Thursday, 9 April 2020

Dedalus by Chris McCabe (Henningham Family Press)

By way of introduction, here's something I wrote in 2015:

According to the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa., the action of Puccini's opera Tosca unfolds in Rome in June 1800.

The opera was based on Victorien Sardou's 1887 French-language play La Tosca, and Sardou offers more precise dates: La Tosca takes place in the afternoon, evening, and early morning of 17th and 18th June 1800, following the Battle of Marengo on Saturday 14th June, between French forces commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte and Austrian forces under General Michael von Melas. The French drove the Austrians out of Italy and news reached Rome from Piedmont two days later.

Has anyone made the connection with Bloomsday on 16th June? 

If anyone ever rises to the challenge of writing a sequel to Joyce's masterpiece (set, of course, on 17th June and tying up all the loose ends) could each chapter have, as it were, a governing opera?

At the time I wrote this the poet Chris McCabe may have already started work on his debut novel Dedalus, a sequel to Ulysses set in Dublin on 17th June. I wrote about it in the August 2018 issue of Literary Review and, since that piece  is behind a subscription paywall, here's what I originally submitted:

Leopold the Second

by Chris McCabe
Henningham Family Press   £12.99

ISBN 9781999797423

James Joyce's Ulysses has prompted many cultural spin-offs but never, to date, a sequel. This may be down to the Joyce Estate's intervention or simply cold feet. What author in full possession of their senses would attempt a follow-up to the greatest novel ever written? Who would dare to write Twolysses?

Chris McCabe fortunately has the talent to match his chutzpah and, in dismantling and reassembling Joyce's original, he has created a brilliantly complex and original work of fiction that is much more than a pastiche or mere homage. 

As a poet he has a sure feel for Joyce's prose style, or styles. Not simply in the use of compounds - the first page gives us seasand, airdew, dawnblue, catpurrs, sourbreath and eggwhites - nor in confidently adopting the stream of consciousness technique (which these days seems slightly quaint).  The challenges are to own the antecedent material rather than borrowing it, to do something new with it, and not to fly too close to the sun.

The 18 short episodes in Dedalus correspond to Joyce's original, from 'Telemachus' to 'Penelope', but McCabe does not much exploit the Homeric substructure, electing instead to map his sequel against the five acts of Hamlet. Stephen is the Prince, with others doubling as Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia and so on, while minor characters from the play are glimpsed perambulating the Dublin streets. 

Part I adheres most closely to the circadian structure of Ulysses. Waking on the morning of Friday 17th June 1904, a hungover Stephen Dedalus staggers down the Martello tower stairwell for some brittle exchanges with the English interloper Haines, while Buck Mulligan swims nearby at the 'Forty Foot'. Meanwhile in Eccles Street Leopold Bloom is preparing breakfast for Molly and teasing the pussens. There are no unresolved plot points in Ulysses because there's barely any plot at all, but McCabe shrewdly picks up on some suggestive leads. Sundry consequences of Paddy Dignam's funeral and the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner the previous day are lighted on, we find out more about Stephen's feelings for his dead mother and Bloom's excruciating awareness of his cuckold status. Molly, we learn, knows all about her husband's illicit correspondence with another Dublin woman, Martha. 

The author comes into his own in Part II when he abandons straightforward pastiche and, prompted by the Hamlet stage direction 'A platform before the castle', begins to reconfigure his novel as a 1980s Text Adventure Game, the characters becoming (in the publisher's words) 'cultural types pasted into Digital Age storytelling'. Between each of the three sections there is a series of cryptic Google-style maps which reflect the way modern-day Dubliners navigate their city. These maps resemble, and appear to function as, two-dimensional museum vitrines; a virtual Joyce museum with interactive displays, perhaps located in a castle, quite possibly in Denmark. These also appear to represent a layer of the subconscious beneath the Joycean stream, an equivalent to Eimear McBride's innovative rendering of thought at the point before it becomes articulate speech. The effect is like a series of superimposed acetates featuring Homer and Ulysses and Hamlet, then computer gaming and present-day metadata. This is all genuinely, startlingly, wonderfully new.

