By RON CSILLAG
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, April 23, 2019
A visitor eager to show off his knowledge of the Irish author James Joyce once patronizingly asked Harry Pollock what could have attracted him to such an abstruse writer who has flummoxed readers for more than a century, given that Mr. Pollock's formal education ended at high school.
Mr. Pollock paused, looked his interlocutor up and down, and calmly said: "Sex."
He was 11 or 12 years old when he'd heard there were erotic passages in Joyce's writings and that, for some reason, he was not allowed to read them. Squaring up, he pronounced: "Nobody tells me what's not allowed if it doesn't harm anyone else."
Mr. Pollock was referring to the taxing Ulysses, Joyce's sprawling, often sexually explicit book - probably the most obsessed-over novel ever written.
For added panache, Mr. Pollock then reached for a shelf and grabbed Joyce's even more fiendishly intractable work, Finnegans Wake. Gliding an index finger over the text, he proceeded to unravel the puns, neologisms and baffling night-dream language with the ease of a Cambridge don.
He indeed never went beyond high school, but that didn't prevent one authority from proclaiming the self-taught Mr. Pollock as one of the keenest James Joyce fans in the world.
Mr. Pollock, who died in Toronto on April 15 at the age of 98, was an internationally recognized expert on the writer.
Keen was an understatement.
Mr. Pollock's initial prurient curiosity led to a near obsession with Joyce that continued for decades.
He seemed to take to heart the only demand that Joyce made of a reader: "That he should devote his whole life to reading my works."
Ulysses was banned in Canada from 1923 to 1949, and also prohibited for a time in Great Britain and the United States. Mr. Pollock bought the book while honeymooning in New York in 1944 (the U.S. ban had been lifted 11 years earlier) and smuggled it home in the false bottom of a suitcase that was packed with his wife's lingerie to ward off nosy inspectors.
The work's sexual frankness thrilled him, and he identified with its hero, Leopold Bloom.
"I used to walk like him and mumble like him," Mr. Pollock told Macleans magazine's profiles of Canadians You Should Know in 1969. "I guess I was Bloom - except for those sexual hang-ups of his."
By then, Mr. Pollock was indeed worth knowing: He founded the James Joyce Society of Canada in 1964 to organize talks, readings and performances. Reporter Michele Landsberg wrote in The Globe and Mail that the inaugural meeting's guest of honour was a "twinkly-eyed grandmother," Mary Joyce Monaghan, Mr. Joyce's 74year-old sister. Mr. Pollock suggested reciting Molly Bloom's famous, steamy soliloquy that closed the book.
"Oh well," Ms. Monaghan laughed, "if I can take that, I can take anything."
In 1966, Mr. Pollock fulfilled a dream by playing Leopold Bloom in a full-scale production of Ulysses in Nighttown, a dramatization by Marjorie Barkentin at the Poor Alex theatre in Toronto (the literary consultant was Marshall McLuhan). At the 1967 First International James Joyce Symposium in Dublin, Mr. Pollock got roaring drunk with Joyce's son, Giorgio.
Fritz Senn, the renowned Swiss Joyce scholar, recalled that at the 1967 symposium, Mr. Pollock set up an impromptu presentation of Molly Bloom's late-night monologue by enlisting three actresses who read the text wearing nightgowns.
For ensuing meetings, in Dublin in 1969 and Trieste in 1971, Mr.Pollock quickly rehearsed and presented plays he'd written for the occasion, Mr. Senn recalled.
"He had great energy and enterprise and was full of projects; he also was not averse to being in the limelight and he was not excessively modest - but generous and helpful," Mr. Senn said.
In the fifties and sixties, probably the best-known writings about Joyce in Canada were by Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye, both of whom became much better known for their work in other areas, said Michael Groden, a Joyce scholar and emeritus professor at Western University in London, Ont. Even the most prominent Canadian-born Joyce critic, Hugh Kenner, left for the United States in the early 1950s.
Mr. Pollock "kept interest in Joyce alive in Canada," Prof. Groden said.
Blunt-spoken and often irreverent, Harry Joseph Pollock was born May 31, 1920, in the Polish village of Opatow, south of Warsaw. He was brought to Toronto at the age of 5 by his father, a penurious cobbler who had settled earlier in the city's teeming, polyglot Kensington Market neighbourhood.
The eldest of five boys, Mr. Pollock would later say he had been "the poorest kid in Canada."
He took to mythology and tales of adventure, and graduated from Harbord Collegiate high school with honours in 1938. "Academically, I was almost brilliant," he recalled in a 1975 interview, "especially in languages."
University was not an option, as money was needed at home and a variety of menial jobs followed. During the Second World War, he served in press relations with a Royal Canadian Air Force training command in downtown Toronto.
A writer at heart, he embarked on a career in advertising, an industry in which Jews were not welcome. Time and again, he was turned down with a polite "you wouldn't be happy here."
Finally, at the last place he applied, "I got up against the back wall and assumed a Jesus pose," he told an interviewer, while demonstrating. "The guy was very upset. He thought I had a fit."
With two partners, he set up his own shop, churning out print and broadcast copy that pitched everything from pickles to hosiery to perfume. The job, he said, made him identify even more with Bloom, who canvassed ads for a Dublin newspaper. Mr. Pollock was founding president of Temple Sinai, a Toronto synagogue, and he believed his faith further cemented his bond with Bloom, who is roughly drawn as Jewish but whose religious identity Joyce deliberately muddied.
Today, Joyceans flock to Dublin on June 16 for "Bloomsday," the day on which the action of Ulysses takes place in that city. When Mr.
Pollock made the pilgrimage in 1965, precisely following Bloom's 18-hour perambulations, the feat merited newspaper coverage back home. Mr. Pollock had become "part of the rising cult of Joyce worship," Robert Fulford wrote in the Toronto Star.
He kept a bruising pace, authoring five plays adapted from sections of Ulysses and other Joyce works; a book of poems, The He and the She of It; countless newspaper reviews and travel pieces; TV scripts and radio documentaries; monographs for the James Joyce Quarterly; and a trilogy of novels - Gabriel, about a Polishborn Toronto Jewish boy fumbling his way to sexual maturity in the 1930s, Max ("raunchy, graphic and gritty," judged Quill and Quire) and Anna's Journal, praised as "witty, wry, insightful, and very Joycean."
In 1969, he gave up the business life to accept a fellowship from Toronto's York University, where he taught classes on Joyce and creative writing for 25 years.
In 1995, York awarded him an honorary doctorate in literature.
He also served as curator of the Anglo-Irish collection at McMaster University in Hamilton from 1970 to 1972.
He later donated his massive collection of papers and memorabilia to York. The Harry Pollock Fonds consist of more than seven metres of text and 164 hours of audio recordings.
It was "a bibliographer's dream," the university said.
"It sure as hell was," Mr. Pollock agreed.
He had wide-ranging interests - poetry, Latin, kabuki theatre; he corresponded with the playwright Samuel Beckett. But in Joyce, "I found the whole world spread before me."
Mr. Pollock leaves his children, Sharryn Dickson and Allyn Pollock; brothers, Percy and John; and a granddaughter, Whitney Dickson. His wife, Vera (née Bacal), died in 2002.
A writer at heart, Harry Pollock embarked on a career in advertising. He once said he'd grown up 'the poorest kid in Canada' and university was never an option for him.
ONTARIO JEWISH ARCHIVES