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October 21, 2017

Joyce's Bloomsday Book

On this day in 1904, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle had their first date, thus giving Joyce the day upon which he would base Ulysses, and giving the rest of us "Bloomsday." Had Nora not stood Joyce up on their scheduled first date, this most famous of literary days would have been June 14; had that first date not happened at all, there very well may never have been any Bloomsday, or any Ulysses. The ways in which Nora Barnacle is and is not Molly Bloom continue to be discussed -- in Brenda Maddox's 1988 biography Nora: The Real Molly Bloom, for example, and the 1999 film based upon it -- but it seems agreed that she was Joyce's only irreplaceable relationship. And we do know that she was the only one allowed to call him Jim.

When they first met on the streets of Dublin, Joyce was a bright-talking and hard-drinking 22 year-old, already with something of a name for himself in the local pubs and poetry circles. Not that Nora would have known: she was a 20 year-old chambermaid from Galway, just arrived in the big city. Still, it was Nora that made the biggest impression on their date -- a walk along the River Liffey, during which she seems to have taught the know-it-all Joyce a few things that he didn't know after all. Within four months they were back at the harbor, sailing for Europe. When Joyce's father was told that his favorite son had run off with an unknown Galway girl, he responded with typical family wit: "Barnacle? She'll never leave him."

Nora was no-nonsense -- she included Ulysses in the nonsense category, and refused to read it -- and not the 'quiet helpmeet' type, but through decades of poverty, rootlessness, drunkenness, literary rejection, Joyce's failing eyes, their son's alcohol problems and their daughter's insanity, she remained the stable center of Joyce's eccentric, expatriate life. So Molly anchors the wandering Bloom, even as her climactic monologue shows her memory drifting to others:
    ...we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

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