, but is something we carry in the soul, too. So all of us with Irish ancestors, carry some of this song too. That the enormous flux of Irish people from Ireland took the song of being Irish out into the world, though the eternal song is always back there in the green hills of the country, and noisy streets of Dublin. I'll see, and let you know.
Meantime, I really enjoyed The Death of a Joyce Scholar. I think every character lied, or hid the truth - certainly, this mystery was written in homage to Joyce, as every main character has thoughts and impulses in their part of the song of the investigation, thoughts they barely notice, impulses they act on, instincts that they use, and as the story unfolds, each of their movements help propel the story along, until each character, with a tiny moment in view or taking up chapters, is firmly in place in the mystery. Every character is Irish in some way, from the lesbian Mary to the beautiful and free Catty who causes her own misfortune, from Coyle's wife who as a large woman looks like Joyce's own Noreen (commented on a few times in the mystery), to the way all the characters lie, whether evading questions from their spouses or hiding what happened to Ward's gun from the press, to the mystery surrounding who exactly plunged the knife into Kevin's chest. It's funny, the amount of liars, innocents and cheats, there are in this book - in a way, The Death of a Joyce Scholar is a miniature mystery slice of Dublin with echoes of Ulysses all the way through, and all the more enjoyable because it's a mystery that discusses books, literature, and the meaning - or not- of words. It's also funny, with macabre moments and hilarious lawyer double-talk.
4.7/5, and another half-star for convincing me that I could read Ulysses, at long last.
Read for Irish Reading Challenge