Nora Barnacle may not have been an artist, but she had a genius for living that made her indispensable to her partner, James Joyce. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Joyce honored Barnacle, his lifelong companion and mother of his two children, by setting his masterwork “Ulysses” on June 16, 1904, the day they first “walked out together.” But as Irish writer Nuala O’Connor tells it in an exhaustive and often wildly engaging fictionalized biography, the full story of the Galway gal who traipsed after James as he wrote, drank, and intermittently worked his way across Europe is a tale of its own.
In “Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce,” O’Connor presents the young chambermaid as lusty and full of life when she meets the writer — who has returned to his hometown Dublin after a brief sojourn as a medical student in Paris — in the spring of 1904. O’Connor’s Barnacle narrates her impressions of that famous date — a.k.a. “Bloomsday” — with the kind of stream-of-consciousness impressions that would distinguish Joyce’s great works; her language is earthy and vivid. “The river smells like a pisspot spilling its muck into the sea,” she remarks, as the two stroll along the Liffey. Moments later, “our two mouths crash together and it’s all swollen tongues and drippy spit,” beginning the graphic sexual encounter that Joyce would later recall “made me a man,” related in a mix of slang and endearments that establishes Barnacle’s personality.
Her distinctive language is certainly evocative of her lover’s. But whether O’Connor is suggesting that Barnacle inspired Joyce, as some scholars argue, or the writer simply channeled a particular Irish sensibility, the author leaves to the reader. With a knowing wink, the author has Barnacle — who had little formal education — talking about her own discomfort with writing. “[W]ords don’t slide off my pen the way they do for him,” she says. Despite the Joycean phrasings, she seems to be saying that her role is to be his muse.
“To Jim, I am Ireland,” she says. More to the point, perhaps, her lover says, “‘you are syllable, word, sentence, phrase. You’re fat vowels and shushing sibilants.’ ‘Nora,’ Jim says, ‘you are story.’”
In some ways, the book’s opening scenes, drawn largely from O’Connor’s Granta magazine short story “Gooseen,” capture the relationship — the title is Joyce’s pet name for Barnacle — at its peak. “Gooseen,” which won the UK’s 2018 Short Fiction Prize, presents the new romance as all lust and promise, with the consequences yet to come. In the ensuing and frankly overlong novel, O’Connor explores those consequences, and her protagonist’s increasingly conflicted connection to the man she loves.
Things are not all downhill. But early on, there are intimations that life with Joyce will not be easy. He drinks and is plagued with the eye troubles — most likely glaucoma — that will leave him nearly blind. He is also unfaithful. And although O’Connor’s novel doesn’t pick up on the recent studies that suggest Joyce’s health problems stem from untreated syphilis, his infidelity as well as his rampant alcoholism and profligate spending make Barnacle miserable. While she seems to never doubt his calling, the family is often in financial straits, and she ends up taking in laundry to cover their bills. “I’m beginning to wonder if mine isn’t a blighted wifehood,” she laments.
Depicting her protagonist as fundamentally conventional at heart, O’Connor has Barnacle frequently lamenting their unmarried state. Joyce disdained the Catholic Church, but Barnacle, in this retelling, comes to regret their unsanctioned life together, worrying constantly about exposure as the two move around Europe and she bears first George and then the ill-fated Lucia. For all her confidence in Joyce’s genius, she also recoils from his open depiction of sexuality. She is embarrassed by “bawdy Molly” Bloom and is appalled by the notorious episode in which Leopold Bloom spies on young Gerty MacDowell. “Why Jim has to put such sleazy little scenes in his novel I don’t know.”
Even as Joyce’s literary star rises, the tensions remain, as publication only means more money for Joyce to squander or drink away. And as their children mature, their idiosyncrasies — notably George’s romance with an older woman and Lucia’s mental illness — add to Barnacle’s woes. O’Connor chronicles nearly every move as well as the numerous publishing setbacks and hospitalizations — first Joyce’s and then their daughter’s, for what would eventually be diagnosed as schizophrenia — through Barnacle’s reactions. While these struggles are believably depicted, they recur with a sameness that makes this lengthy work read even longer than it is. The book holds true to its namesake’s life, but the overall effect is numbing. This is a novel, after all, not a comprehensive biography.
Ultimately, it is also — as the subtitle says — a love story. For all her complaints, Barnacle and Joyce did seem to have a rare and lasting connection, and for all its flaws, O’Connor’s book makes this relationship palpable. In her depiction, Barnacle says it best: “Jim is Jim, and Nora is Nora, and we know that despite any upsets and troubles we’ve had, we’re as strong as steel together.”
NORA: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce
By Nuala O’Connor
Harper Perennial, 496 pp., $16.99