My radio essay about Nora Barnacle, James Joyce, and geese, on today’s Sunday Miscellany on RTÉ Radio 1, is now on the RTÉ website. My bit starts around 11:11 – listen at this link.
NORA publishes here in Ireland on the 10th April with New Island Books and I have some events/readings coming up to celebrate the book. We have two launch events planned, one each for Dublin and Galway. More below:
26th March, 8pm GMT: American writer Jillian Cantor and I will be discussing bio-fiction, to celebrate the publication of her novel Half Life about Marie Curie. In association with Poisoned Pen Bookstore, Arizona. More here.
9th April, 7pm: Launch online in Dublin on 9th April in association with MOLI. Interview with Katherine McSharyy of the National Library of Ireland. Register here.
11th April – essay about Nora Barnacle on Sunday Miscellany. 9am to 10am on RTÉ Radio 1.
14th April: UCC Creative Writing Programme online event – 6pm. Free event! Register here.
23rd April: Launch online in Galway on 23rd April in association with the Cúirt Festival. I’m interviewed by Elaine Feeney. Time 5.30pm. Free or optional ticket purchase. Book here.
My first New York Times review today and it’s for my beloved NORA. Big thanks to Alida Becker. I’ve pasted the entire thing in below; a swift flavour though: ‘…Nora is entirely convincing in her raw sensuality, her stubborn determination, her powerful sense of grievance.’ Very pleased 🙂
NEW YORK TIMES – 16th March 2021
Three Historical Novels Explore the Strength of Human Connection – Alida Becker
“Messy” doesn’t begin to describe the domestic life of the narrator of Nuala O’Connor’s NORA (Harper Perennial, 458 pp., paper, $16.99), the minimally educated, relentlessly blue-collar woman who propped up one of literature’s most challenging highbrow writers, James Joyce. There are times when you wonder whether the real Nora Barnacle would have been quite so articulate (“he’s also a bother to my heart and a conundrum to my mind”), but this fictional Nora is entirely convincing in her raw sensuality, her stubborn determination, her powerful sense of grievance and her inability to stop loving a deeply erratic, wildly manipulative yet enormously talented man.
You won’t find much about Joyce’s works in Nora’s account of his torturous climb from poverty-stricken anonymity to professional acclaim. (“Portrait of the Artist” comes off as “strings of baby babble” to someone who prefers “penny dreadfuls and romances.”) You will, however, be given an intimate look at the struggle that made Joyce’s work possible as Nora describes how she followed along when he fled Ireland for dead-end jobs in Switzerland and Italy, watched him waste his paychecks on carousing while she took in washing for grocery money, and let herself become far too reliant on his long-suffering brother after the Joyce entourage grew to include a son and a daughter.
Set against all this, Nora’s small triumphs loom large. In Paris in 1925, two decades after she first “walked out” with Joyce, the now-middle-aged Nora proudly announces that “at last I have a home to call my own and furniture besides.” Her money worries may be gone, but now there are worries about her children, particularly Lucia, with that “skittery-skattery look” in her eyes, who will eventually be diagnosed as schizophrenic and confined to a mental hospital. Even Nora’s uterine cancer (“the doctor now says the whole lot has to come out”) and Joyce’s glaucoma (“the eyes are murder; 10 operations later and it’s worse they get”) can’t distract her from a terrible sense of guilt: “How can I tell him that between us we may have made our daughter mad?”
Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.
My Paris Review essay about Nora Barnacle and James Joyce’s erotic letters is now published. This was fun to write 😉 You can read it here.
Send an email to virtual2 AT norwichbookstore.com to get the link to join the event, which will be sent as soon as it is available.
A lovely review today for NORA from the Midwest Book Review in the USA:
‘An historical novel but one that pays scrupulous attention to biographically accurate detail, Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce by author Nuala O’Connor deftly blends elements of love, ambition, and extraordinary people with extraordinary talents with the kind of narrative storytelling style that creates great and enduringly memorable fiction.’
10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About James and Nora Joyce
By Nuala O’Connor | Jan 19, 2021
Nuala O’Connor’s new novel, Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, is a poignant, comprehensive portrait of James Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle, as a young woman, mother, and literary inspiration for the Molly Bloom character in Ulysses. Narrating the story in Nora’s robust voice, O’Connor traces the couple’s nomadic life from Ireland to Trieste, Paris, and Zürich, adding to the abundant Joyceana with a moving portrait of an unforgettable family. Here she explains ten little-known facts about the Joyces.
