Our tuxedo cat, Nora, was not named for James Joyce’s wife. She and her brother Nick got their names from Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) of The Thin Man movies. That said, it wasn’t until I was curled up with her early one morning reading Joyce’s Dubliners, which was published 100 years ago this June, that I made the Joycean connection. In addition to her name, Nora the cat shares Nora Joyce’s no-nonsense disposition. Just when she’s nuzzling and purring most blissfully, she’ll abandon me without so much as a farewell meow, and though she doesn’t expect breakfast in bed like Nora Joyce’s fictional alter ego Molly Bloom, she wakes me at 6 a.m. with a poke of the paw and down I go sleepwalking to the kitchen to open the cat food for her and her big brother.
Fighting for His Art
My Nora stayed within cuddling range right through to the end of “Two Gallants,” a slice of Dublin street life that evokes the moment when Joyce approached Nora Barnacle of Galway (“a tall young woman, auburn-haired, walking with a proud stride”) on Nassau Street in Dublin, spoke to her, and set things in motion for a meeting that took place on June 16, 1904, the day Joyce singled out for Ulysses, thereafter known and celebrated as Bloomsday. My reason for reading “Two Gallants,” however, is that it was the story “destined to precipitate disaster” for Dubliners, according to Richard Ellman’s James Joyce (1959). An English publisher, Grant Richards, had accepted the book early in 1906, a contract had been drawn up and signed, and all was well until the printer had issues with “Two Gallants” and then went on to mark passages in other stories he deemed objectionable. The result was a domino effect, with Richards taking a closer look and finding more to object to, including the use of the adjective “bloody” in various stories and numerous suggestive sexual nuances, not to mention unflattering references to Edward VII. Joyce argued that these details were crucial to the stories, that cutting them would leave Dubliners “like an egg without salt.” Richards not only stood his ground, he asked that “Two Gallants” be dropped altogether, and eventually decided against publishing the book, putting Joyce off with a vague promise “to do the stories later.”
In 1912 Joyce fought the good fight even more doggedly than before, this time with an Irish publisher, who came to the conclusion that the book was “anti-Irish” and whose demands for cuts and changes were even more excessive and peremptory than Grant Richard’s (a key problem was Joyce’s persistent use of real names for various pubs and places of business). In the end, though the book had been typeset, the publisher refused to publish it. Fortunately Joyce managed to obtain a complete set of the proofs before the printer destroyed the lot. Thanks to the proofs Joyce rescued, thus bypassing another fretful printer, the first edition of Dubliners was published in June 1914 — by Grant Richards.
As can happen with geniuses as witty, eloquent, and indomitable as Joyce, the flap occasioned by Dubliners was almost worth the long delay, given the colorful blowback it inspired. In one letter on the first go-round with Richards, Joyce makes a Cyclops of his nemesis: “O one-eyed printer! Why has he descended with his blue pencil, full of the Holy Ghost, upon these passages?” He then urges Richards to join him in elevating English taste, reflecting on whether English literature “deserves or not the eminence which it occupies as the laughing-stock of Europe.” In another letter, the self-exiled author becomes a moral and spiritual patriot in the cause of salvaging the threatened passages: “If I eliminate them what becomes of the chapter of the moral history of my country? … I have taken the first step towards the spiritual liberation of my country.”
Richards chides Joyce, telling him he “could not afford to be so heroic about his art.” Of course one of Joyce’s most characteristic qualities is his heroic vision of himself, his struggle, his art, and the sordid poetry with which he makes his case: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”
Joyce shaped the order of the stories to reflect the movement from childhood to youth to adulthood and old age, from solitude to society to death. In the opening paragraph of the first story, “The Sisters,” a boy inhabited by the author gazes up at the lighted window of the room where the old priest who had been his “great friend” lies dying, and says softly to himself the word “paralysis,” which sounded “like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.”
