A Full-Bodied and Sympathetic Nora

A Book Review by Gay Lynch

Nuala O’Connor, Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, New York: Harper Collins, 2021, 458 pages,

RRP: US$16.99. 

ISBN: 9781848407893

Raised in a Dublin house full of books by James Joyce, Nuala O’Connor hardly remembers a time without him and Nora Barnacle in her life. On the way to school, she crossed the Anna Livia Bridge, and passed by Mullingar House, and the house of his grand aunts where he set ‘The Dead’. Later, she read Richard Ellman’s biography James Joyce (1959) and Brenda Maddox’s revisionist Nora (1988). Aged twenty-six, O’Connor moved to Galway, where she walked Nora’s girlhood precinct – Shop Street and the Bowling Green behind St Nicholas Church – and found herself in the throes of a full-blown love affair with Nora and Jimmy. A 2019 James Joyce Quarterly prize-winning story ‘Gooseen’ published in Granta (2019) grew into this larger work, the novel Nora (2021).

Nora is O’Connor’s fifth novel. She is an accomplished writer across various forms – essay, short stories, and novels – a founding editor/publisher of online flash-fiction journal Splonk and a lover of bio-historical fiction.

The book amounts to more than a recount of the Joycean myth or story, known and beloved to Joyceans everywhere. If ever we might be swayed to see a man’s faults as well as his genius, it would be through the prism of his woman’s eyes and the tuning fork of her voice, in this case in a register shared by O’Connor and her family.

O’Connor creates a full-bodied sympathetic Nora Barnacle, a pragmatic and sensual woman, full of vim and joie de vie, who cares for a vast entourage of friends, literary contacts and relatives including children. Thus, she is much more than a put-upon-artists’ muse.

Like Ulysses, indeed Bloomsday, the novel opens on 16 June 1904, with a meeting between Nora and Jimmy on the banks of the Liffey. Their attraction is instant and visceral: 

‘Out there are the Muglin’s Rocks,’ Jim says, pointing out to sea. ‘They have the shape of a woman lying on her back.’ 

His look to me is sly, to see if I’ve taken his meaning. I have and our two mouths crash together and it’s all swollen tongues and drippy spit and our fronts pressed hard and a right-bunched feeling between my legs. His hands travel over my bodice and squeeze, making me gasp.

(p.2)

In acknowledging the ‘one-eyed maneen he’s no doubt very fond of’, Nora is no wet girl, but ripe for adventure. She sees her broader yearning as agency: ‘Do you think because I’m a woman that I should feel nothing, want nothing, know nothing?’ she reprimands him (p.1). 

In three short, dramatic flashbacks, O’Connor excises her fictional Nora Barnacle from the constructions that are Anna Livia Plurabelle, Gretta, Molly Bloom and Penelope, to show her pre-history: a child shoved off to her Nan’s, developing an ambivalent relationship with her mother; yet a girl with the confidence of a strong maternal line; a girl thrashed by her uncle for fancying a Protestant; a girl aged twenty, who could make her way to the capital and find a job; a girl managing an unstable guest in Finn’s Hotel, Dublin. During interviews, ‘feminist’ rolls happily off O’Connor’s tongue and thus she brings Nora to the foreground of this novel. 

Whilst her Nora leads a peripatetic life at the whim of Joyce and his intermittent financiers, and the politics of WWI, she is an enabler of her husband’s success, rather than a put-upon player in a Kunstlerroman. O’Connor paints her as a curious woman, punting on a good life, flitting Ireland in a borrowed coat and without a wedding, who ferociously defends everyone she encounters – children, relatives, new and old friends, and enemies – and their right to agency. In a common-law marriage lived in penury, often in a single room with hangers-on, Nora not only makes the best of it but welcomes all comers with a generous heart and attracts richer, steadier suitors. 

Set mainly in Trieste, where ostensibly Nora experiences true happiness, but also in Paris and Zurich, the novel showcases her resilience, in paying bills by taking in washing while heavily pregnant; squirrelling away small gifts; moving from one unsuitable dwelling to the next; eating out; making the best of potential homelessness, near starvation; and debt-collectors’ threats.

But for the fluthery gift of his own gab or language and stories filched from his resilient wife, O’Connor’s Joyce will infuriate readers as he upends Nora’s small aspirations and basic needs. Who held all the cards in real life? We may never know. His alcoholism, failed eyesight, non-payment of bills, irresponsible conflict with and leeching off others, creates antagonism for the Nora protagonist.

And yet, and yet, the novel’s narrative reflects the badinage between the pair as they eat Italian food, imbibe, laugh, read newspapers together, ride the waves of publishing failures and small victories, sing, and visit the Teatro Verdi. In addition, O’Connor writes the insatiable desire Nora feels for Joyce, which enables her to forgive him almost anything – artistic pimping, controlling jealousy, neglect, romantic gifts when they are out of pocket and verbal abuse. In an interview, she rues the presumed destruction of most of Nora’s letters, and describes how employing a ‘call and response’ method to Joyce’s performative, some might say pornographic letters, and her deep knowledge of Nora’s voice, enabled her to imagine the originals.