Dubliner James Joyce gained international fame with the publication of his novel Ulysses in 1922. Joyce enjoyed a lifelong partnership with Nora Barnacle—an earthy, pragmatic Galway woman with little interest in literature. The pair met in Dublin, where Nora worked in Finn’s Hotel, and first went out together on the June 16, 1904, later immortalized as Bloomsday, the day the events in Ulysses take place. Joyce and Nora left Ireland for Europe in October 1904 and settled in Trieste, then an Austro-Hungarian port town. They had two children—Giorgio and Lucia—and lived in various cities, including Paris. Both died in Zürich, Switzerland.
1. Joyce and Nora were not married when they eloped in 1904 and didn’t marry until 1931. Though bohemian in some attitudes, the Joyces lived a fairly conventional life. They pretended to be married but, after 27 years, made their union legal to ensure their children’s inheritances. The pair hoped to marry quietly in a London register office, but were found out by the paparazzi. Their annoyance is palpable in the photographs–Joyce looks grim and Nora tries to hide her face with her cloche hat.
2. Nora and Joyce moved relentlessly throughout their lives: sometimes evicted, sometimes living in borrowed accommodation, sometimes having to flee to keep safe. They stayed in Zürich during WWI and returned there at the start of WWII. In Paris alone, they lived at 19 different addresses. This peripatetic existence may have been a hangover from Joyce’s youth—his large family often moved clandestinely at night when his profligate father left their rent unpaid.
3. James Joyce was an English teacher. He taught at the Berlitz schools in Trieste and the Italian province of Pola, but found the work tiresome, and often spoke to his students about the faults of Ireland and the joys of drinking, rather than verbs and vocabulary. He gave up teaching when several benefactresses—Edith Rockefeller McCormick, Sylvia Beach, and Harriet Weaver—eased his financial strains.
4. In the great Irish emigrant tradition, Joyce and Nora “brought over” three of Joyce’s siblings to Trieste. His favorite brother, Stannie, worked alongside Joyce in the Berlitz School. Joyce’s motives were not benign—poverty-struck, the household needed another earner. Stannie was often bitter about propping up his genius brother and family. “He used me as a butcher uses his steel,” Stannie wrote. Still, he named his only son James and, in another twist, Stannie died on Bloomsday 1955.
5. James Joyce opened Ireland’s first dedicated cinema. The Volta Electric Theatre opened on Dublin’s Mary Street in September 1909. Joyce set up the cinema with backing from business people he befriended in Trieste, but Dubliners didn’t much like the program of Italian and French films, and the venture failed.
6. Nora and Joyce exchanged steamy, erotic letters when Joyce was in Ireland setting up his cinema and Nora was home in Trieste. Joyce’s letters, which can be read online, are frank, explicit, and obscene, but they also spill over into intimate, tender, poetic trances. Naturally we should not be privy to these wild imaginings, but it’s hard not to read them when they are there.
7. James Joyce was from a musical family and once contemplated a career as a singer. He had a sweet tenor voice and loved music. Nora was enchanted when she heard Joyce sing in Dublin’s Antient Concert Rooms, early in their courtship. The previous year, Joyce won a bronze medal at a national singing contest, only failing to win gold as he couldn’t sight-read. He gifted his medal to his Aunt Josephine; it was later bought at auction by dancer Michael Flatley.
8. The Joyce children were creatively talented. Lucia was a dancer and performed in Paris, and Giorgio, like his father, had a fine singing voice. Sadly, Lucia’s mental illness prevented her developing a career in dance, and Giorgio was, apparently, too nervous to take to the stage very often.
9. The Irish government refused to repatriate James’s body when died in Switzerland in 1941. He was buried in Fluntern Cemetery in Zürich, beside the zoo. Nora, who died ten years later in April 1951, was not initially buried in the same grave as her beloved Jim, but in 1966, her remains were exhumed and reburied with Joyce.
10. Nora and James’s last direct descendant died in January 2020. Stephen Joyce was the great defender of his family’s reputation and his grandfather’s writing. He said of Nora, “Nonna was so strong, she was a rock. I would venture to say that [Joyce] could have done none of it, not written one of the books, without her.”