Bloomsday 2023 at the Atwater Library, Montreal
Bloomsday is a day in the life of a Dubliner named Leopold Bloom, the son of a Hungarian Jewish gentleman named Rudolph Virág.
Virág is the Hungarian word for flower, which is Blum in Yiddish and in German, and which became Bloom in Dublin.
So, here we are today, celebrating Bloomsday, and we’re not only in Dublin, one might say, though Bloomsday is a June day in the life of Dublin; we are already in Europe and Central Europe.
And we’re here this afternoon in the Atwater Library in Montreal to celebrate the work of a bohemian and linguistically playful Irish writer displaced in Paris and Trieste as part of Festival Bloomsday Montréal.
Which is how we find ourselves using Hungarian and Yiddish and German, as Joyce did, and Italian and Slovenian and other languages, too, as Joyce did in Trieste, not to mention English and French.
There are a couple of threads here, and in what follows, as there are in most good stories.
Some of these threads are Irish, as I am by birth, some are Central European—Mitteleuropean—and some have to do with Montreal and this very spot.
The story starts with a piece I read in The Guardian 10 days ago about a 19th century Scotswoman named Emily Gerard.
You may not have heard of Emily Gerard; I know I hadn’t, but she merits our attention. In addition to marrying a Polish military officer and picking up a few Mitteleuropean languages, Emily Gerard explored Transylvanian folklore and published a 2-volume work entitled The Land Beyond the Forest (1888) and at least one article in a prominent London magazine.
And what this Scotswoman discovered inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.
Which is not a bad start for a story.
Bram Stoker was an Irishman born in Dublin, and his great-grandnephew, Dacre Stoker, is a writer who is currently doing some research on Emily Gerard—exploring the sources that Bram Stoker used in writing Dracula during long annual stays in Scotland and, to some extent, on the Yorkshire coast in Whitby, where the gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey inspired him.
I spent a few years in the 1980s teaching, researching and writing about Montreal fiction writers, so—because I thought I knew, or once knew, most Montreal writers—I was surprised to learn that Dacre Stoker, who now lives in the US, is a Canadian writer born in Montreal who went to Bishop’s College School. Not sure he has been considered a Montreal writer before, but perhaps the Atwater Library should take note!
I myself grew up with Irish folklore, in poems, songs, and stories about the wee folk told by my grandmother, who was from a village in Co. Donegal. I wrote my doctoral thesis on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett, who was born in Dublin, and who was a good friend to James Joyce in Paris.
Much later on, I spent a couple of years researching and writing about the Northern Irish fiction of the Troubles. That was in the early 1990s—long enough ago that I was taken aback, two weeks ago, to open my email and find a letter about a writer named David Martin, now deceased, whose novel The Road to Ballyshannon I admired and wrote about in 1992. It turns out that David Martin’s work is now of interest to a US film company, which is why they were seeking me out for information about him. The world is small, the literary world intimate.
I have never done any work on Bram Stoker, but this story about the sources of Dracula intrigued me enough to send the Guardian story to the Montreal writer Felicia Mihali—a Romanian immigrant who is the author of the first novel LLP ever published, The Darling of Kandahar (2012); we also published a later novel, A Second Chance (2014), and then La Bien-aimée de Kandahar in French (LLE, 2016).
Mihali is a Hungarian name, spelled Mihaly, with a “y” in Hungarian—and her origins are in Transylvania, home to the Hungarian-speaking minority in Romania.
In other words, Felicia is from that land beyond the forest that is the setting of her very first novel Le pays du fromage, which she wrote in Romanian. And the setting that Emily Gerard wrote about in such a way as to inspire Bram Stoker.
Felicia herself is an impressive linguist, having learned not only Mandarin, Dutch, and English before translating that first novel into French when she was a recent arrival in Montreal. And that début was published in French (XYZ Éditeur, 2002) to glowing reviews that compared her book to a work by Marie-Claire Blais. LLP acquired the right to publish a translation of the novel in 2021, and it will appear in English as A Ramshackle Home (LLP, September 2023).
I sent the Guardian story to the Governor General’s award-winning literary translator Judith Weisz Woodsworth, too, for Judith is the translator of A Ramshackle Home, and I knew she’d be interested in Emily Gerard.
Judith is a Montrealer who has a Hungarian background, and I first got to know her more than 30 years ago when she asked me to take a gift of French and English dictionaries to a young relative of hers in the luggage I was taking from Montreal to Budapest, which is where I was then living.
Though this may seem tangential, it isn’t, for this is a story about surprising connections, and surprising connections may be what writing is all about. It is so often what community is all about.
There’s more to this story, as well. Though it started off literary and historical, it’s become more personal than I had expected.
The story is personal to Felicia, too. Here is her comment on why she wrote A Ramshackle Home:
“I would like this novel to be read as a universal story about little girls born in small and poor villages around the world who are not as lucky as those born in big cities and in good families. These are girls who have never had to struggle to succeed, to fight their own complexes and their shame over not being more fortunate. For many of them their only escape is through the imagination.”
This story is personal to me because it reminds me of the time when I was living in Budapest and doing my best to learn Hungarian.
More about this Mitteleuropean thread—and about Montreal—in my next post.
Montreal writer and publisher Linda Leith launched LLP in 2011 and Font magazine in 2021, and she is the founder of the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival. Her most recent books are Marrying Hungary, Writing in the Time of Nationalism (2010) and The Girl from Dream City (2021).
[Photo: John Mahoney]