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. Read More