Smell the Lemon Soap

In Sweny’s in Dublin, they sell lemon soap, just as they did in the pages of Ulysses.

“Mr Bloom raised a cake to his nostrils.  Sweet lemony wax.  – I’ll take this one, he said.” Ulysses, J. Joyce (1922)

robertgoganThis summer when my husband and I were in Ireland, a lovely friend in Portlaoise took me to a one-man performance by Robert Gogan, Strolling Through Ulysses, at the local library. It was irreverent, bawdy and charming. And funny, which I hadn’t expected. And the little library was full! Some forty people had come along to see this performance, with the spoken word reflecting on the written word and all of it about an iconic city and its love of words.

Before we left town later that week, my friend presented me with a bar of the soap. She said she’d bought it at Sweny’s years ago in anticipation of the right moment to use it or give it away, so it was mine.

soapHere you go. Sweet lemony wax. No comma after lemony. A parchment-like feel to the wax paper wrapping. And look at that period after the word “Sweny.”

So of course I went looking for Joycean children’s books, and I found The Cats of Copenhagen, a little sister to The Cat and the Devil, and equally puzzling.

cats.jpgOn the surface it’s a nonsensical tale, which is of course a perfectly legitimate genre in the world of children’s literature. But look beyond the lack of cats, the policemen lazing (and smoking, there’s a cultural incongruity for us in today’s world) in bed at home, and the old ladies wanting to cross the road. You will find an anarchic subtext:

When I come to Copenhagen again/ I will bring a cat and show/ the Danes how it can cross the road/ without any instructions from a policeman

Casey Sorrow‘s black and white line illustrations add to the fanciful story, but the ambiguity of the text dictates the reader’s reaction. And who but Joyce would spell a cat’s call this way?


In the 21st century, are we capable of thinking for ourselves? Is is even possible to conceive of crossing a road without instructions from a policeman?

catsofcopenhagenWhat do you think of that?

For me, that’s the big tomato in this little book. Time to wake up and smell the lemon soap.

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