The Journal of a Teacher in Search of a Classroom
By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly
Author Robert Parker’s wife: “Wait—they’re going to pay you an obscene amount of money, just to show up once a week and teach one class on Wednesdays?! And you don’t know whether you should take it?!”
Parker: “Yeah, but every Wednesday…!”
Wednesday, June 18, 2003, Hollywood, Florida
99 years ago this week (June 16th, to be exact), James Joyce had his first date with the woman who was to become his wife, Nora Barnacle, and so he chose to immortalize it in his epic, Ulysses, which covers every detail of one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a Jew living in Dublin, in only 783 pages.
What this really means is that next year, Dublin will go fughin’ nuts.
I lived in Ireland for just short of a year, but I have never been there for Bloomsday celebrations. Maybe next year. [NB from the future: I made it!]
Many think that June 16th is the date that Jimmy and Nora met, but indeed that was June 10th. She coyly kept putting him off but finally agreed to go out with him. I’ve seen pictures of Nora and let’s just say, she must have had a wonderful personality.
On my second trip to Ireland, the minute I turned on to the street in Galway town with the house that Nora grew up in, my stomach said—just like where mom grew up in Pittsburgh. If I showed you photos of the two, you might not see the similarity, but the “feel” was palpable. Small row houses, all looking the same, but with each door painted a different color.
Soon after they met, Joyce convinced Nora to come with him to Switzerland where he had accepted a teaching position. They had two children and went to visit Paris in 1920 for just a week—but stayed for years. Paris has that affect on people. Even the Irish.
A little known fact is that James and Nora never actually got around to getting married until their children were both grown. They just presented themselves as a married couple and were always accepted that way.
In Paris Joyce continued work on Ulysses and the writers living there knew that he was working on something big. He didn’t socialize in the writers’ salons in Paris at the time. He mostly drank alone, sometimes with others, breaking into song late at night in the cafes. The cab drivers would bring him home, where Nora would be waiting at the top of the stairs, arms akimbo, like a good Irish wife. “Jimmy,” she’d say, looking down on him lying in a drunken heap,
“Your fans think you’re a genius but they should see you now.”
When Dorothy Parker visited the city in the twenties, she saw Joyce on the street but he didn’t speak to her. She said,
“Perhaps he thought he would drop a pearl.”
Excerpts from Ulysses began appearing in the Little Review in the States around 1918, causing quite a stir because of the language. Virginia and Leonard Woolf, operating their Hogarth Press in London, had rejected it. Reading it made Virginia feel as though, in the words of one biographer, that
“someone had stolen her pen and scribbled on the privy wall.”
Sylvia Beach, the American who founded the bookstore Shakespeare & Co., the social center for the expatriate community, approached Joyce at a party and said,
“Mr. Joyce, may I publish your novel Ulysses?”
After being rejected by so many who weren’t adventurous enough to take it on, he was intrigued that this woman wanted his book.
It took longer for Joyce to finish than they expected, so for the local artistic community, many of whom had subscribed in response to Beach’s mailing announcing the work, she held a reading on December 7th, 1921, in her shop. Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, didn’t come; they lived a few blocks away but were preparing for their annual Christmas party. When Beach did publish Ulysses the following February, Alice promptly walked over to Shakespeare & Co and cancelled Gertrude’s subscription. They would brook no competitors for her title as greatest writer in English.
After publication, Ulysses was promptly banned in Boston, but a friend of Ernest Hemingway managed to smuggle a copy into the United States via Canada. The landmark case that allowed Random House to publish it in 1932 was argued by Irish-American lawyer John Quinn. Quinn, like Beach, is one of the true heroes of early 20th century literature and art. He helped William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory found the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (and had an affair with Augusta later), bought up lots of Cubist and Post-Impressionist paintings in Paris, lent many of them to the Armory Show in New York in 1913, and argued a case for the organizers of that show that changed the customs law in the U.S.: From that point on, works of art less than 100 years old would be free of tariffs as their classical cousins were.
In his later days, working on Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce employed another Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, as his scribe and assistant, because his own eyesight was so bad.
Joyce died in 1941 at the age of 59 of a duodenal ulcer. Nora lived another ten years.
Sylvia Beach, who funded the publication of Ulysses on her own with the help of the paid subscriptions, never saw any profit or royalties from it. Her writer friends helped her keep the bookstore open, but when the Nazis occupied Paris in World War II she was interned for a few years. She wrote a lovely memoir called Shakespeare & Co. which was published in the mid-fifties.
During our marriage ceremony last year, on St. Patrick’s Day, our friend performing the ceremony announced that Tony and I each wanted to say something that we’d written. We looked at each other, and Tony said,
“You’re the writer. Go ahead.”
So I glanced at my scribbled notes and told him that I wouldn’t promise to solve his problems, but that I would help him to solve them. And that I wouldn’t promise to love everyone he loved, but that I would always respect those he loved.
I finished with Molly Bloom’s “Yes!” from the ending of Ulysses, but because I didn’t do the requisite fact-checking, I misquoted it. So here, for those of you who were at the wedding, and those who weren’t, is the correct ending for Molly and for me:
“…and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
See you next Wednesday.