Joyce sets his would-be acolytes a very high bar. The original 'Lestrygonians' episode has Joyce's Bloom, hungry before lunch, looking at women's silk petticoats in a shop window:

A warm human plumpness settled down on his brain. His brain yielded. Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered
flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.

Now here's McCabe's Bloom, also pre-prandial:

Scent  and  salivation  plumed  through  the thoughts  of  Bloom.  Maybe  buy  some  buns,  walk down to the quay.

This is less richly textured, less suggestive - although 'plumed' harks back to the original's 'plumped'), and the embedded 'I' in 'salvation' is is wonderful - and this is not to criticise McCabe but to remind ourselves of what a towering genius Joyce was. It's the difference between perfume and scent, their respective complexity, their lingering sillage. McCabe's prose, perfectly serviceable and consistently very fine, does not support the scrutiny that Joyce's does. How could it?

McCabe's invention impresses, and never flags. The 'Wandering Rocks' episode features voices from modern-day Dublin (a Ryanair hostess, an I.T. help desk advisor, a boy scout and a Molly Bloom impersonator); 'Sirens' is a visual riot of phrases, words and letters while 'Cyclops' consists of a series of circular calligrams which diminish in size as the speaker's monocular chauvinism intensifies. (Concrete poetry has found its place in the experimental novel ever since Tristram Shandy.) In 'Circe' Stephen discusses his feelings about Joyce with a modern therapist and in 'Ithaca' McCabe interviews himself about his relationship with his late, alcoholic father. There are lipogrammatic fragments in which all vowels are excised to produce a kind of Oulipian text speak which at one point appear to dismiss the book itself as a 'frtlss nd ftl xrcs'. Far from being fruitless and futile - although readers unfamiliar with Ulysses will struggle  - Dedalus offers huge rewards for the initiated. 

In the original 'Nausicaa' episode Bloom masturbated while gazing at young Gerty McDowell on the beach, the act counterpointed with a mass performed by one Father O'Hanlon at a church nearby. In a richly satisfying reversal, the tables are turned and it is now Bloom himself, observed keenly through birdwatcher's field glasses, who becomes the object of O'Hanlon's lust while remaining serenely unaware of his sexual objectification:

Wonder who that was in the window? Canon O'Hanlon? Nice man he is. Quiet life it must be. Reflection, solitude. Must go and say hello sometime. Pass a few hours. Take a cake.

In 'Oxen of the Sun' (which in the original offered a conspectus of the English language from the Latinate to the 20th century) McCabe offers deft pastiches of a dozen authors from Proust, Woolf and Orwell to Nabokov, Attwood and Cormac McCarthy, culminating in a pitch-perfect take on the aforementioned  Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing and it's particularly satisfying that this canter through the highlights of modern fiction concludes with a modernist writer who has declared her allegiance to Joyce. 'Penelope', the final episode, ends with Stephen, drunk and alone on Sandymount Strand in the early hours of Saturday morning, watching Hamlet dig his own grave by the flashing beam of Poolbeg Lighthouse. Stephen's tour-de-force interior monologue ends with a tentatively affirmative 'Perhaps'. 

Joyce admirers will love or hate Dedalus, or perhaps remain in the fruitfully equivocal state that Joyce himself called 'twosome twiminds'. A second sequel is hinted at, but I hope Chris McCabe will also consider a prequel, set on 15th June and prepping the characters for the momentously inconsequential events of the following day. Call it Prelysses.

The Henninghams are artists as well as publishers and their website reflects the depth and range and originality of their actives as book makers, fine artists, writers, cultural animateurs and trailblazers.

Dedalus is, by a long way, the single most beautifully-produced softcover volume I've yet seen from any independent publisher - the image above cannot do justice to the elaborate palimpsest of the cover, the quality of paper and ink, the illustrations (by David Henningham) and, above all, MCabe's confident ownership and repurposing of the greatest novel of the 20th century. 

Buy a copy from the publishers here.

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