January 16, 2018

James Joyce, Nora and Bloomsday

On their first first date, Nora Barnacle stood James Joyce up. Two days later -- June 16, 1904 -- Joyce got his second first date, and the date upon which he would eventually base Ulysses. The ways in which Nora Barnacle was and was 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 many agree that had Nora not been the woman she was, neither Joyce, nor Bloomsday nor Ulysses would be what they are.

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. But that June 16th, on a walk along the River Liffey, it was Nora who made the biggest impression, apparently teaching 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, and literary rejection, through Joyce's failing eyes, their son's alcoholism and their daughter's insanity, she was the stable center of the family's eccentric, expatriate life. Just as Molly anchors the wandering Bloom -- even as her climactic monologue, perhaps the most famous final sentence in literature, shows her remembering 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.
Joyce couldn't wait to be rid of his "city of failure, of rancor, and of unhappiness," and for decades Dublin felt likewise about Joyce's book. Then in 1954 a group of Dublin writers gathered at the Sandycove Tower on June 16 to retrace Bloom's route through the city, or get drunk trying. Today Bloomsday is closer to Bloomsweek, and one of Dublin's most popular tourist flowers; cities in over 60 countries around the world hold similar events. Amid the commercialism, the essential cause for celebration survives -- not Dublin, or even Joyce, but the text of Ulysses, read aloud, as Joyce always said it needed to be. His 1924 recording of a four-minute excerpt from Ulysses is widely available, and lilting, Irish proof that the book belongs to the streets more than the academics.

There are no recordings of it, but Joyce had a good singing voice too -- so good that Nora wanted him to go professional, as their son Giorgio later did. In the dating days of 1904, Joyce was still singing at recitals, once on a bill with John McCormack. In the "Sirens" episode of Ulysses, Simon Dedalus treats the boys at the Ormond Bar with a B-flat that "soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don't spin it out too long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the ethereal bosom, high, of the vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness. . . ."

Throughout his life, and much more than Nora cared to hear, Joyce would close the evening or the bar with a medley of Irish ballads, as accompaniment to another bottle of white wine. Nora would sometimes wrestle him home, sometimes let him be carried home by his friends, or those literary fans who had made pilgrimage to the master -- "Well, here comes James Joyce the writer, drunk again, with Ernest Hemingway." She would often threaten to leave him because of his drinking; like Molly, and as Joyce's father predicted, she never did.

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