James Joyce and his feline friends

With June 16 merely days away, we’re getting serious about Bloomsday here at the Rosenbach. Certainly more serious than Ulysses: this novel may contain passages of great beauty, but it also contains moments of great silliness. Consider “Calypso,” the fourth chapter and the reader’s first introduction to Leopold Bloom. “Calypso” features many of the themes and literary techniques that established Ulysses as a modern masterpiece: the book follows the flow of Leopold Bloom’s thought as it ripples from one focus to another; it aggressively represents different sensory experiences, from tastes to textures to phonetic spelling of nearly unpronounceable sounds; it lavishes as much attention and even affection on mundane subjects as it does on erudite abstractions. And in “Calypso,” it does so by meticulously describing a man talking nonsense to his cat.

We might safely assume that James Joyce was a cat person. Apart from “Calypso,” he also wrote about cats in letters to his grandson Stephen; as noted in the preface to The Cats of Copenhagen, cats seemed to be a “common currency” between the grandfather and young boy. A few of us at the Rosenbach can relate, so we decided to allow ourselves a moment of silliness this “Caturday” and offer an excerpt from “Calypso” (pp. 45-6 in the Gabler edition) accompanied by photos of our own feline friends.

The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.

— Mkgnao!

— O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writing-table. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.

Anise Davis, requesting a head-scratch while her person tries to read Ulysses

Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.

— Milk for the pussens, he said.

— Mrkgnao! the cat cried.

They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.

Saoirse Parker, understanding all she wants to.

— Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.

Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it.

Francis Neepos Chong, with a curious mouse.

— Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly.

She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively and long, showing him her milkwhite teeth. He watched the dark eyeslits narrowing with greed till her eyes were green stones. Then he went to the dresser, took the jug Hanlon’s milkman had just filled for him, poured warmbubbled milk on a saucer and set it slowly on the floor.

— Gurrhr! she cried, running to lap.

He watched the bristles shining wirily in the weak light as she tipped three times and licked lightly. Wonder is it true if you clip them they can’t mouse after. Why? They shine in the dark, perhaps, the tips. Or kind of feelers in the dark, perhaps.

 

We are obliged to announce that no actual cats have been invited to Bloomsday, and that the cries of “Mrkrgnao!” and “Gurrhr!” will be approximated by humans. But our reader line-up is stellar, and we hope that you–like Bloom, like the cat–become curious and join us!

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