“All this was a long time ago, I remember”
—T. S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”
Joyce. On december 2nd, 1904, he went to dinner in Pola, Austria, with his lover and companion, Nora Barnacle. Barnacle was a fierce redhead from Galway in the west of Ireland. The daughter of an illiterate baker and a dressmaker, she’d been sent away to Dublin by her uncle after he learned of her affair with the Protestant bookkeeper of the town’s mineral company. In Dublin, on July 10th, the same year as the dinner in Pola, she met Joyce outside Finn's Hotel near Trinity College where she worked as a chambermaid. The details of this first meeting are sketchy. What we know: the smell of Nora, part sweet and part rotten, smashed Joyce in the chest. His breathing staggered. He knew the Greeks and he knew he was a goner. On Saturday, October 8th (my own wedding anniversary), Joyce and Nora fled Ireland for Zurich and on October 21st they arrived in Pola, a port town in the sticks of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Joyce didn’t like Pola and described it in a letter to Mrs. William Murray as “a back-of-God-speed place...a naval Siberia...boring...peopled by ignorant Slavs who wear little red caps and colossal breeches.”
They dined at the Café Miramar, a middling place where the service was slow but not thorough and the food was neither simple nor exquisite, fierce nor reasonable. Joyce was twenty-two years old, clean-shaven and sporting a loose woollen waistcoat and jacket. Already hidden in his countenance that evening was the revolutionary Joyce of the later Zurich years with his pince-nez and his hair slicked back and his beard trimmed to a point. His hatred of Pola was fully alive in him. He’d come to Austria to teach English and that night they dined with another young English teacher named Eyers. Nora sat across from Eyers and Joyce sat on the edge between them. We do not know what Eyers looked like. Joyce paid him so little attention.
It was the second day of Advent in a Catholic country. They had rack of lamb and several bottles of Lembeger, a red wine made from blue “Frankish” grapes known as Blaufränkisch. This was a “noble” wine. The tables were lit with candles and, in shallow recesses in the walls, ornate gas lamps breathed soft auras of yellow light. All the men in the café were smoking pipes and all the women cigarettes in long silver holders that might have been forgotten instruments in a liturgical ceremony. The air was woozy with tobacco smoke and the brouhaha of private gossip.
Nora enjoyed her food and drink—it was obvious—she was a sensuous woman—and quietly young Eyers became infuriated and aroused. Her mouth was often and obviously full of food. He watched her lick her lips and he knew she was tasting soft lamb and noble wine. Joyce filled her glass. She drank from it. She was from the west of Ireland. She didn’t possess the etiquette required to hide the pleasure in her body. Eyers was beside himself. He felt intoxicated in the most dismal way. Like he’d eaten overripe fruit. He was queasy and it made him bitter.
Partway through the meal, Joyce excused himself for a time and left Eyers and Nora alone at the table. Where he went when he left the room is lost to history, as is what Eyers said, exactly, in Joyce’s absence. When Joyce returned, Nora couldn’t look at him. Her eyes glanced off him and guttered in her lap. She didn’t eat or drink anything more.
Ever the writer, Joyce took the occasion of the plate clearing and the bringing of the Ausbruch—a dessert wine made from grapes affected by noble rot—to jot a note for Nora, which he folded once and passed to her under the table. Their fingers didn’t touch in the exchange. This is what he wrote: “For God’s sake do not let us be in any way unhappy tonight. If there is anything wrong please tell me. I am beginning to tremble already and if you do not soon look at me as you used I shall have to run up and down the café. Nothing you can do will annoy me tonight. I will not be made unhappy by anything. When we go home I will kiss you a hundred times. Has this fellow annoyed you or did I annoy you by stopping away?” He signed the note “Jim.”
The note brought Nora to tears. She couldn’t hold them back. It was a shock. She covered her face with her hands and when this was no longer enough she buried her face in Joyce’s shoulder and wept.
Or it was what Eyers said to her and her insecurity that it was true. She was of a different class, a lower class. Perhaps she wasn’t worthy of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce.
Or it wasn’t Eyers or the note at all that brought Nora Barnacle to tears on the evening of December 2nd, 1904, in the Café Miramar in an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There was sweet wine on the table and her belly was full and she was with a man who loved her and had made her heart ripe again and feral. Outside, the temperature was brisk and high in the caves of Šandalja in the hills outside the city were bones that linked the Istrian peninsula and human beings to a death a million year in the past. In the café there was light and music from a violin.
