Almost Bloomsday

In honour of Bloomsday, here’s an extract from Penelope Unbound, my speculative novel about Nora Barnacle that imagines a life for her without James Joyce. Here’s the assignation Nora and Jim fail to have before they reschedule for the iconic meeting on June 16.

They’d arranged to meet outside the Surgeon Wilde’s house, but she didn’t show. Told him a fib about having to work overtime, how Miss Fitzgerald came up to her on her way out the door, as she was trying to spear her hat with a pin in the hall mirror, and said that Molly Fowler was sick and couldn’t do her shift. 

Sure what could I do?  

It could have happened like that. Only it didn’t.  Instead she’d said – But Miss Fitzgerald, I have a date with my young man. 

As if they were an item but sure they’d only just met.  He’d picked her up on Nassau Street only a few days ago with a saucy smile and a sailor’s suit. A boy with jamjar specs, not her type at all.

I see that, Miss Barnacle, says Miss Fitzgerald, looking into the glass behind her with a kind of smirk, more music-hall than spinster. And before Miss Fitzgerald had time to cajole, for she had a way of getting on the sweet side of you when she wanted something, Nora had pulled open the heavy front door of Finn’s and gone tripping out into the dusty sunlit lozenge of the street. 

But as she hurried, hand on hat, towards Merrion Square, a strange desolate feeling overtook her, a pang of doubt. She slowed her tripping step to a heavy-footed stroll, and then to a halt.  What had possessed her, to say yes?  Yes to a college boy with a boater. Though he wasn’t the first college boy she’d had. Hadn’t Sonny Bodkin been at the university, even if he didn’t finish, too old for her, they said – no, she wouldn’t think of him now, not now.  She darted around by Sweny’s Chemists and scurried across to the pillars of the Gospel Hall.  She could hear singing from within. The Brethren must be at it, but I thought they didn’t hold with singing. But the place is thronged with them. Just as well, this way she can spy on yer man without him seeing her. 

She remembered the specs he wore. He won’t pick her out from the crowd at this distance even though the sun is glancing coppery off her hair. And, sure enough, there he was, a stick of worry, standing at the corner, hands on hips. Then pacing a little this way and that. He had on the same get-up as the day he chatted her up. Not bad-looking up close, a bit skinny, pull-through for a rifle, when did he last have a square meal, I wonder, and his clothes had seen better days. Then she remembered she’d told him where she worked.  He could duck down to Finn’s, if he had a titter of wit, and ask after her and then her fib would be exposed.  He’d know then she’d stood him up.  Deliberate like. And it wasn’t that she wanted to say no, she just wasn’t sure about saying yes.  Outright. 

And if he had come to Finn’s looking for her, would that have decided her about him? She just wasn’t sure, not like with Sonny Bodkin. Poor Sonny who had stood in the Pres garden and called out to her in the flogging rain.  And she half-delighted, half-mortified by him standing there, loyal as a beaten dog while she hid in the darkness of the auntie-room letting on she wasn’t there.  But this fella was no Sonny Bodkin, she could tell that even from afar. Sure, no one could be.  No one could be the first after the first. 

He was dithering now, she could tell.  But so was she and the longer she waited the stranger he became.  Was he a foreigner, was that what made her hesitate? A Swede maybe with those blond looks?

 Reasons not to approach. Now that she was here she could find a dozen. The minutes passed, five, ten, and her delaying was like a jelly left to set. If she had a penny for every time he changed his mind she’d have a fortune. There he’d go, gathering himself up then doubling back like a dog at a post sniffing, then trying and sniffing again. The hum and the haw of him. 

Hello, hello, she could have rushed up all breathless and false and full of sorrys and old excuses he wouldn’t even listen to because he’d be so relieved. Fellas forget themselves. She almost moved then but she didn’t.  She was stuck to the spot as if she was the one being stood up. And as she stood there debating, didn’t he make her mind up for her.  Fixed his cap on his crown and strode away up the west side of Merrion Square.  In a temper, she’d have said, by the look of him.

 And then she felt the let-down. 

What did she go and do that for? 

What was all the mirror-gazing in Finn’s for, and wondering will I do? 

She remembered the lightness of her step as she had set off and now she was morose and cursing herself for being so perverse. 

What ails you, girl? That’s what Mamo used to say. What ails you.

 No, she told herself shaking her head, I did the right thing, a fella who’d pick you up on the street like that, what kind of fella would he be? Not a patch on Sonny Bodkin, that’s what. 

 She turned to go, checking one last time to see had he changed his mind.  But he hadn’t – he was a cross white speck in the summer sunlight now. She trailed back the way she came, her hat in her hand, her hair dejected. She hadn’t the heart to do anything else with her precious night off. If she knew where Vinny Cosgrave was she might seek him out, but no, if he saw she was keen, he’d only get a swelled head. 

