‘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.’
Thanks to Publishers Weekly for having #NoraNovel in their ’10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know…’ feature. You can read it here and I have also pasted the text in below.
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.”
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.”
On 5th January 2021, to celebrate the USA launch day of NORA, I, along with fellow Irish author Eibhear Walshe – who wrote the wonderful The Last Days at Bowen’s Court about Elizabeth Bowen – did an online bio-fiction event with Columbia University, facilitated by scholar and author Heather Corbally Bryant.
The event is online now and you can view it on YouTube here.
All thanks to the gracious Emily Bloom of Columbia Uni for stellar organising.
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
By Clea Simon Globe Correspondent, December 17, 2020, 5:00 p.m.
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.”