Nora Barnacle

December 2, 2009

This past Thanksgiving week was long and and it was low on sleep as we visited out-of-state relatives with a toddler that sleeps fitfully in the best of situations. Add an ear infection and bunk the four of us in one room, and our collective health and wits are near to shattered. I have taken great solace in Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom, a biography of Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s longtime partner and later, when their children were grown, his wife.

Nora was his “portable Ireland,” the basis for many of his female characters, but most particularly Molly Bloom, whose orgasmic soliloquy at the end of Ulysses (“and yes I said yes I will Yes”) is far more widely known and read than the novel itself. My husband once declared he was officially giving up on reading Ulysses via an essay broadcast on NPR, though he has since recanted. To my great shame I tried and failed to finish it while we were in Dublin for the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, but in my defense, I was newly pregnant and my brain was a muddled stew of hormones, and whenever I sat still for more than ten minutes, I went to sleep. This state of confused exhaustion went on well into the second trimester, and some would contend it persists to this day.

But in Nora, I think I have found my gateway book back into Joyce. I find myself wanting to revisit Dubliners (which I revered in high school and again as a twentysomething) and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then properly girded, again tackle Ulysses. Even Finnegans Wake seems within reach! (Unlike much of his other work, Nora actually read parts of FW and liked it.)

Reading about the couple’s life of at-times scraping poverty as they bummed around European backwaters (even their Paris was a series of gloomy, unheated pensions) and raised two children is somehow inspiring. OK, sure, one kid went insane and the other one was never what you’d call employable, but that happens in rich, secure families, too. 

Mainly I appreciated how the biographer sought to rescue Nora Barnacle’s reputation. She’s often falsely cast as Joyce’s barely literate Irish peasant muse. This portrayal didn’t exalt her, but defended her for who she truly was: uneducated, yes, but sharp enough for the likes of Joyce, and infinitely more tough-minded. She was not his “enabler” in that modern, twelve-step sense of the word–that label belongs more squarely on the many patrons whose money and goodwill he burned through–yet he could not have written as he did without her. 

And of course, as I read any biography, I am simultaneously imagining how my own will scan. She was a terrible housekeeper. She had a fleeting, squandered talent. She loved her children but could not manage them and so they ran amok. Approaching middle age, she let herself go to seed. And then I start to revise.

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