Bloomsday celebrations: outside Sweny’s, where you can still buy Leopold Bloom’s lemon-scented soap. Photo: JULIEN BEHAL/PA ARCHIVE/PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES
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Following in James Joyce's footsteps: meet the ordinary people keeping Ulysses alive

A visit to Sweny's chemist in Dublin, which still sells the soap Leopold Bloom buys in Ulysses, reveals those who are keeping the book alive.

In the “Lotus Eaters” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, en route to Glasnevin Cemetery, calls in at a pharmacy in Lincoln Place to pick up a face cream for his wife, Molly. Resolving to return for the prescription, which he then forgets to do, Bloom takes a cake of “sweet lemony wax” to use at the bathhouse around the corner. He is hot and bothered in the warm weather, and in gloomy spirits in the lead-up to the funeral in Glasnevin.

Still, Bloom finds some solace in the thought of “the gentle tepid steam” of the baths – not least, also, in the prospect of masturbating in the warm water, to which he alludes (“Also I think I. Yes I. Do it in the bath . . . Combine business with pleasure”). The episode takes up less than two pages but Poldy’s thoughts and interaction with the chemist make for yet another of Ulysses’s memorable depictions of everyday life in the Irish capital. Dublin may have changed considerably since 1904, but readers everywhere can relate to humdrum details such as Bloom browsing through the chemist’s selection of “coolwrappered soap”.

Indeed, one day last December, I found myself following a similar course to Poldy’s peregrinations as I searched for a quiet pub with a friend. Dublin at Christmastime is hectic, which doesn’t suit it: the usually friendly streets are stressful, and, worst of all, you’d be lucky to find two empty bar stools. However, passing Sweny’s – the same pharmacy portrayed in Ulysses; for, in Bloom’s words, “Chemists rarely move” – made me curious. I saw some old-school lemon soap in the window and decided to get some as a present for my sister.

I opened the door and saw about ten people huddled together, noses buried in books. The man behind the counter looked up and asked politely in French if we had come for the reading. Confused, I replied in my university French that I was looking for soap. After selling me the sweet-smelling bar, he asked my friend and me to sit in on the weekly reading of Ulysses in French. Given that we both study the language and are passionate about books, we agreed.

By the time we had finished struggling through the “Proteus” episode, the pub across the road was slightly less busy. We all went for a drink, and I got to know a little about the man behind the desk: P J Murphy, the intriguing curator of Sweny’s. Rather than being a fully equipped chemist’s, his shop is a Joycean curio and time machine to Edwardian Dublin. Little has changed inside from when it was built in 1847. Six years ago, some friends of Murphy’s told him that “their chemist’s” had fallen on hard times. Being a Joyce enthusiast, he offered to take over its management.

Murphy, originally a shoe salesman by day and language teacher in the evening, reopened Sweny’s in October 2009. He relies on donations to keep the pharmacy afloat and staffs it with volunteers: a set-up that is popular with foreign students who come to Dublin to learn English. Murphy is an avid linguist, claiming to have studied 25 languages to some degree and to speak nine fluently – an impressive number that still pales in comparison with his estimate that Finnegans Wake contains references to 57. Sweny’s holds several Joyce readings a week, in French and Italian, among other tongues, and there are plans to begin sessions in still more languages – book donations permitting.

The chemist’s receives many visitors who actively seek it out but Murphy believes that a large part of Sweny’s charm is the surprise passers-by get on wandering in by chance. It was heartening to see such a love of Dublin in the staff of this appealing time capsule. Stumbling across hidden gems such as the French reading group makes you realise that you don’t know your home town as well as you think.

Naturally, 16 June (the day on which Ulysses is set) is the busiest day of the year for Sweny’s; Murphy says that up to €5,000-worth of lemon soap is sold on this date alone. Many Joyce fans celebrate “Bloomsday” by wearing period clothes, retracing the footsteps of Poldy and Stephen Dedalus, and quoting their favourite passages from the book.

Joyce is one of few authors who inspire such devotion, but Murphy argues that the writer’s deep affection for Dubliners comes across in his work. Murphy has read Ulysses 19 times and bemoans its reputation as a weighty, intimidating book; he prefers to think of it instead as an honest, amusing portrayal of ordinary people.

“It’s great fun. Joyce was a great listener: he talked to everyone and wrote it all down. Irish people are very good at that,” he says over a pint, smiling. “Read it, let it come to you, enjoy it and read it again. Each time something new pops out.” I first read Ulysses a year ago. This Bloomsday, I might well take Murphy’s advice. 

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism