writing dedalus

Toni Morrison said she wrote her first novel because she wanted to read it. With Dedalus, my first novel, I wrote it because I'd read Ulysses so many times. It might have been unhealthy to read Joyce's all-consuming magnum opus for what may have been the tenth time. I bought my first copy of Ulysses when I was seventeen (I now have three). It has lived next to my bed where I should keep my medication. It's spine is fluffing up like the back of a pigeon.

From my first reading I've revisited this book so many times the Dublin it depicts has become more familiar than the road I live in. In 2014 I thought that rather than reading the book again I'd write a novel in response, set the day after, on 17th June 1904. That might just get it out of my system. Four years later and the book has been published by Henningham Family Press in a lovely edition.

Cover of Dedalus, Henningham Family Press 2018

But writing any novel is always a work of obsession in itself, a language world created and lived in by a writer who hopes  in however a distant future  that some readers might also want to live in it. And to write this book, to go beyond reading it again, I had to sharpen my knowledge of Ulysses to the point where I could convince myself that Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom were breathing again.

I also read (and re-read) many books about Ulysses including Harry Blamires' The New Bloomsday Book (Routledge, 1993), Declan Kiberd's Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (Faber, 2010), Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses (Head of Zeus, 2015) and returned again to Richard Ellman's magisterial biography James Joyce (Oxford, 1983).  At the same time I taught a year-long course on Ulysses for the Poetry School which culminated in my students performing a spoken word piece called Bloomsound at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell on Bloomsday 1914. To write Dedalus I carried around my old edition with me (half a kilo on the scales  I've weighed it) for the best part of that year.

I also took two research trips to Dublin. I was shown around the James Joyce Centre by writer, poet and musician Jonathan Creasy, seeing the original door for number 7 Eccles Street and Joyce's desk. I took my copy of Ulysses to the top of the Martello Tower watching my wife Sarah swim the Forty Foot below. I drank the aptly named Nora's Red Ale in the Lincoln's Inn pub where Nora had worked in a previous life of the building. Bought a lemon soap in Sweny's pharmacy. Walked Sandymount Strand, kicking the sea's rejectamenta in the footprint's of Stephen.

At the top of the Martello Tower, windswept

I was excited by the idea of what might have happened on the day after the now iconic 16 June 1904. Had Stephen had a secret punt on the Gold Cup and won? After leaving Bloom on Eccles Street does he do what he says he's not going to do and spend another night at the Martello Tower? Does he revisit the prostitute in Monto who he owes money to and pay her back? And despite his crippling hangover does he make it to teach in the boys' school, hitting the bottle again in the afternoon (it's a Friday after all)?

The publisher of the book, David Henningham, gave me the language for the ongoing joke in Dedalus: yesterday was an uneventful day, today something might happen. Pursued by the ghost of his dead mother and of Hamlet, things kept happening to Stephen in ways that surprised me and made me laugh. It might also be that Stephen could fall in love on the day after Joyce had first gone out with Nora Barnacle.

The idea of 'the day after Ulysses' led me to consider what Joyce might have experimented with in the era if the internet. In my Wandering Rocks section I used a ‘chain’ technique to bind the characters through language rather than time: specific word in each section is used to transitions the voice to the next character who picks up the same theme. In the way that the internet allows for both fictional and real  dead and living  to live side-by-side, I placed contemporary Dubliners alongside Joyce's characters and added comments found on Twitter. Joyce would have loved Twitter I think, it added to his notion of the litter in 'Litterature'

