❚ “THE GREATEST ENGLISH PROSE STYLIST”, Irish-born James Joyce, met his partner for life Nora Barnacle “sauntering” along a Dublin street on June 10, 1904. The chance encounter is described in Finnegans Wake:
“ If he’s plane she’s purty, if he’s fane, she’s flirty, with her auburnt streams, and her coy cajoleries, and her dabblin drolleries, for to rouse his rudderup, or to drench his dreams ”
In those days, romantics young and old didn’t “date”. He asked if he could meet her again and on the chosen day she blew him out, so he sent her a note and then they agreed to take a walk.
On the evening of June 16 Nora, a 20-year-old chambermaid, and James, the 22-year-old writer, went walking to the village of Ringsend. Several aspects of Joyce’s life converged on this day and he was to tell Nora later “You made me a man”. Years on, the author who gave the word “epiphany” its special meaning chose this sacred date for the setting of Ulysses, a modern re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey, in which all the action takes place on the same day in Dublin in 1904. The date was to become Bloomsday, derived from Leopold Bloom, the 38-year-old protagonist of his yarn.
The book was published by the American ex-pat Sylvia Beach who ran the bookshop Shakespeare and Company in Paris in 1922 — the same year as T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, both works resonating to the cultural incoherence thrown up by the First World War. Ulysses furnished a touchstone for the whole 20th-century modernist movement in literature, as well as being spiced with racy humour deemed too “obscene” to publish in England until 1936 (and indeed banned in Ireland until the 1970s). Joyce personalised the chaotic stream-of-consciousness technique — writing as if thinking aloud — by employing a rich lexicon of 30,000 words, greater than Shakespeare’s and most everyday speakers of English, since many words were Joyce’s own musical inventions. About the book’s size, Joyce joked: “I spent seven years writing it. People could at least spend seven years reading it.” Samuel Beckett said of Joyce’s prose: “It is not to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.”
For the past 50 years Bloomsday has been commemorated annually in Dublin as fans dress in Edwardian costume to enjoy readings and merriment as they retrace Bloom’s footsteps through and around the city, taking in landmarks such as the site of Leopold and Molly Bloom’s home in Eccles Street, Davy Byrne’s pub and the old brothel quarter. Tradition has it (though the biographer Richard Ellmann disagrees) that the day before Ulysses begins, Joyce had spent a week in the Martello tower in Sandycove, eight miles south of Dublin on the coast road, where a university friend fired a gun at him, to be immortalised as “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” in the novel’s opening. Today the tower houses a museum of mementoes and is well worth the metro ride.
The paradox is that not a word of Ulysses was written in the city on the Liffey, because Joyce chose to spend his adult life in exile, variously in Trieste, Paris and Zurich. When he died there in 1940, Nora Barnacle was asked which living writers she liked, and her reply was: “Sure, if you’ve been married to the greatest writer in the world, you don’t remember all the little fellows.” Nora lived on in loneliness and also died in Zurich in 1951, where she shares his grave in a wooded cemetery to this day.
➢ As the current book of the week being serialised on BBC Radio 4, Gordon Bowker’s James Joyce A Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, May 2011) paints a wonderfully detailed portrait of the eccentric author in 15-minute segments