The Home Place: Coming home - Colum McCann
The Irish Hospice Foundation asked some well-known people to contribute to its new book, ‘The Gathering: Reflections on Ireland’. This is Colum McCann’s contribution: ‘I did what anyone with a fondness for James Joyce would: I licked my thumb, picked up the crumb of Ulysses and ate it’
Brendan Bourke: photographer, film-maker, writer, teacher and best friend
There is a priceless copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the New York Public Library. A first edition. Signed by Joyce to his friend James Stephens.
The collision of book and place is sacred. The library is probably the finest in the world. So too, of course, is the book: the most acclaimed novel of the 20th century. So when I had a chance to see the copy in the winter of 2011, I immediately said yes. I got on the subway. Got off at 42nd Street. Walked along Fifth Avenue in the slush. Shook out my umbrella. Walked up the steps, past the famous lion statues, into the library. Up to the third floor. Into a rare-book room where the curators greeted me warmly.
The book was laid out on a piece of blue velvet, opened carefully and methodically. The curators wore gloves. They treated the book with proper awe. I was supervised every moment of the way. I didn’t even get to touch the pages. I leaned over the book, breathed the phrases in. The ineluctable modality of the visible.
Part of the charm of books, of course, is that they disintegrate. Although the language lasts forever – in both a digital and imaginative sense – no book can be protected forever. There are simple laws of nature. Even if we sealed our books in hermetic tombs, some distant day entropy will gnaw at the pages. It’s called age – it’s the most democratic thing in the world and it happens to the best of us, even Joyce.
So when the book was carefully closed and lifted to be put away, a tiny flake of page fell from inside on to the blue cloth beneath. This happens. That’s life. Books will flake. It was just a crumb, really. Slightly smaller than a thumbtack. It sat on the blue felt cloth. The library staff didn’t notice it. They took the book away. To be wrapped, protected, properly humidified. But the flake still lay there on the cloth. I stared at it. It would soon become dust.
I got ready to leave. Unhooked my jacket from the back of the chair. Thought about it again. Looked down at the flake of Ulysses.
And then I did what anyone with a fondness for Joyce would: I licked my thumb, picked up the crumb and ate it. Or rather let it dissolve slowly.
The book that I return to, when I return to Ireland, is always Ulysses. I make no apology for this. I don’t find it pretentious. I don’t think it’s overwrought. Nor do I believe that it’s an impossible read. Sure, it is difficult, but all worthy things are, in their own way, difficult.
It’s just a good book. I like it. It makes me laugh. It puzzles me. It confounds me. It frustrates me. It thrills me. I find it worth reading. That’s enough.
And literature lives on in the most peculiar ways. The messy layers of human experience get ordered and reordered by what we take into our minds, our memories, our imaginations. Books can carry us to the furthest side of our desires. We can travel, we can remain or we can hide in plain sight. And sometimes they mean so much more than just the physical or even the imaginative object.
Early in 2013 I lost my best friend. Brendan Bourke. A photographer, a film-maker, a writer, a teacher. He had struggled with his health for many years, but somehow he had always managed to bring a spark to whatever life gathered around him, including his own.
Brendan knew of my obsession with Ulysses and he promised that, one day, he would read it. I tried to encourage him to read the more salacious parts of Molly’s soliloquy, or to begin with Bloom at breakfast, or to sit for a while with the Citizen in Little Britain Street. He could even read the novel backwards if he wanted to. I was fairly sure he would enjoy it, once he got over its supposed difficulty. Bren was a Dubliner after all. And he was a good reader. And Ulysses – despite the aura that somehow gathers around it – was the perfect Dublin novel.
He never read the book, however. He talked about it but never read it. Life got in the way. There was always some new film project that overtook the task. Or a photograph to take. Or another surgical procedure to undergo. He was always just about to read it. “Good puzzle to cross Dublin without passing a pub.” We once sat in the Stag’s Head together and tried to figure out if there was a way. The novel was at the cusp for Brendan: he was always about to embark on it. After his brother Kyron gave him his kidney – and almost four more years of life – he said he was going to finally sit down and read it. It became one of his ambitions. That, and race a rally car. That, and finish a film of ours: As If There Were Trees. That, and bring his partner, Liz, on a journey to the States. That, and so many other things.
Brendan died early in the new year. His body failed him. He was young, or young enough, at 50, to make me think that it was entirely wrong. I flew home to Dublin from New York. The next day I talked with Liz. She was going through his things in preparation for the funeral. Brendan had, she said, purchased a copy of Ulysses just before Christmas. She knew because she had found it among his Christmas things, with a receipt from Hodges Figgis stuck inside. She could tell from the spine that he had not yet cracked the book open. It made her smile, though, to think about it. He had, at least, bought it. He was ready for it.
The next day she took the copy and placed it on Brendan’s chest in the open wicker coffin that he lay inside, in the funeral home in Fairview. It was her gesture to him to carry the story with him.
I have never liked the idea of an open coffin, but later that evening I got the chance to sit in the funeral home before the viewing. Brendan was laid out in the open coffin, dressed in his favourite cowboy boots and a paisley shirt. The copy of Ulysses lay slap bang in the middle of his chest, just above his folded hands. Still uncracked, unopened.
I had about a half hour to spend with him, alone, before others came in. I pulled up a chair and sat beside him.
One of Brendan’s favourite lines from my own short stories: “Well fuck it anyway, we really need some new blood in midfield.”
And so I did, again, what anyone would do. I picked up the book and began to read.
Death takes away a lot of things, but it can’t ever take away our stories. This is the beauty of literature. Stories don’t die with us. They live on. Literature is, in a very pure sense, the place where we learn to remain alive.
I do not know what page that solitary crumb fell from when I visited the New York Public Library. Who knows what chapter of Ulysses it came from? Who knows what might have become of it – thrown in the rubbish, or swept away, or maybe even kept in a plastic bag by one of the librarians to be cherished? It hardly matters. It is long gone. I ate it. Fair enough.
And although I don’t know what might have happened to that flake of paper if I had left it there, I do know what I read to Brendan Bourke when I sat with him in the funeral home in Fairview, and perhaps part of it belonged to that flake. I leaned over the coffin and picked the book from off his chest. I opened it up and went straight to the What Is a Nation? section, where Bloom argues with the Citizen. “Ireland,” said Bloom, “I was born here, Ireland.”
The time ticked away, as time does. But I wanted a little more for him, my pal. So I sat by Brendan’s coffin and flicked forward in the book and read to him the filthiest, naughiest, dirtiest, most wonderful parts of Molly’s soliloquy. To give him a bit of a smile for the beyond. To send him off with a laugh.
Just imagine that. To die with a laugh.
Colum McCann’s novels include This Side of Brightness, Zoli and Let the Great World Spin. His latest novel, Transatlantic, was published in June