"Nora" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
“Nora,” by Nuala O’Connor, is the story of Nora Barnacle, partner of author James Joyce. She lived with James for 27 years and had two children with him before marrying him 10 years before his death.
The couple lived in Italy, Paris and Switzerland during their time together. They moved from one apartment to the next all their lives.The family of four often couldn’t pay rent, had to flee a war or needed to be near a medical facility. Occasionally, wealth acquired from the sale of Joyce’s novels or poems precipitated their moves. The money never lasted long.
Nora and Joyce met in Ireland in 1904 when they were young, estranged from family and poor. Joyce was educated, and Nora was impressed by Joyce’s expansive vocabulary which he used to flatter her. Nora was simple, briefly educated, harbored no pretensions of any kind and adored Joyce at first sight.
Joyce, having recently abandoned his medical studies in Paris, met Nora, still a teen, upon his return to Dublin to help support his nine siblings and dissolute father following his mother’s death. Nora was working as a maid at a local inn. Deserted by her mother at age two and raised by her then late-grandmother, Nora was thrilled to follow James to Zurich when he took a teaching position. She abandoned her Catholic faith to live with Joyce, and she struggled with guilt about this her whole life.
Joyce’s masterpiece, “Ulysses,” was published in 1921, and he modeled his famous character, Molly Bloom, after Nora. The story of “Ulysses” is set entirely on June 16, the day in 1904 when James and Nora became romantically involved, soon after their first meeting.
Nora and James were inseparable. Interspersed throughout the novel are actual letters Joyce wrote to Nora during the times he was away from her. They reflect his passion for her and provide graphic commentary on the love life he missed while he was absent.
It would be hard to imagine anyone but Nora remaining with Joyce through the years of poverty, domestic moves, struggles with children, his drunkenness and physical ailments. Nora didn’t even like Joyce’s literary works; she did not understand his writing and read only a few pages of each of his works in her entire life. However, she so admired his intellect and passion for writing that she was unceasingly supportive of him in spite of his oddness, rude behavior, narcissism and mercurial moods.
Nora endured loneliness throughout much of her life. James was either in a saloon or writing at home where he needed peace and quiet. She was only friends with only those in his orbit, people who came and went. She did think the troubled lives of their offspring were the result of her attention to Joyce at the expense of her children’s needs. She had no regrets.
Interspersed throughout the novel are references to famous acquaintances who were involved in the Joyces’ daily lives at one point or another. They include the wealthy socialite Peggy Guggenheim, Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, Carl Jung and Gertrude Stein.
“Nora” is a fascinating novel for the insight it provides into the life of James Joyce and for its historical representation of the times. Each chapter depicts a year of the couple’s life together from 1904 to 1941, the year Joyce died. The last chapter covers the years 1941-1951. These were years Nora mourned the loss of her husband, felt the loss of grandson who moved permanently to the United States, and grieved over the estrangement of her schizophrenic daughter who lived most of her life in a mental institution.
Reading this book reminded me of the stories of other women who had an impact on famous men including “The Other Einstein,” by Marie Benedict, “Loving Frank,” by Nancy Horan, and “Mr. Emerson’s Wife,” by Amy Belding Brown. One could make a case that the lives of these men would not have turned out the same without the quiet influence of the women behind them.