The pocket watch on the desk says nine o’clock in the Pre-Intermediate Level Berlitz English Class, Trieste, Austria, October 15, 1919. On the blackboard: “Grammar Point: There is/There are (revision). Vocabulary: City buildings.” James Joyce sits on the desk wearing round glasses and a jacket with tails. Of the fifteen chairs around him, only three have occupants.
JAMES JOYCE: … so the English language fills our days and works… Weekends good?
ROMANO: Er, Tuesday.
JOYCE: What a wonderful connection to make. Your weekend has spilled right into today, Tuesday, I love it.
ROMANO: Oh, haha, I thought you say what day? It is raining heavily, no?
JOYCE: Weekend, Tuesday, raining, you are flowing my friend, let your mind continue and you will soon be sitting at the feet of Socrates. Brilliant. How about you Stefan, did you have a good weekend?
STEFAN: (speaking from the tonsils) I eated the cheese. This fondue. Father bringed the Swiss friends to visit new bank.
JOYCE: Perfect. Why not cling onto your Germanic diction, Stefan? You likely exist on food your servile, farm-animal ancestors produced but had no part in naming, leaving you powerless to claim the Latinate languages as your own. Better continue with your bovine noises, making those incomprehensible sounds that are yours by heritage, yours by right. Your family’s past is the steaming trail of silage leading to your mind, as marginalized as a cow’s arse, and now you fart out that noxious English as a symbol. Nicely done. Molly, good weekend?
MOLLY: I went to the circus and sat in a wet seat that made my bum itchy a man must have noticed me scratching because he leant over and…
JOYCE: We’re going to have to work on your breathing, Molly, but I love your language. I also love circuses. Roll up, roll up, for today we will attempt the most death-defying, grammar-rectifying, sensational exercise in sniffing memory.
STEFAN: What page?
JOYCE: Page, no page, there is no book. There are no books. Are there any blocked noses here? No, well there is nothing else I need to know. We are each going to choose a city and describe the place by using its distinctive smell.
ROMANO: What is this esmell?
JOYCE: Let me give you an example. Take a city like, let’s say, well, let me think, let’s say, Dublin.
JOYCE: Dublin, Ireland. In Dublin the smell of hops burning in the Guinness factory grows legs & the toasted air skips over the seams of the footpath-slabs in Westmoreland Street; it crosses the Gresham Hotel’s cellar-grate and the beer barrels thunder;
STEFAN: Can we do exercise in book? I don’t understand usage of “There is/There are” in the uncountable noun.
JOYCE: the toasted air waits for the tram with a chattering matinee crowd outside the Ambassador Theatre; it tickles the nose of Parnell’s statue on the square; it teases the gurrier on Gardiner Street who mistakes it for his mother’s cooking; it finds a lost seagull crying on the North Circular Road;
STEFAN: Other teacher says that uncountable noun has “there are.”
JOYCE: The toasted air altercates with the Rotten-egg Smell of the Liffey about which pub to visit; the Smell of the Liffey favors the cheap pints in Fibbers; the toasted air points out that Doyles serves late pints; the Smell of the Liffey stomps ahead of the toasted air and moans all the way up O’Connell Street; as a compromise the toasted air & the Rotten-egg Smell of the Liffey waft arm-in-arm into The Flowing Tide on Abbey Street where the disconsolate barman keeps them waiting upstairs even though they are the only ones at the bar apart from the Compost Smell of Spilt Beer.
STEFAN: “There is, there are”?
JOYCE: I was saving that for the epiphany. There are seagulls shitting now all over the pillars at the General Post Office and at the Bank of Ireland, there are seagulls shitting on the oily skin of the Liffey & there are seagulls shitting on all the workers loading hops into all the furnaces inside the Guinness factory walls. Alright, Molly, what city’s smell can you tell us about?
MOLLY: … in Trieste the canal is chocolate with the white ice cream mountains you can see sometimes not since the fog came down I cannot walk in the evenings I go to the circus…
JOYCE: Breathe, girl, breathe. Excellent. Exactly what I was going for. You didn’t use the grammar point of course, or the vocabulary point, or, technically speaking, your sense of smell. Excellent, nevertheless. Anyone else?
STEFAN: (sighs) In Zurich, there is one town hall, there are some kirches, there is one police headquarters.
JOYCE: I’ve never thought of “town hall” as an odor but now I imagine I’ll smell it everywhere I go. Wonderful work, your fractured grammar communicates the misery of existence in Zurich perfectly. Romano?
ROMANO: Er, Tuesday?