James Joyce by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915.
On Nassau Street in Dublin, on June 10, 1904, twenty-two-year-old James Joyce saw (as clearly as he could see, since he was not wearing his glasses, and his vision was poor) the twenty-year-old Nora Barnacle, then a young chambermaid, sauntering by. Nora would later tell the story of their first meeting often, though she often told it differently. Sometimes she said Joyce wore a sailor’s cap, and other times she said he wore a big white sombrero and a long overcoat that hung down to his feet. Joyce proposed a date, and Barnacle agreed, but though Joyce went to the appointed place at the appointed time, she never showed. He wrote to her, “I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me—if you have not forgotten me!” A few days later, on what was likely June 16, 1904—the date on which Joyce would later set Ulysses—they had their first proper date, though it was far from proper. Joyce took Barnacle east, past the docks and the harbor, to the deserted area of Dublin known as Ringswald. There, to Joyce’s surprise and gratitude, Barnacle slipped her hand down his trousers and “made me a man.” By October, the couple had eloped to Zurich. Although the couple did not officially marry until 1931, their unconventional relationship was passionate till the end. The letters below were written when Joyce returned to Dublin alone for the first time, in 1909, in an attempt to get Dubliners published. They are delightfully, shockingly dirty. Read in full, they are also quite charming. In the absent spaces, we can hear Nora’s enthusiastic, just-as-naughty replies, and the longing of a man who wants nothing more than to be home. This correspondence was first published in 1975 in the Selected Letters of James Joyce, now out of print. These letters, or excerpts of them, have been floating around the Internet for some time now, but they merit multiple joyous re-readings. Happy birthday, James Joyce. May we all find a soul mate whose farts we would know anywhere.
3 December 1909: 44 Fontenoy Street, Dublin
My darling little convent-girl,
There is some star too near the earth for I am still in a fever-fit of animal desire. Today I stopped short often in the street with an exclamation whenever I thought of the letters I wrote you last night and the night before. They must read awful in the cold light of day. Perhaps their coarseness has disgusted you. I know you are a much finer nature than your extraordinary lover and though it was you yourself, you hot little girl, who first wrote to me saying that you were longing to be fucked by me yet I suppose the wild filth and obscenity of my reply went beyond all bounds of modesty. When I got your express letter this morning and saw how careful you are of your worthless Jim I felt ashamed of what I had written. Yet now, night, secret sinful night, has come down again on the world and I am alone again writing to you and your letter is again folded before me on the table. Do not ask me to go to bed, dear. Let me write to you, dear.
As you know, dearest, I never use obscene phrases in speaking. You have never heard me, have you, utter an unfit word before others. When men tell in my presence here filthy or lecherous stories I hardly smile. Yet you seem to turn me into a beast. It was you yourself, you naughty shameless girl who first led the way. It was not I who first touched you long ago down at Ringsend. It was you who slid your hand down inside my trousers and pulled my shirt softly aside and touched my prick with your long tickling fingers, and gradually took it all, fat and stiff as it was, into your hand and frigged me slowly until I came off through your fingers, all the time bending over me and gazing at me out of your quiet saintlike eyes. It was your lips too which first uttered an obscene word. I remember well that night in bed in Pola. Tired of lying under a man one night you tore off your chemise violently and began to ride me up and down. Perhaps the horn I had was not big enough for you for I remember that you bent down to my face and murmured tenderly ‘Fuck up, love! fuck up, love!’
Nora dear, I am dying all day to ask you one or two questions. Let me, dear, for I have told you everything I ever did and so I can ask you in turn. I wonder will you answer them. When that person whose heart I long to stop with the click of a revolver put his hand or hands under your skirts did he only tickle you outside or did he put his finger or fingers up into you? If he did, did they go far enough to touch that little cock at the end of your cunt? Did he touch you behind? Was he a long time tickling you and did you come? Did he ask you to touch him and did you do so? If you did not touch him did he come against you and did you feel it?
Another question, Nora. I know that I was the first man that blocked you but did any man ever frig you? Did that boy you were fond of ever do it? Tell me now, Nora, truth for truth, honesty for honesty. When you were with him in the dark at night did your fingers never, never unbutton his trousers and slip inside like mice? Did you ever frig him, dear, tell me truly or anyone else? Did you never never, never feel a man’s or a boy’s prick in your fingers until you unbuttoned me? If you are not offended do not be afraid to tell me the truth. Darling, darling, tonight I have such a wild lust for your body that if you were here beside me and even if you told me with your own lips that half the red-headed louts of Galway had had a fuck at you before me I would still rush at you with desire.
God Almighty, what kind of language is this I am writing to my proud blue-eyed queen! Will she refuse to answer my coarse insulting questions? I know I am risking a good deal in writing this way, but if she loves me really she will feel that I am mad with lust and that I must be told all.
Sweetheart, answer me. Even if I learn that you too have sinned perhaps it would bind me closer to you. In any case I love you. I have written and said things to you that my pride would never again allow me to say to any woman.
My darling Nora, I am panting with eagerness to get your replies to these filthy letters of mine. I write to you openly because I feel now that I can keep my word with you.
Don’t be angry, dear, dear, Nora, my little wild-flower of the hedges. I love your body, long for it, dream of it.
Speak to me, dear lips that I have kissed in tears. If this filth I have written insults you bring me to my senses again with the lash as you have done before. God help me!
I love you, Nora, and it seems that this too is part of my love. Forgive me! forgive me!
