Join me, Connie Palmen, and Martina Devlin on Monday 5th July at West Cork Literary Festival, for a discussion about bio-fiction and historical fiction. Think Joyce/Barnacle & Hughes/Plath. More here.
The Book Show, hosted by Rick O’Shea, featured NORA in its historical fiction segment. Big thanks to Breda Brown for highlighting NORA. You can listen here. (The hist fic section starts around 10:15, but Louise Nealon, on first, is also worth a listen.)
Drew Gallagher has reviewed NORA for the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Big thanks to him. I pasted the whole text below as GDPR blocks the link to those of us in Europe.
Book review: ‘Nora’ a serene, worthy addition to Joyce canon By DREW GALLAGHER FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR Jan 9, 2021
What author Nuala O’Connor attempts in her novel “Nora” may be considered sacrilege by some. What she achieves is serene.
“Nora” is a literary biography of Nora Barnacle Joyce, the lover and wife of Irish author James Joyce and the inspiration for Molly Bloom in Joyce’s masterpiece “Ulysses.” Where the sacrilege might come in is in O’Connor’s first chapter, where she describes the first date of Nora and James in graphic and satisfying detail. To attempt to re-create the date that birthed its own holiday, Bloomsday, and was the impetus for what many consider to be the greatest novel of all time with the most salacious soliloquy of all-time is a fool’s errand, and for those who worship at the Joycean altar a form of heresy. And at the risk of upsetting the Joyceans further, I defy them to read the first chapter of “Nora” and not be enraptured and more than a little titillated.
O’Connor’s mastery is not limited to the first chapter, and she is able to tug emotion from the novel’s closing chapters where, in truth, there should be none. As with all literary biographies, we already know how the story ends, and it is unrealistic to want a biographical novel on the life of James Joyce to not end with his death, but when his sudden demise arrives, it is gut-wrenching through Nora’s loving eyes and leaves the reader staggered.
Nora and James are one of the great couples in literature, and this is underscored when Hemingway makes an appearance in Paris and quickly discards a wife for a new beau. The Joyces are not without trials and temptations, because before he was James Joyce, he was nothing more than a gifted writer trying to earn enough money from teaching to allow him to write on the side. Nora is jealous of James’ fondness for some of his students, but it is the statuesque Nora whose suitors, including James’ brother Stannie, are more direct in their intentions.
Following James’ peripatetic life through Europe and in search of money and drink can get tedious, but O’Connor elevates the reader above the mundane, which was the normal for the Joyces until the publication of “A Portrait of a Writer As a Young Man.” Ultimately, “Ulysses” freed them from having to stiff landlords for rent and opened them to Parisian society without concerns for food or dress. For the prodigal son of Ireland, Joyce spent most of his life elsewhere.
As with any work on Joyce, the ultimate question is whether or not “Nora” is a worthy addition to the Joyce canon. As Molly Bloom, the flower of the mountain, would say, “Yes.”
The Boston Globe has reviewed my novel NORA today and it’s a good one, calling it ‘an exhaustive and often wildly engaging’. You can read it here. I’ve also pasted the full review text below.
Historical fiction reimagines the love between Joyce and his lifelong companion
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.Get HomeFront in your inboxThe Weekender is temporarily HomeFront, your guide to the best ways to stay entertained at home any day of the week.Sign Up
“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
Delighted that The Sunday Times has included my novel about Emily Dickinson, Miss Emily, in its Irish fiction of the 21st Century list. (Thank you, Bert Wright!)
By Nuala O’Connor
Arlen House, €10.00 Sat, Dec 5, 2020, 06:00
As you would expect from O’Connor, this collection of flash fiction is a menagerie of exquisite language. The stories transport us to moments in time, and to no-time, as the author paints fragments of history that are palpable with characters who come alive in a brushstroke. Artists and sitters are here as are servants, soldiers, mothers and sisters in stories of losing, longing, and home. Historical fiction can sometimes be clogged with research – not so in these stories which are glances, swift and sensory, with grace-notes of details to let us recognise where we are. Here is the “crookedness of nature,” the lure and lore of home but also the emigrant, the lost lover, the perished child. This collection takes us from the olagón to the “shale-and-ripple of a shell”: a pearl. – Ruth McKee
I’m pleased with this (p)review of NORA, from Publisher’s Weekly:
O’Connor (Becoming Belle) expands on her Granta award-winning short story, “Gooseen” in this poignant, comprehensive portrait of Nora Barnacle as a young woman, mother, and literary inspiration for the Molly Bloom character in Ulysses. Nora and James Joyce’s inseparable attachment begins in Dublin on June 16, 1904 (forever remembered as Bloomsday for the setting of Joyce’s masterpiece) and stretches to 1951. Narrated in Nora’s robust voice and carried by details saturated in filth, such as a walk along the Liffey river that “smells like a pisspot spilling its muck into the sea,” the narrative traces Nora and Joyce’s nomadic life from Ireland to Trieste, Zurich, London, Rome, and Paris, and details their constant money worries, health concerns, struggles with two difficult children, and emotional despair. Despite their personal and professional achievements, and a circle of friends that includes Sylvia Beach, the Guggenheim sisters, Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound, and other literati, the couple suffers loneliness and “mutual melancholy.” An inscription on a bracelet that Joyce gives Nora underscores their commitment to one another: “love is unhappy when love is away.” O’Connor’s admirable accomplishment adds to the abundant Joyceana with a moving examination of an unforgettable family. (Jan.)
I recorded myself reading the title story from my flash chapbook *birdie*. You can listen/watch on YouTube here.
I was awarded a COVID-19 Crisis Response Award for Literature, from the Arts Council of Ireland, to write and compile birdie, a collection of 16 historical and out-of-time flash and micro fictions.
Arlen House has produced a limited, hard-copy edition of birdie which can be bought from Kennys, Galway (Kennys now has signed copies!); Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop Galway; Hodges Figgis; The Reading Room in Leitrim; Forever Amber in Meath; Waterstones Cork; Dubrays; and O’Mahonys. Your local shop will order.
Reviewers: please contact Alan Hayes at Arlen House.
More about birdie:
Love is the central force in birdie, a collection of sixteen historical and out-of-time flash fictions that sing with the voices of women loving and losing and learning. The characters here find strength, despite the sorrows of death and deceit: a ghost-child returns to Massachusetts to comfort her grieving mother; the daughter of a Spanish orange tycoon regrets her mother’s terrible choices; an English maid longs for, but can’t be with, her mistress’s son.
Birdie contains O’Connor’s signature ekphrastic work, drawing on artists as diverse as Matisse, da Vinci, and American painter Edwin Romanzo Elmer. The natural world looms large too: sheep and foxes roam these pages, while seawater washes through them.
Described by the Toronto Star as a writer of ‘magical imagination’ and by the Washington Post as ‘soaring’, O’Connor’s collection of historical flash will delight her readers, old and new.