It was the music.
Writing to his younger brother, Stannie, the following year, Joyce described Nora as “sensitive” and told of a time in Pola when he had to “turn out” a fellow English teacher, “a thoughtless chap named Eyers,” for making her cry. He said nothing of the music. He kept this detail for his stories.
Outside the café they met a cab. The stars were bright and sharp and ephemeral. On the way home they sat without talking, as close as possible, Nora’s arm in Joyce’s, her head on his shoulder, and Joyce looking out the window as the horse galloped wearily through the old Roman town. The ghost of Eyers made with them a triangle in which their desire reverberated. He’d come between them and fulfilled desire’s demand for distance, longing. They passed the Church of St. Francis and the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nora was thinking of a young suitor she’d had before she’d gone away from Galway. Joyce was thinking of Advent in Ireland and then he was thinking of Nora’s body pressed gently against his and how real she was and how painful and keen his lust. Nora’s suitor had fallen ill with tuberculosis, but had come to see her one last time before she’d gone away. Joyce could feel his heart against his ribs and the heaving of an energy that moved in waves up through the centre of his body. The night the boy came to see her for the last time, Nora heard the clatter of gravel against her window and then singing. They passed the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas and the Chapel of St. Mary Formosa. Joyce was proud of Nora. They had tried to escape, Joyce thought, but he knew now that they could never get away. There would always be an Eyers to haunt them. When Nora opened her window she saw her young suitor, Michael Bodkin, in the rain. He was singing. A week later he would be dead from illness. Something in the violin that night at Café Miramar recalled, for Nora, Bodkin’s plaintive tenor.
All this happened one hundred and seven years ago. I tell it now on a ferry as I cross the Salish Sea at 8 p.m. on this second day of Advent in the new world. I’m headed home after four months away to visit my wife in an old mining town on the Pacific coast at the western edge of the dominion of Queen Elizabeth II. The sea is calm and the boat quiet and bright with electric light. We’ve split the difference between Passage Island and Seymour Landing and moved on smoothly and routinely into the open Georgia Strait. Somewhere before us waits the black rock of Snake Island, then Hudson Rock Ecological Reserve, Planta Park, Newcastle Island, Departure Bay, Nanaimo. But in the big ferry window tonight is only blackness and my pale reflected face. As people walk the aisles, their faces appear with my own for a few moments.
I’m ten years older than Joyce was that night in Pola, Austria. It’s early morning in England and the palace is dim. Behind the bar on the main drag of my island village, the Queen’s portrait blushes in the blue neon of a Labatt’s Beer sign.
Here’s what I’m saying: I’ve been away from my wife for four months teaching English in the Salmon River Valley. This is in the landlocked interior of British Columbia in the territory of the Shuswap Nation where the Pacific Sockeye breed and die in the gravel below the granite mountains. In late September, the white birch settling the shores of Shuswap Lake corrode into crimsons and reds. The days grow rapidly shorter. The first snow falls on the hills above the river and two weeks later the valley is haggard with ice.
Now it’s Christmastime. On board the big ferry, I smell the fried potatoes and hamburgers from the cafeteria, the treacly print of soda pop. I didn’t eat at all on the long drive down to the coast. “So I found,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “that hunger was a way of persons outside windows that entering takes away.” She meant lust. Ask Joyce. Ask Eyers. There’s a bald man in the aisle across from me talking on a cellphone, a pair of praying hands tattooed on his neck. His young daughters hang off his big arms. He’s booking a flight to Mexico. I want to get on that flight and go somewhere I can forget about myself and James Joyce and the Queen of England in her palace as she awakens to her feckless and ambivalent subjects.
In the interior, my days are split into the few hours at school when I talk with students about books and writing and the rest of the hours in my furnished apartment, where the heat stays on all the time, trying to be only where I am. Mornings, I run up the trail at Coyote Park to 30th Ave. and along the ridge overlooking the lake to the Mennonite parking lot where the yellow school bus unloads plain and stuffy-looking children. Then I turn down a dirt road between orchards toward the lake. Some mornings a black dog chases me from across the snowy field. Days the temperature climbs above freezing I can smell the sweet rot of apples in the orchard sheds. Pink Ladies. Granny Smith. Honey Crisp. Swiss Gourmet. Clear days the sun catches the ice-shagged grasses so the light appears solid and irascible in the fields. The moisture from my breath freezes in my beard.
