Portrait

Frances Devlin-Glass stages Joyce’s Dublin, smell by smell. By Romy Ash.

James Joyce expert Frances Devlin-Glass

Walking up to Frances Devlin-Glass’s front door, there’s the smell of wet earth and the rot of autumn leaves. My breath is visible in the cold morning air and the smell is not unpleasant. When Devlin-Glass opens the door and says hello, I’m surprised she has an Australian accent. I’d expected her to be Irish. She’s a Joycean who has taught James Joyce in Melbourne universities since 1976. She is also the director of Bloomsday in Melbourne, a group of Joyce enthusiasts who stage theatrical adaptations of his work. Their new play Getting Up James Joyce’s Nose, which is to be performed in the Melba Spiegeltent in Collingwood in June, is a reworking of Ulysses and takes an odoriferous journey through the novel.

Devlin-Glass walks me through her house, makes Earl Grey tea, and we settle on couches by an open fire. She tells me about Dublin, how Joyce boasted you could reconstruct the city from the pages of Ulysses. This is a Dublin that no longer exists, that was being destroyed as he was writing the work between 1914 and 1921. The parts he knew best, north and just south of the River Liffey, Devlin-Glass explains, were hit by the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence, followed by the Irish Civil War. “It was shocking, shocking destruction,” she says, and Joyce didn’t go back to Ireland after 1910. Devlin-Glass and her Bloomsday theatre group set about reimagining Dublin from the smells described in the text.

I ask her what Joyce’s Dublin smells like. “Guinness brewing, horse turds dropping … there are the smells of high-class and low-class food. Low-class food is gristly meat with people spitting it out, and cabbage and mash.” She focuses in on Leopold Bloom, the fictional protagonist of Ulysses. “Bloom is revolted by the smell of the Burton [restaurant], because it’s spat-on sawdust and dead beer, plus this ghastly stew kind of thing that people are eating and eating. You get a lot of smells with the butcher’s shop, where he goes to buy his kidney for breakfast, European-style sausages and pork products.”

She explains that this emphasis on smell is historically representative of the era in which Joyce was living. Smell was becoming important for the new discipline of psychiatry, and there were sexologists, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing for example, who believed that to take pleasure in bodily smells was a pathology. “Joyce has a lot of fun with this. He’ll put Bloom on the loo, or have him dig out and smell his toe jam,” she says.

“The assumption that people made – to take any kind of pleasure in the odorous body was to, you know, the brain should be in control rather than the body and its urges and desires – that’s the sort of thinking that Joyce begins to overturn.”

I ask Devlin-Glass if thinking on this subject so deeply has changed the way she thinks about smell. “It certainly has,” she says, but then pauses. “It’s a bit intimate.”

She has a cap of grey hair and large drop earrings that move with her as she shakes her head. “I’ll tell you what I noticed – see I’m being a little bit coy here – I’ll put it this way. If I can smell my spouse, I was, before this project, inclined to say, ‘You need a bath’, whereas what I’m now knowing is that I know his real smell … I questioned a bourgeoisie assumption of mine – if I can smell you, you need a bath.”

“Did you begin to take more pleasure…?” I ask.

She nods, “In the musty smells.”

She says, “The climax of this novel is remarkable from a smell point of view. Bloom’s been worried all day about being cuckolded by Blazes Boylan, and when Bloom gets back to his bedroom, he gets into a bed that stinks of Blaze’s brilliantine, his body odours, his semen and the picnic they had in the bed of potted meat, port and peaches. That’s the smell of adultery.

“They [Bloom and Molly] haven’t had sex for 11 years because of the grief over their child that died. They’re both terrified to have another child. He understands where she’s coming from. He wishes she had a better bloke to have it off with – and so does Molly, for that matter. Blazes might be rich, he might be talented, but he’s a bloody bogan.”

I like the way Devlin-Glass speaks, and later, when she says she grew up in Brisbane, it makes sense to me: despite her rich vocabulary, there’s a casualness there.

“Growing up I spent a lot of time at the seaside – Brisbane bayside – and that’s a different kind of smell to surfside. Bayside beaches are muddy. Wynnum Manly – that’s mud. It evokes a desire to go to the Gold Coast, which we also did, where there’s sand and ozone smells, rather than muddy smells.”

She tells me Surfers Paradise beach had a very distinctive smell. She says, “There used to be a mutton bird man who sprayed people with mutton bird oil and so if you wanted a good tan – I was a child so I wasn’t getting a tan, I’ve always been sun-averse anyway – but you stood and you got sprayed. Red oil. It smelled shocking. Mutton bird is not a good smell, I can tell you. Salt, oil and a very high rancid-smelling oil.”

She laughs and gets up to stoke the fire. She rearranges logs and the smell of smoke and heat fills the room.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "The funk of the Irish". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

The news you need. Delivered free to your inbox. 7am weekdays.

Continue reading your one free article for the week