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Posts Tagged ‘“The Dead”’

Today, June 16, is Bloomsday, the day James Joyce had his first date with the incredible Nora Barnacle, who became his long suffering wife and the inspiration for Molly Bloom in his novel Ulysses. According to the Writer’s Almanac, Joyce choose this day for the action in his novel to take place based upon that first date, an afternoon walk along the River Liffey in Dublin.

Nora was also the inspiration for Joyce’s exquisite short story, “The Dead,” in his collection Dubliners. Read some Joyce today and be thankful for the muse Nora Barnacle.

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We headed south on our annual pilgrimage to visit my mother in South Carolina, listening to James Joyce’s “The Dead” on CD as we passed through Virginia. It’s a good story, and even my high school-age daughter, encountering it for the first time, enjoyed it greatly.

The story takes place in Dublin around the turn of the last century, the gaslight era. Most of the long short story takes place at a Christmas party thrown by two elderly aunts and their niece and describes in detail the food and music and each of the significant guests. It is a vivid slice of the culture of a time long since gone, and it evokes an even earlier time when things were better, always the same time, always our youth. Gabriel Conway, the nephew of the old ladies, and his wife Greta return to their hotel after the party, and misunderstand each other’s moods. He is feeling tender and amorous, while she is reminded by a song sung at the party of the early death of her teenage suitor, Michael Fury. He had stood ill in the rain in her garden as she prepared to leave him to go to Dublin and caught his death of cold.

As we listened to the story, we looked at the beautiful Virginia landscape beyond the windows, and I remembered my youth in the port town of Norfolk, on the southern coast of Virginia. I felt the waves of youthful nostalgia like “The Dead” seep over me, and images of the friends I had then and places we had been together came crowding back, while the Blue Ridge Mountains fell off to the left amid clouds, like Galway in Greta’s memory.

Norfolk is an old city by American standards, with the good harbor that has sheltered ships since before the Revolution. Some of its streets in the old section are made of cobblestone, and parts of the city are sinking into the rising bay. In a few decades, parts of Ghent and The Hague where I walked with friends along the waterfront may be submerged at high tide, the water lapping at the museum steps.

I remember a Christmas party like the one in “The Dead” when I was 19 that took place in an old, tall house that had been turned into apartments on Fairfax Avenue near the museum. It was always cold in the big high-ceilinged rooms where Sam and Kit and their baby lived, the slumlord saving pennies keeping the oil furnace low. Richard lived in a small room up the stairs, and all of their friends from the Folk Ghetto were invited, the musicians and the waitresses, and there was singing and the air was blue with smoke. My brother and I were in the kitchen with a number of friends and guests, including the young woman who now reminds me of my own Michael Fury, as she stood dark and fading in the kitchen light.

I recall that my brother and I were acting out the opening scene from Cyrano De Bergerac, the swordfight scene, to much laughter, and the folk music from the other room was coming through the kitchen door. Richard was leaving in a few days for basic training and then for Vietnam. A dozen of us walked out into the street along the gray waters of The Hague, arm-in-arm, singing Christmas carols as the snow fell on our bare heads. I see them, old friends, fading ghostly under the old fashioned street lamps, shadows on the snow.

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