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Opinion & Analysis

Chasing Nelson: La Molly

I have a confession to make. I haven’t read all of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s not out of intimidation either, which is what tends to get readers nervous about Joyce in general and Ulysses in particular. A fear at the language, the themes, of not understanding it, and at the length of the novel itself, all 732 pages of it. When I was growing up, I absorbed this idea that everything and anything was valid to read and belonged on the shelf. Partly because I didn’t grow up with the internet algorithms telling me how to think and feel. Also because I had excellent English teachers who passed along all sorts of things to read, and parents who valued reading, no matter what it was. So I read comics and classic literature and Stephen King, and I came to realise everything is just story, no matter how much elitism has tried to gatekeep certain works of literature.

So my reticence at reading Ulysses is not out of intimidation. I suppose it just feels like an event. Like I need to do it over a summer and dedicate myself to it entirely. And I keep saying to myself that one day I will, and the book sits there winking at me from time to time.

What I have read is the end of the book. This is something I don’t tend to do, but a few years ago I discovered that the character of Molly Bloom is from Gibraltar. This realisation did make me feel a little bit ignorant. I didn’t know there was a statue of Molly Bloom in Alameda Gardens. I didn’t know that the pub I had frequented so much in La Linea when I lived in Gibraltar had a local connection in its name. I read her soliloquy, all 22,000 words of it with no punctuation. Like a big gulp. I was fascinated by the description of Gibraltar in it. By the allusions to Greek myths, some of which are set on our shores. As a writer, it’s like someone had told me when I wanted to I could throw out the rulebook. No punctuation! Mostly what fascinated me was the idea of memory attached to a place, this feeling of nostalgia and longing. I don’t live in Gibraltar anymore, but I write about it a lot. The Gibraltar in my work is obviously not real, because I write fiction, but it’s a Gibraltar built from memory and imagination.

It was interesting to find out that James Joyce was not living in Dublin when he wrote Ulysses. That it was the same idea, he was writing a Dublin of his mind and memory. I have read another book of Joyce’s, Dubliners. It’s more a series of sketches or short stories about life in Dublin. I read the book before I even knew who Joyce really was, or the impact or legacy or prestige he had as a writer. It’s pretty freeing to read something this way, and to like it because you like it and not because you’re supposed to like it. What struck me about Dubliners was how much it felt Gibraltarian, with its descriptions of characters strolling around the streets and its particular language. I’ve always wanted to write a book like that. I’d call it Llanitos. Stories about Main Street, and the lanes of Upper Town. Of women hanging up washing between buildings and young men out to Irish Town for a Friday night and the hidden wealth contained in the old houses of Gibraltar. One day.

This coming Friday 16th June is Bloomsday. People race around Dublin recreating scenes from the book and visiting locations and reading excerpts out loud. The Gibraltar National Book Council has proposed doing our own version of it in Gibraltar, in celebration of Molly. There are lots of ideas floating around for next year. I should have at least started Ulysses by then.
This week is busy for literary events. Wednesday June 14 is Mrs Dalloway Day, celebrating the novel Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which takes place on a ‘Wednesday in mid-June.’ I’m not sure if there are any Gibraltar connections to Virginia Woolf, other than that she didn’t have a particularly positive reaction to Ulysses. The novel follows Clarissa Dalloway around during the course of a day in London. You can do walking tours of the route she takes. There are events at the British Library. Mostly I think you should have a cup of tea, read the book, and buy some flowers for yourself.

I came to Virginia Woolf in the same ‘wrong’ way as I did Joyce. I watched the film The Hours, which dramatises part of her life, based on a novel that uses Mrs Dalloway’s plot and style as a template for another story. There’s something to be said for building your own thing from something that came before, especially when you’re repeatedly told you have no literature or culture of your own. I like the idea of wandering. I wrote the short story ‘Luz En Nueva York (1992)’ which was shortlisted for the Aurora Prize, based on a Mrs Dalloway-type idea but using a character inspired by Camarón De La Isla’s wife and native of La Linea, La Chispa.

Maybe you don’t like modernist novels, but I hope this coming week you find some time to read. With a cup of tea or a cervecita en Eastern Beach. Whatever works for you. Find some time to write too, if it’s something you do or you’ve always wanted to do. Llanitos are natural storytellers. We’re constantly at it. I’ve come to realise this. Main Street is full of stories. And those lanes that lead up to the Rock too. That’s what books are about, stories. And wandering.

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