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  • Peter Byrne

Turkey and Goose with James Joyce

Aggiornamento: 14 dic 2022



The UK and USA prepare their happy Christmas tears about now as the shopping malls strike up Jingle Bells and Oh Holy Night. At home we dust off our made-in-China tinsel and water our plastic evergreen trees. The Anglo-Saxons prepare for what may have been a religious feast a long time ago. Now England and Wales is less than 48% Christian and who knows what hocus-pocus USA bible-thumpers are peddling under the new moon. We can only be sure Santa Claus is Coming to Town, along with Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and Ebenezer Scrooge. Like vampires, Charles Dickens’s characters will rise from their caskets. We ready our complacent smiles. A Christmas Carol is going to assault us again like Aunt Nellie’s leaden Xmas cake.


Isn’t it time for change? For someone to wave a clove of garlic instead of a holly wreath at those old bores thirsty for the blood of our Christmas? Couldn’t we not-so-fast forward from 1843 to at least the 1890s? Stephen Dedalus is ten then. He is, of course, Joyce’s alter ego in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, the book that traces the author’s childhood and youth. Stephen is back from boarding school and having his first Christmas dinner with his family in Dublin. His numerous siblings are confined to the nursery till pudding time, but as eldest among them he is making his debut at the holiday table. The Joyces have not yet slipped down the slope of genteel poverty and are having a traditional blowout. A decanter was filled from the stone jar of whisky.

“A great fire, banked high and red flamed in the grate and under the ivytwined branches of the chandelier the Christmas table was spread.”


Seated around the table with Stephen are five adults. His father, here Mr Dedalus, (Simon), whom an older Stephen will describe:


“A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.”


The same Stephen when asked about his mother, the hostess’s, unhappy life, will say she (Mary) had “nine or ten children…some of them died.” Mrs Dedalus will be the workhorse and the peacemaker at the repast.


Mrs Riordan (Dante) is a starchy aunt. Uncle Charles sides with her though his warrior instincts have been undermined by senility.


Mr Casey, (John) his father’s crony, is a veteran of the anti-British insurrections. His hand has been disfigured by a bomb he was preparing, he tells Stephen, as “a birthday present for Queen Victoria.” The ten-year-old will absorb this Christmas Day and bear its mark forever.

This is Ireland at the turn of the 19th century and far from Charles Dickens’s fairytale of the lovable poor and the repentant rich. Religion is inescapable table talk and so is politics. A ghost at the feast is Charles Stewart Parnell. He was a brilliant Irish politician, member of the Westminster parliament who fought for so-called Home Rule for Ireland. At the peak of his career, hero-worshipped by Irish nationalists, “the uncrowned king of Ireland,” was discovered to have a long adulterous affair. A ferocious split in his support followed and is echoed in Stephan’s searing memory of his boyhood home on Christmas Day. The Church and his political enemies brought Parnell down. He married his lover but fell sick and died at forty-five.


The table talk in the Dedalus household and its rise to riot-volume Is a remarkable piece of writing. It has all of Joyce’s brilliant play on vernacular speech and manages to touch on a tableful of Irish contradictions. There is the repulsion of being frogmarched into a foreign empire (British) and the tenacious fidelity to a foreign church (of Rome). Mr Dedalus and Mr Casey are with the Church provided it doesn’t go against their anti-British politics. Mrs Riordan and Uncle Charles insist that the Church-defined sin of the flesh trumps any political position except the one it creates under another name and the guise of morality. There in no quelling the confusion.


“Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him like rats in a sewer. Lowlived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!”


“They behaved rightly, cried Dante [Mrs Riordan]. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour them!”

***


A less conflicted Yuletide meal is portrayed in Joyce’s novella The Dead that ends his volume Dubliners. It is Twelfth Night, Epiphany, in that city and Gabriel Conroy, another Joyce alter ego, is asked to carve at a long, full table of mellow revellers. In Gabriel, Joyce imagines what he would have become, had he remained in Ireland and not gone to live in Trieste, Zurich and Paris.

“A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill around its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. […] Gabriel took his seat boldly at the head of the table and, having looked to the edge of the carver, plunged his fork firmly into the goose. […] While Gabriel and Miss Daly exchanged plates of goose and plates of ham and spiced beef Lily went from guest to guest with a dish of hot floury potatoes wrapped in a white napkin. This was Mary Jane’s idea and she had also suggested apple sauce for the goose but Aunt Kate had said that plain roast goose without any apple sauce had always been good enough for her and she hoped she might never eat worse. Mary Jane waited on her pupils and saw that they got the best slices and Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia opened and carried across from the piano bottles of stout and ale for the gentlemen and bottles of minerals for the ladies. […] Gabriel having finished, the huge pudding was transferred to the table. The clatter of forks and spoons began again. Gabriel’s wife served out spoonfuls of the pudding and passed the plates down the table. Midway down they were held up by Mary Jane, who replenished them with raspberry or orange jelly or with blancmange and jam. The pudding was of Aunt Julia’s making and she received praises for it from all quarters. She herself said that it was not quite brown enough.”


In The Dead, the table talk is neither about religion nor politics. Young Joyce (Stephen) had left his homeland to get away from both along with the memory of his first adult Christmas dinner. Gabriel, his imaginary stay-at-home alter ego, will, later on that snowy night, speak seriously with his wife, Greta. He will learn something that changes his view of her and of everything.


(The Dead was made into a film by John Huston in 1987 and can be found on You-Tube).

***

Mention of James Joyce brings thoughts of exile and language that touch core interests of the Berkeley Circle. The Irish writer kept Gaelic, the native language of his island, at arm’s length. At the time, promotion of the Irish tongue provoked vituperative political wrangling that was one reason why he fled Ireland. He saw nationalism as an obstacle to his freedom as an artist. Nevertheless, his work respected language in all its forms and culminated in the multilingual marvel of Finnegans Wake.


During Joyce’s years in Trieste, he delighted in its dialect which he handled with ease. The eye of his ghost would surely have been caught by the review Lu Puparu whose arrival occurs on Saint Lucia’s Day. The cover of the Lecce annual bears contemporary words of wisdom translated from Italian into Lecce’s proud dialect. There are more examples of the venerable vernacular within. They include poetry, thoughtful comment, unashamed nostalgia, and jabs of homespun wit.


Lu Puparu boasts a graphic elegance all its own, far from slickness and with an authentic flavour of home. The bulk of the review is in straightforward Italian. Local glories are celebrated but the sombre doings of the wider world are not ignored. This year’s leading idea is a plea for peace on our planet. There is an interview with a doctor who worked with refugees at Lampedusa. A tribute to the poet Giovanni ‘Niny’ Rucco suggests that it is love that nurtures the roots of peace just as it made the poet’s long life so fruitful.

La pace ete comu nu sciardinu

te ndori, luci, erve frische chinu,

ddu stannu mpisi all’aria li culuri,

a ddu lu ientu scioca cu lli fiuri,

a ddu lu sule face te pittore,

ddu celu e terra parlanu te amore.


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