In Memory of Berni Benstock

There are millions of things I'd rather be doing than writing a memorial tribute to Berni Benstock. At the February 1995 Miami J'yce Conference (the most recent in a series of annual conferences that Berni founded), one participant said he would not be surprised to see Berni enter the conference room and join in the proceedings, a sentiment echoed in Fritz Senn's moving tribute in the February 1995 James Joyce Broadsheet. I am looking at pictures of Berni from last year's Sevilla Joyce Symposium, and I am bracing myself for the repeated shocks of Joycean life without him. Many readers will know what I mean when I refer to the extraordinary sense of community among Joyceans, whether they have experienced it at conferences, workshops, or here in Joycean cyberspace. A lot of that collegiality derives from Berni's energetic efforts in the 1960s and thereafter: as Fritz Senn has noted, Berni was instrumental in bringing about vehicles for exchange, ranging from the Wake Newslitter to the International Symposia and beyond.

Just over ten years ago I was a snot-nosed graduate student attending my first Joyce conference (now I'm a snot-nosed professor: as the first and third chapters of Ulysses make clear, snot knows no rank). Then, Berni was a shelf of books to me: I had read not only his work on Finnegans Wake and the indispensable James Joyce directory that he and Shari compiled, but scores of articles, collections he had edited, and so on. I had not heard him speak before, and I was prepared to be intimidated by him. He denied me this honor: when first introduced to me, Berni immediately commented on some of my work which he had read (when?) and remembered (how?). I was at first staggered to think that I was a bibliographic presence to this paragon of bibliographic presences, but my surprise gave way as I experienced Berni's extraordinary warmth.

Berni was incapable of pomposity, and was (contrary to some extravagant claims made by other pretenders to the crown) the world's funniest Joycean. The combination of his charm, ebullience, intellectual brilliance, street smarts and savoir faire might be responsible for his being associated with the sometimes benign, sometimes unflattering concept of the "Joyce mafia"--a ghost organization that has recently been the subject of speculation over the Internet wires (on the j-joyce list at Utah). Berni was (and I mean this in the nicest way) an operator: hence his abilities as a mover and shaker in international symposia, the Foundation, publications, and so on, including his ambition (thwarted, alas, by fiscal constraints) of developing a Joyce conference on a cruise ship. So if there is a Joyce mafia, Berni was a fitting Godfather, but one who authorized no hits--although for some reason his irreverent aura at the opening ceremonies of the Monaco Joyce Symposium made the Monagesque secret service extremely nervous. They asked him to move from the seat he had chosen to one where they could keep their eyes on him. Although a member of the royal family did lose consciousness before the day was out (it seems Anthony Burgess is to blame), it was only the discreetly napping Princess Caroline.

As became clear at the recent Miami J'yce conference, Berni's contributions to Joyce studies defy summary. He is one of those Joyceans who will publish more next year than most living Joyceans will--not including his forthcoming publications in areas outside of Joyce studies, such as detective fiction and gourmet cuisine. My sole collaboration with Berni was in developing the Dubliners Limerick Cycle, which we sang in his honor this past February in Miami and which will be published in the next James Joyce Literary Supplement. Berni and I began this project about 10 years ago at Penn State, where we created the "Sisters" limerick, which rests on the provisional premise that Father Flynn does indeed die of tertiary syphilis:

A scandalous cleric called Flynn
Had his immortal marker called in:
    For his dropping of chalices
    Betrayed the paralysis
Of a far-from-original sin.

In the first flush of joy we published this lyric in an early JJLS. Having completed 1/15th of the task, I promptly lost steam. Dactylly impaired, I began a cycle of procrastination and evasion that would carry me through 1993. I knew that Berni Benstock would get tired of waiting and be forced to finish the cycle himself. This perfect crime was foiled in December 1993 when I received the following note: "Dear Mike: I suspect that as chair and editor you're drifting away from your true love (Jice), so I thought a limerick will bring you back among us." As I told Shari this past February, this letter was one of the kindest gestures I have ever experienced. Many of you have similar notes from Berni, all of which have in common the generous, unpretentious contact to encourage and challenge a colleague--but, most importantly, to express the affection and community for which we are indebted to Berni, and through which he lives on. I leave you with his original limerick:

Gabriel, 'midst the ales and the squashes
And the various assortments of noshes,
    Pondered the source
    Of Gretta's remorse:
'Twas a dead lover!--and not just galoshes.
Michael O'Shea