After the Joyce who can expand on the word “paralysis” in the style of Walter Pater describing the Mona Lisa, there’s the Joyce with an ear for the street talk of Lenehan and Corley in “Two Gallants,” which I read aloud with Nora the cat throatily ruminating at my side. Who could resist giving voice to Lenehan’s reaction to Corley’s tale of conquest: “Well …. That takes the biscuit! …. That takes the solitary, unique, and, if I may so call it, recherché biscuit!” And when Lenehan asks about a second pick-up, Corley says, “One night, man …. I was going along Dame Street and I spotted a fine tart under Waterhouse’s clock, and said good-night, you know. So we went for a walk round by the canal, and she told me she was a slavey in a house in Baggot Street. I put my arm round her and squeezed her a bit that night. Then next Sunday, man, I met her by appointment. We went out to Donnybrook and I brought her into a field there …. It was fine, man.”
It was poetry, man. Especially when you recall how James Joyce picked up a girl from Galway on Nassau Street and later “met her by appointment,” an everyday Dublin liaison that changed the course of 20th-century literature. When Joyce spoke to Nora Barnacle, she was not “a slavey,” just a chambermaid at a “slightly exalted rooming house” then called Finn’s Hotel. Had there been no Nora in Joyce’s life, Ulysses would be without the Molly Bloom who performs the long and lusty night song that brings the book home to the essence of its humanity, a sexually active woman saying “Yes.” When Nora claimed not to have read a word of “that book,” and said that “nothing would induce her to open it,” Princeton native Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company and publisher/savior of Ulysses, knew Nora had no need to read it since she herself was “the source of the book’s inspiration” and one of the luckiest things that “ever befell” its author.
Nora Barnacle was no less vital to “The Dead,” the masterpiece that brings Dubliners to its moving conclusion. For the first 40 pages of the 57-page story the scene is a holiday party hosted by two elderly sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, where numerous characters, themes and motifs are kept in play, interacting with and accompanied by a subtle recognition in the prose of a “death in life” undercurrent of disembodied sounds and voices,
At the center of the story, which Joyce conceived in Rome in 1907, is Kate and Julia’s nephew, Gabriel Conroy, whose wife Gretta is from the provinces like Nora (“country cute” says Gabriel’s mother). Though there are some distinct differences, it’s clear that Gretta and Gabriel are modeled on Nora and Joyce, who had only been together three years and thus were still in close proximity to the incident that inspired the story’s justly renowned conclusion. As Ellman recounts, Nora had been courted by a tubercular boy named Michael in Galway the year before she met Joyce. Michael “stole out of his sick room in spite of the rainy weather, to sing to her under an apple tree and bid her goodbye.” Shortly after this happened, Nora went to Dublin, where she learned that the boy had died.
If you read Ellman’s biography, you know how sensitive Joyce would have been to the idea of a wife haunted by the thought of a boy who might have died for love of her. He himself was so haunted by the notion that he wove it into the fabric of “The Dead.”
As the party ends, Gabriel is in the entry hall making conversation with the departing guests when he sees Gretta at the top of the stairs, “listening to something.” All he can hear is “a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.” When Gretta comes down she’s so deep in the plaintive mood of the music, she seems unaware of the talk going on around her. Back in their room at the hotel, she’s still abstracted, still in the music. He asks what she’s thinking about. She mentions the name of the song and bursts into tears. Asked why the song makes her cry, she says, “I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.” Almost in spite of himself, he wants to know more, and every word she says harrows his heart — “I think he died for me …,” “I was great with him at that time …,” “Poor fellow … he was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy …,” “O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!”
The rest of the story defies paraphrasing. There’s no way to do justice to the extended coda that begins with a single sentence — ”She was fast asleep” — followed by five paragraphs resembling movements or themes in a sonata with the title, “One by one, they were all becoming shades.” As Gabriel’s soul approaches “that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead,” James Joyce enters “that region where dwell the vast hosts” of English language and literature, which he will in time meditate upon, explore and exploit, unmake and remake, but never again quite so simply and beautifully as he does here with “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Nora’s looking up at me as I write, not unlike Leopold Bloom’s “pussens” as she stalks (“Prr. Scratch my head. Prr … Mkgnao!”) over his writing table.
“Mr. Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes.”
What do you know, “the pussens” is a tuxedo.