There was a time, not long ago, when I no longer knew where I was. I decided to leave my wife of fifteen years. During this time I never thought of James Joyce or Nora Barnacle and I didn’t know they’d gone to Pola, Austria, or that there was a man named Eyers or a boy named Michael Bodkin or any of that. It was summer. When my wife sat at our kitchen table and talked with old friends who’d come to visit from across the water, I couldn’t stand any of them or the way they held their glasses of amber beer, or the sound of their swallowing, or the Concords in my wife’s little fingers before she put them in her mouth.
The lawn was brittle and alive with bees in the clover.
I couldn’t sit down.
“I have to leave,” I said.
No, I didn’t.
“Should I take this job?” I said.
My wife held a blue grape at her lips, then took it away. My friends swallowed their beer and turned to look at me standing in the open sliding-glass door.
“I’ll come home,” I said, “at Christmas.”
And even though I didn’t know it then, that’s when I began to think of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle and all the shades of the dead.
Because Christmas is a season for the dead. Joyce knew this. He wrote it down in a long story that tells of a boondoggled party just prior to the Feast of Epiphany many years ago and follows Gabriel, and his wife, Gretta, through Dublin from Winetavern Street near Usher’s Island over the Liffey onto Sackville and past the snow-covered statue of Dan O’Connell, the Catholic emancipator, to the hotel where Gretta and Gabriel are staying. Joyce wrote down everything about Gabriel’s insecurities and his self-regard. He wrote down all Gabriel’s lust for Gretta, which is considerable and mind-altering and crushing. And he wrote down, also, Nora’s tale of Michael Bodkin—which he gave to Gretta’s past, renaming Bodkin, Michael Furey—wrote down the story of Bodkin’s serenade and Nora telling him about it that evening, after dinner at Café Miramar, in Pola, in 1904. We know this date because the next morning, Dec 3rd, Joyce wrote to his brother, Stannie, of Nora’s affair with a young suitor who died from tuberculosis, saying “She has told me something of her youth.” And some time later, he began “The Dead.”
Tonight, all the faces of the dead are in the window. I’m in the window.
In their room that night, after Nora told Joyce about Bodkin, and after he’d kissed her forehead and her earlobes and the lips that had so undone Eyers, she fell into a dry-eyed sleep next to him. Joyce lay on his side looking at the woman who had gone away with him into the continent, watching her eyelids twitch, and thinking not of the heroic suitor who braved death to sing this woman a song—as Gabriel thinks of Gretta’s suitor in Joyce’s story—but of how he might write it and what song he’d make the boy sing. He could hear the guttering candle at the bedside drip wax into the brass tray. The story he wanted to write would take several years to fully arrive. And then, after he finished it in Rome in 1907, it would be another seven years, a trial, a test of his bullheadedness, his pissy, uncompromising vision that was already old-fashioned and high-minded even as it was transgressive and new, to see it published. But that night he felt the story move in him and he tried to pay attention to it and in that state he recalled Odysseus’s descent into the underworld and how the shades floated out of the darkness toward the lost traveller and how the dead come forward on their own time. The dead exist in their own time.
“Christmas is a season for the dead,” he says to me in the window.
“Even Mary took up with a ghost,” he says.
“The dead aren’t so different from us.”
“No,” he says, and then he shows me a picture of Michael Bodkin taken in 1899, the year before he died. It’s brittle and cracked. Bodkin is just a boy. Clear-faced. Dark hair. Middle part. He wears a high white collar and a loose tie, a dark jacket and a waistcoat. He’s poor, but doing his part to look good for the photograph. If anything, he looks stronger, more robust, than any picture of James Joyce. The smallest squall may be churning in a region of his lungs.
It’s so dark out the big window I can’t tell if we’re moving.Joyce has been carrying the photograph with him since his final visit to Ireland in 1912, two years before The Dubliners was published. On that trip, Nora and Joyce went west to Galway and while there visited Rahoon Cemetery where Bodkin is buried in a dull stone crypt near the high gate. It was summer and the couple took a breezy bicycle ride past Fort Lorenzo into the northwestern corner of the city, here they could see the small Bay of Galway. The sun was wide open and Joyce had no clue of the ambush history had plotted him.