      Each time I re-read Ulysses I'm surprised that the book is less visual than I remember it. I don't mean in terms of its ability to clearly depict character and scene and for its deep imagery (all of which is there with bells on), but that Joyce doesn't play around too much with typography or visual poetry. This may have to do with his near blindness which led to a much deeper interest in language as sound. When writing Dedalus I wanted to push my novel through the lens of concrete poetry, and to learn from novelists who've explored this area before, from Laurence Sterne to B.S. Johnson (both of whom are massive influences on Dedalus). For me the natural home for visual poetry is within the experimental novel and I didn't write the poetry sections separately from the others, they all poured down the same outflow into my imagine Liffey.   
For my response to Sirens I created a series of sound poems that recycle the language of each section of Dedalus (my own novel) up until this point. The opening section is an overture of the corresponding section in Ulysses and captures the sound of Bloom urinating in a public toilet at Temple Bar. Each section then recycles the language of the sections of Dedalus, playing the sounds of: Bloom zipping up his trousers; whistling; coins rattling in his trousers; the sound of a trumpet; throwing cash to a busker; a literal gust of wind; the bells of the church sounding out Bloom’s relief that he’s spoken to Molly earlier that morning; a seagull over the Liffey and Bloom’s double-checking that he has Molly’s lotion in his pocket, which he's just collected from Sweny's.

Sound poem from Sirens section of Dedalus

In the Oxen of the Sun episode Joyce famously used George Saintsbury’s Specimens of English Prose Style to pastiche the history of literature up until he was writing his own book. In Dedalus I have continued this experiment using the first pages of fiction writers who wrote in the decades following Joyce, selecting one writer from each decade up to 2014: Marcel Proust, Remembrance of  Things Past (1913); Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925); Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936); George Orwell, 1984 (1949); Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955); Williams Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959); Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963); Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973); Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985); Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (1996); Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006) and Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013).

I've had the pleasure of working with the Henningham Family Press on a few previous occasions, including in my role as National Poetry Librarian at Southbank Centre's National Poetry Library. In 2013 I worked with David on making a limited edition artists' book called Clotted Sun which included mini poems from poets buried in West Norwood Cemetery. I write about David in my book In the Catacombs: a summer among the dead poets of West Norwood Cemetery (Penned in the Margins, 2014):

To work with David is to enter into a dialogue in which all book-making dreams are possible - the painful part is having to make a decision ... There is not enough said about the real geniuses in the art of bookmaking (Stefan Themerson and Ron King are two of my 20th Century heroes) and David Henningham ... excites with the same boundless imagination. He is able to make anything, manifesting the spirit of a text in a way that satisfies the eye, hand and mind.

David Henningham working on the covers of Dedalus

As these images show David has created the cover for each book by hand, using transparent yellow paper with gold foiling. The pages are litho printed. What has been a further joy is working with David on the text itself. David has a great editorial eye and brings his imagination to the possibilities for both narrative and stylistic technique. Hardly surprising given that he's a poet and the author of a novel called Foulness (publishers get in line to sign this).

Foiling the covers of Dedalus

David set me a challenge: to write notes for the novel like those in The Waste Land. I took the spirit of that but did something else, creating a subtext in which the characters of Stephen and Bloom are lost in the world of 1980s computer gaming. David responded again, creating a series of visual images which are part map and part exhibition vitrine : in each one can be seen tiny figures (of Dedalus, Bloom and other characters) trapped inside.

Vitrine / Map for the Nestor section of Dedalus, by David Henningham

When Joyce created Ulysses he had little idea how his cultural creation would expand into the psyche of each successive generation. Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom have become bit parts in an industry, celebrated in carnival, imitated and expanded into art. As Stephen says to his therapist in Dedalus: 'My whole being is fatuous. My creator devised my first conception under the title Stephen Hero : what more apt metaphor for the burning of the wings of ambition?'

Stephen's ambition means he could never accept that he isn't the main character in Ulysses. Joyce's joke is that Stephen plays second fiddle to Bloom. Dedalus is Stephen's book and  – after so many years of joyous reading of Ulysses  is dedicated to James Joyce. I'm spending this year with Finnegans Wake.

Dedalus has just been published by Henningham Family Press and can be ordered here.

The launch will take place at the Lockkeeper's Cottage at Queen Mary University at 5pm on Bloomsday, 16th June 2018. The event is open to all RSVP here.


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