Miss Fitzgerald was at the desk when she came in and raised an eyebrow. 

Back so soon, Miss Barnacle? She was a prissy one. 

He stood me up, Nora, said as she donned her apron, lucky for you.

Bringing up the bodies

nora b

T’is the season for exhumations. First it was Franco, now it’s Joyce.

Dublin city councillors agreed last week to approach the Government with a view to repatriating the remains of  James Joyce, buried with his wife Nora Barnacle in Fluntern cemetery in Zurich. Labour councillor Dermot Lacey, who proposed the motion, said it would be “honouring someone’s last wishes” – a delightfully vague locution. Does he mean Joyce?  Does he know something we don’t?

However, unwittingly, Cllr Lacey is right.  Seventy years ago, it was Nora Barnacle’s hope that Joyce’s remains be returned to Ireland. It was a matter of honour for her, perhaps tinged by a touch of funeral envy.

In 1948, still living in Zurich because she wanted to be close to her husband’s grave, Nora observed the official pomp and ceremony with which the body of the poet W. B. Yeats was repatriated to Ireland from the south of France where he’d died in 1939. (Yeats had long expressed a wish to be buried in Drumcliff  churchyard in Sligo.)

“The coffin was taken from France to Galway bay by a ship of the Irish navy; there the widow, her children and the poet’s brother were piped aboard.  Then a funeral procession escorted them from Galway to Sligo where Yeats was buried with a military guard of honour and representation from the Irish government,” writes Brenda Maddox in her biography of Nora. “Why not the same for Joyce?”

The answer at the time, of course, was that Yeats was in much higher standing in Ireland than Joyce was; he had served as a Free State senator, a “smiling, public man”, whereas Joyce remained in the Irish imagination of the time as “shocking, blasphemous and arrogant”, as Maddox puts it, whose books if not outrightly banned were seized at the borders.

However, unofficial approaches were made. Joyce’s American patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver asked Count Gerald O’Kelly, a former diplomat and art critic and Georgian afficionado, Constantine Curran, a boyhood friend of Joyce’s, to inquire if the Irish Government or the Royal Irish Academy would consider requesting the return of the body.

Miss Weaver believed that if Joyce’s remains were repatriated, then Nora and Joyce’s son, Giorgio, might consider returning themselves.  (Nora had told American interviewer, Sandy Campbell, that she’d like to have a “cottage in Ireland, but the Irish don’t like Joyce so there you are”.)

Maria Jolas, another lifelong campaigner for the Joyces, added her support saying that Joyce ‘s body should be be brought back because his widow wished it and because he was a towering figure of Irish literature.  With a view to her audience, she also declared that Joyce remained a good Catholic.

But this view was not shared in Dublin.  Count O’Kelly’s back-channel inquiries revealed there was little support for Joyce’s repatriation.  Ireland had apparently not forgiven him for his scandalous work and the plan came to nothing.

Unlike the 1948 campaign, the present move by Dublin city councillers seems motivated more by gain than honour.  The James Joyce “industry” has long been a tourist goldmine for the city.

The Bloomsday celebrations – memorialising June 16, 1904, the day Joyce had his first date with Nora, and the date he chose to set his novel Ulysses on – is a fixture on the tourist calendar, although it started as a spontaneous tribute to the writer by a small group of literati in Dublin.

Comic writer Brian O’Nolan (otherwise known as Flann O’Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen), poet Paddy Kavanagh, writer Anthony Cronin, registrar of Trinity College, A J Leventhal, publican John Ryan and dentist Tom Joyce, a cousin of Joyce’s, made the first Bloomsday pilgrimage on June 16, 1954.

The shambolic expedition, complete with two horse-drawn cabs – echoing the one taken by Bloom and his friends to Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Ulysses – was cut short before all the sites in the novel could be visited, due to the amount of alcohol that was consumed and the fractious mood of the participants. (Fisticuffs threatened between O’Nolan and Kavanagh)

Since then, Bloomsday  – still observed and enjoyed by Joyce’s literary admirers – has been all but hijacked for its tourist potential by the Dublin authorities.  It’s those same authorities who’ve been leading the charge to dig up Joyce from his burial place in Zurich and bring him home.

The Swiss authorities are thinking the same way. Director of the Joyce Foundation in Zurich, Fritz Senn said there would be “resistance” in Switzerland as Joyce’s  grave has become a major tourist attraction there. After all, Senn pointed out, Joyce never accepted Irish citizenship and the Irish Government of the time neglected to send an envoy to his funeral.

The Swiss provided much-needed sanctuary for the Joyces at the the outbreak of World War 2 and Nora continued to live there till her death in 1951.

Both cities clearly have their eye on the next big Joyce anniversary which comes in 2022, marking 100 years since the publication of Ulysses. 

In the meantime, is it a case of bring up your bodies? If so, who’s next – Samuel Beckett?  Look out, Montparnasse!