During the writing of Nora, O’Connor says she developed a deeper empathy for James Joyce, perhaps because she now understands his writerly life. It is through her protagonist’s perverse love for Joyce that a reader sees the man’s redeeming features. Joyce is happiest deep inside his writing and over and over Nora berates him to go back to his desk, through the interminable fourteen years of planning and seven years of writing of the great novel Ulysses

Readers will recognise key characters and scenes from Joyce’s novels. Put-upon brother Stanny finances the Joyce family at home and abroad and falls quite in love with Nora. Sexuality lies close to her surface and O’Connor makes explicit Nora’s simultaneous excitement and resistance to Stanny and to other suitors who touch her mouth, skin and hair, their hands beneath her garments. True to his proto-character, Joyce broods and fixates on her sexual history with early friends, lovers and a priest, and she speaks back to him, the man she loves. 

In the first half of the book, publishing disappointments drive the plot, and the couple’s fortunes, and Nora threatens to flee. In the latter part, health issues bring rising tension. O’Connor’s Joyce calms and supports Nora through illness and surgery, family conflict, and Irish tragedies. 

Nora’s struggles to remain connected with her growing children: one with a serious medical illness; the other choosing a woman she and Joyce disapprove of, darken the last third of the novel. Daughter Lucia’s obsessions and talents can easily be inferred from Nora’s inner monologue and from her unsuccessful treatment by Carl Jung. A mother’s perspective, fearful, frustrated, perplexed by the thin line between epigenic genius and madness and its accommodation in families, will elicit sympathy. 

O’Connor is no stranger to grief or trauma, especially during Covid, and she has recently published an essay ‘LacrimosaTearful’. Writing, she says, brings her joy, respite, and solace, even writing difficult and resonant scenes. 

Ireland and Galway loom as quasi-characters, leavening Nora’s expatriate joy, inspiring and infuriating her husband, who personifies her as essential Ireland in naturalness and speech.

I’m island shaped, he says … am harp and shamrock, tribe and queen. I am high cross and crowned heart, held between two hands. I’m turf, he says and bog cotton. …I am his auburn marauder. I’m … his honorable barnacle goose.

(p.5)

Ireland’s indifference to the Barnacle/Joyce family fuels periodic riffs over how they might become the people they aspire to be, in better weather, in a richer cultural milieu, in speaking new languages, untroubled by memory, politics and family tragedies. 

O’Connnor studied Irish Language at Trinity College and went on to achieve a Masters in Irish/English Translation Studies at Dublin City University. Although the narrative contains passages of lyrical beauty, we see the world through Nora’s eyes. Joyce acknowledged the organic way the voice of Nora Barnacle fed his fiction; she was his finest subject. Borrowed, pimped or stolen, he marched her rich stories straight onto his page: ‘Nora,’ Jim says, ‘you are syllable, word, sentence, phrase, paragraph, and page. You’re fat vowels and shushing sibilants’ (5).

The text of Nora is not just ethnographic exposition. O’Connor’s playful black humour and literary wit also arise from a deep understanding of language as creative and embodied, as organic, and historical – ‘I’m moidered with the strain of it all,’ Nora says (448) – and her genuine affection for the couple.

The Barnacle/Joyce relationship is balanced by affection, lust and need. That Nora enabled the writing of Ulysses is an historical question. O’Connor’s version of Nora takes care of him and his children; is funny, inclusive, sexy, warm, resilient, and unselfish, willing to accept his priori need to further his gift. Irresistible, to riff on commonly held assumptions, then and now, that a kind, optimistic Galway girl of average scholastic ability but high emotional intelligence should become a lifelong companion to an initially self-proclaimed genius. 

The novel covers decades (1904-1951) of continental life, through the birth of Modernism, two world wars and Irish unrest, through suicide and other family tragedies, concluding in Zurich after the death of James Joyce. Sweeping readers into Nora’s consciousness renders the novel immensely readable.

Gay Lynch writes essays, novels, papers, reviews, and short stories on unceded Boonwurrung land and is an adjunct to Flinders University. Recent works include Unsettled (2019), an Australian Irish-diasporic, historical novel, launched at (ISAANZ). Essays and stories can be found in Best Australian Stories, Bluestem Journal, Edições Humus Limitada, Glimmer Press, Island, Meanjin, Meniscus, Griffith Review, Recent Work Press, TEXT, Sleepers Almanac and Westerly.

Gay has taught Joyce. She has trailed him from Dublin, to Galway, to Pula, to Trieste. She has read Ulysses (1912) twice: once on a long-haul flight in a kind of daze; and once in a group under the supervision of an Irish singer-speaker. She recommends the latter method for digging into his playful, referential language, and roiling about in Irish discourse with an expert, just for the fun of it. But she is not a Joycean scholar.

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