8 December 1909: 44 Fontenoy Street, Dublin
My sweet little whorish Nora,
I did as you told me, you dirty little girl, and pulled myself off twice when I read your letter. I am delighted to see that you do like being fucked arseways. Yes, now I can remember that night when I fucked you for so long backwards. It was the dirtiest fucking I ever gave you, darling. My prick was stuck up in you for hours, fucking in and out under your upturned rump. I felt your fat sweaty buttocks under my belly and saw your flushed face and mad eyes. At every fuck I gave you your shameless tongue come bursting out through your lips and if I gave you a bigger stronger fuck than usual fat dirty farts came spluttering out of your backside. You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole. It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her. I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. It is a rather girlish noise not like the wet windy fart which I imagine fat wives have. It is sudden and dry and dirty like what a bold girl would let off in fun in a school dormitory at night. I hope Nora will let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also.
You say when I go back you will suck me off and you want me to lick your cunt, you little depraved blackguard. I hope you will surprise me some time when I am asleep dressed, steal over me with a whore’s glow in your slumbrous eyes, gently undo button after button in the fly of my trousers and gently take out your lover’s fat mickey, lap it up in your moist mouth and suck away at it till it gets fatter and stiffer and comes off in your mouth. Sometime too I shall surprise you asleep, lift up your skirts and open your hot drawers gently, then lie down gently by you and begin to lick lazily round your bush. You will begin to stir uneasily then I will lick the lips of my darling’s cunt. You will begin to groan and grunt and sigh and fart with lust in your sleep. Then I will lick up faster and faster like a ravenous dog until your cunt is a mass of slime and your body wriggling wildly.
Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty little fuckbird! There is one lovely word, darling, you have underlined to make me pull myself off better. Write me more about that and yourself, sweetly, dirtier, dirtier.
16 December 1909: 44 Fontenoy Street, Dublin
My sweet darling girl,
At last you write to me! You must have given that naughty little cunt of yours a most ferocious frigging to write me such a disjointed letter. As for me, darling, I am so played out that you would have to lick me for a good hour before I could get a horn stiff enough even to put into you, to say nothing of blocking you. I have done so much and so often that I am afraid to look to see how that thing I had is after all I have done to myself. Darling, please don’t fuck me too much when I go back. Fuck all you can out of me for the first night or so but make me get myself cured. The fucking must all be done by you, darling, as I am so soft and small now that no girl in Europe except yourself would waste her time trying the job. Fuck me, darling, in as many ways as your lust will suggest. Fuck me dressed in your full outdoor costume with your hat and veil on, your face flushed with the cold and wind and rain and your boots muddy, either straddling across my legs when I am sitting in a chair and riding me up and down with the frills of your drawers showing and my cock sticking up stiff in your cunt or riding me over the back of the sofa. Fuck me naked with your hat and stockings on only flat on the floor with a crimson flower in your hole behind, riding me like a man with your thighs between mine and your rump very fat. Fuck me in your dressing gown (I hope you have that nice one) with nothing on under it, opening it suddenly and showing me your belly and thighs and back and pulling me on top of you on the kitchen table. Fuck me into you arseways, lying on your face on the bed, your hair flying loose naked but with a lovely scented pair of pink drawers opened shamelessly behind and half slipping down over your peeping bum. Fuck me if you can squatting in the closet, with your clothes up, grunting like a young sow doing her dung, and a big fat dirty snaking thing coming slowly out of your backside. Fuck me on the stairs in the dark, like a nursery-maid fucking her soldier, unbuttoning his trousers gently and slipping her hand into his fly and fiddling with his shirt and feeling it getting wet and then pulling it gently up and fiddling with his two bursting balls and at last pulling out boldly the mickey she loves to handle and frigging it for him softly, murmuring into his ear dirty words and dirty stories that other girls told her and dirty things she said, and all the time pissing her drawers with pleasure and letting off soft warm quiet little farts behind until her own girlish cockey is as stiff as his and suddenly sticking him up in her and riding him.
Basta! Basta per Dio!
I have come now and the foolery is over. Now for your questions!
We are not open yet. I send you some posters. We hope to open on the 20th or 21st. Count 14 days from that and 3 1/2 days for the voyage and I am in Trieste.
Get ready. Put some warm-brown-linoleum on the kitchen and hang a pair of red common curtains on the windows at night. Get some kind of a cheap common comfortable armchair for your lazy lover. Do this above all, darling, as I shall not quit the kitchen for a whole week after I arrive, reading, lolling, smoking, and watching you get ready the meals and talking, talking, talking, talking to you. O how supremely happy I shall be! God in heaven, I shall be happy there! I figlioli, il fuoco, una bona mangiata, un caffe nero, un Brasil, il Piccolo della Sera, e Nora, Nora mia, Norina, Noretta, Norella, Noruccia ecc ecc…
Eva and Eileen must sleep together. Get some place for Georgie. I wish Nora and I had two beds for night-work. I am keeping and shall keep my promise, love. Time fly on, fly on quickly! I want to go back to my love, my life, my star, my little strange-eyed Ireland!
A hundred thousand kisses, darling!
These letters were originally published in the Selected Letters of James Joyce, now out of print. More can be found on Adoxoblog.
Looking for something else to read? How about …
— An essay about writing a novel about James Joyce and Nora Barnacle
— A letter in which Ezra Pound chastises James Joyce’s potty humor
— One of the Review’s compelling columns
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