Nora, by Nuala O’Connor, New Island, 496 pp, €16.95, ISBN: 978-1848407893
Having beguiled readers with her portrait of Emily Dickinson through the eyes of her fictitious Irish maid in Miss Emily, Nuala O’Connor’s fifth novel, Nora, has been highly anticipated.
Although other authors have written about the Joyce family (Edna O’Brien’s James and Nora was published in 2020 and The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs appeared in 2016) no one, to my knowledge, has attempted to enter the interior life of Nora herself, until now. Here is Nora the coquette, the curious, questing, feisty muse and collaborator. She is also passionate and “forward” – on Nora’s very first date with Jim, according to O’Connor, she “takes his one-eyed maneen” in hand and gives him fellatio. Through her eyes, we witness the multifariousness of Joyce’s domestic reality and nuances of self, which infuse his parallel world of literature.
In The Joyce Girl, based on the teenage Lucia, Nora is portrayed as a bitter harpy in her forties, jealous of her daughter. In the 2000 film Nora, starring Ewan McGregor and Susan Lynch, Nora displays outbursts of public fury, and at times embarrasses Jim with her coarseness and lack of education. But these traits are barely visible in O’Connor’s portrayal of Nora. Throughout their life of wanderings and constant upheaval, of swings from poverty to good fortune, of emotional intensity and sexual escalations, she remains loyal and equal to him in the relationship.
The most resonant passages are when Nora is describing things of the body, such as love-making or labour. When her son is born, she describes how his little body is “covered in lumps of lard over skin as purple as a plum … The baby stays clamped to me most of the day – greedy like all men.” As taken as he is by her forthright manner and charming Galway accent, Joyce’s animal instincts are excited by such earthiness.
For literature, or his beloved opera, Nora doesn’t care “a rambling damn” (an expression from Ulysses, which suggests that many of her colloquialisms leak into his writing). Despite this, she has an understanding of his obsessiveness. “The writing is like a great want in him, a hunger that can’t be sated,” she says. Though she thinks Ulysses is an incoherent mess, “not a story at all”, she believes in him.
Nora has a mind of her own, and optimism in spade-loads, and O’Connor shows her to be an irresistible muse for Joyce. He asks her over and over again to tell him the story about her encounter with a lascivious priest and her youthful relationships, so he can write about them. When Jim repeatedly goes to watch the same opera ‑ La Bohème ‑ Nora tells her Italian friend Clothilde: “He needs to swallow stories many times in order to construct better ones himself.”
O’Connor’s handling of the balancing scales between their almost constant impecuniousness and spectacular good fortune is a feat of narrative tension. At one point, Nora has to take in laundry to supplement Jim’s precarious income from teaching, and Jim’s brother Stannie joins them in Trieste, providing financial support in times of crisis. While Edna O’Brien’s book suggests that there was antipathy between Stannie and Nora, O’Connor reveals an attraction that becomes a temptation.
Joyce is reckless, not only with money but also with his students, to whom he recommends drinking absinthe on an empty stomach, “to broaden their minds”. When Jim is away, Nora is not unaware that he may be philandering: “you so clearly lie with prostitutes, for that itch that ails you is got no other way”. Despite this, she sticks with him. Barnacle by name and barnacle by nature.
Joyce is self-aware, but it is only to Nora that he will admit he is an “envious, proud, lonely, discontented man”, nursing small ills, as Nora puts it, “like pets”. She has to cope with his gloom when he reads about a book that’s been published by “some fellow he knew in college”, while his own publishers have decided not to go ahead with his book. At that point, Jim decides to turn his back on Ireland and the Irish: “the betrayers, the useless bog, the cheating swindlers with swill as blood”. Despite this, after a painful fourteen-year delay, when Dubliners is finally published in London, Nora describes how, “we’re like sausages dancing in hot butter, so jittery are we”, waiting to see how the book is reviewed in The Irish Times.
Joyce’s ill-health is a source of stress and concern. As well as bouts of sciatica, there are endless problems with his eyes. Money and health issues ‑ Nora also has a period of illness ‑ are not the only sources of their woes. While Giorgio is a sunny enough child, passionate about singing, Lucia is “contrary”, and after many doctors and diagnoses, she eventually ends up in a sanatorium, where she will spend the rest of her life.
An accusation is thrown at Nora by Lucia, to which she doesn’t respond. But she does have a terrible sense of guilt, something she doesn’t share with Jim: “How can I tell him that between us we may have made our daughter mad?” One senses a tightrope for the author. Certain secrets are kept in the dark. While the narrative intimates enough for speculation, it’s clear that O’Connor has no intention of further sullying the family reputation. Joyce is one of Ireland’s ‑ and the world’s ‑ greatest writers after all.
Though the Joyces are clearly fond parents, Giorgio and Lucia are vague presences in the background of their all-consuming relationship. Joyce’s literary life is shadowy too, as Nora rarely joins him at literary events. She does attend one party in Paris, arranged by Ezra Pound, where she meets Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of Shakespeare & Co, and introduces her to Jim. But, after confessing her fondness for penny novels to Sylvia, Nora feels out of place (“I might as well be in the tower of Babel, for all I can understand”). Joyce is thrilled to have met Sylvia and tells Nora that she’s the kind of person who is born to help others. “And you, my love,” Nora responds, “have a gift for finding just such helpers.” And so he has. Didn’t he find Nora?
There are other benefactors too, such as Mrs Guggenheim, but it is primarily thanks to Nora, Harriet Weaver, his London editor, and Sylvia Beach ‑ three strong women ‑ that Joyce’s literary dreams are finally enabled to bear fruit.
The entire book is a sensory banquet, with the streets and cafes of Paris and Trieste in particular vividly evoked. Her birthplace too. When Joyce sends Nora home to reconcile with her mother after years of estrangement, Nora is glad to be breathing “the seaweedy smell that is Galway” again, although “the fast wash of the Atlantic has my nerves tumbled”, and she misses “the blanketing heat of Trieste”. Every woman in sight is wearing practical black, “though it’s July”. She, on the other hand, is wearing a “cream coat and blue toque”, no longer Nora from Galway, or Miss Barnacle from Dublin, but “Signora Joyce of Europe”.
It is our different forms of love that shape us into who we are. Nora’s influence permeates Joyce’s work. Time and again, we see that the power in the relationship really belongs to her: “It was you,” he writes to her, “who frigged me until I spurted warmly into your fingers, all the time looking steadily at me with those saint’s eyes of yours … you did that …” And that experience haunts Joyce for the rest of his writing, and his erotic, life.
In language brimming with evocative imagery and energy, O’Connor resurrects a life ‑ and a love ‑ of magnificent intensity.
Afric McGlinchey’s book Tied to the Wind, an auto-fictional, prose-poetry collection, is due out with Broken Sleep Books in August 2021.