Writers Chat 37: Nuala O’Connor on “Nora” (New Island: Dublin, 2021)

Nuala, You’re very welcome back to my Writers Chat series. This time we’re here to chat about Nora, your fifth novel, lauded by Edna O’Brien as “a lively and loving paean to the indomitable Nora Barnacle”. I read the US version published by Harper Perennial and the Ireland/UK publication with New Island was published April 10th.

Photograph of cover of NORA by Nuala O’Connor

SG: Much has been written about your lyrical, sensual prose and Nora is filled with it from when Jim and Nora leave Dublin on October 8, 1904: (“The air is salt-sweet and cool, the portholes beam light into the dusk”) to the letters and the food, which we’ll return to. But let’s start with “the indomitable Nora Barnacle” – by the end of the book I really felt I’d lived through Nora’s life with her, I felt like I knew her, I cared for her. You have managed to re-create Nora who feels real and complicated, a woman who knows her own mind and whose strength lies in her patience and openness to the human condition. Tell me about how you got to know Nora through your research.

NOC: I knew Nora Barnacle as Joyce’s strong, loyal, loving wife and muse but I was curious about how she felt about her life. Bio-fiction is about creating an interior world for people and I disliked the smudging of Nora by history. So I dug out my teenage copy of Brenda Maddox’s fantastic biography of Nora and was, once again, enthralled by her earthy dynamism, and by their love story. So I did what I often do when my interest is piqued, I wrote a short story about Nora. My story – ‘Gooseen’ – records their meeting in Dublin and their first date on 16th June 1904 – now immortalised as Bloomsday – and their flit to Europe. The story did well – it won a prize and was published in Granta – but I found I didn’t want that to be the end of my communion with Nora, I wanted to stay in her company for longer, and so I wrote on and on and on.

My aim was to illustrate that the so-called ordinary woman by Joyce’s side is, in fact, extraordinary. Nora felt, thought, lived and contributed hugely to their life, just as Joyce did. Nora helped Joyce stay grounded as she was pragmatic, optimistic, earthy, big-hearted, good humoured, forthright, and resilient – she was just what Joyce needed as a shy, sensitive, kind, loving, nervy, accusatory, opinionated intellectual. Nora flowed with Joyce, was water to his fire. They were both, like all of us, trying their best, and were under the influence of their upbringing, the prevailing mores and politics of their era, and their own personal quirks and passions – Joyce drank, he was unfaithful, he asked Nora to go with other men. Neither was a paragon – the same way we’re not – and my bio-fiction aims to show that.

SG: You have had glowing reviews and The New York Times declared that 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.

Nora is essentially about the relationship between her and James/Jim Joyce. On the one hand they are well matched physically and erotically, and on the other, Nora is always left to keep the family together, taking in dirty laundry (“I scrub away other people’s sweat, blood, piss, cack and grime with scalding, soapy water”) when they are short of money or when Joyce drinks his wages. How did you maintain that balance between the actual hardship of life – moving frequently, living through two World wars, worries about their young and then adult children – and depicting the deep physical and emotional love between Nora and Jim?

NOC: I don’t think Edwardian era Irish women expected an easy life – Nora had seen her mother, Annie Barnacle, battle through with eight kids and a drinking husband, and eventually separate from Mr Barnacle. If Nora had stayed in Galway, she most likely would have married and settled into a life like her mother’s: mass-going, having babies (lots of them), living within a State that was increasingly wedded to the church, that ruled people into submission; she would’ve been scarred by Civil War and the exodus of men to WW1 etc. By escaping to Europe, Nora was released from a strict, rigid, low expectation path. Fintan O’Toole believes Nora liberated Joyce from shame and snobbery; she certainly uplifted him by being strongminded, flexible, loyal, and direct. Nora’s head wasn’t bothered the way Joyce’s was – she was naturally optimistic, loving, and cheerful, so she could drag them both through a lot of their troubles. Her bravery hooked me into her story; her defiance of patriarchal rules, her bending away from State and church morals.

I like mavericks, women who push against societal norms. So Nora’s courage and her willingness to love the man she aligned herself with, despite his many faults, speaks well of her. She accepted, to an extent, much of what was unruly about Jim – his sensitivity, his need to drink, his discomfort with other people – because she was better able to negotiate all of that. Her love protected him and buoyed him up. In turn, his admiration of her strength, their bedroom bond, his love of her physicality and her stories, and his generosity in adorning her with furs, and tweed and jewellery, pleased them both.

SG: And all of that comes through, so very clearly, in NORA. Continuing with their relationship, you used the real Joyce letters (which you wrote about in The Paris Review ) as a basis to frame the many absences from which both Jim and Nora suffer equally. I loved the letters and how their passion contrasted greatly with the reality of ever-changing homes, circles of friends and cities. The constant is their relationship and, from your depiction, Nora is quite the scribe and knows to use words and food to keep Jim on her side! One letter opens with: “My lonely bed is tortured with desire for you, my mind leaps to disturbed places, I see you over me posed and preening, chaste, grotesque, languid…” Can you talk a little about how their use of letters opened the door for your Nora to be as much the erotic voice as Joyce (as we know and expect him to be!), as much present in her body as he is?

NOC: Joyce and Nora were in touch with their sensuality: they met as two young people who were proud of their bodies, and unafraid of sharing themselves wholly with each other. Joyce frequented prostitutes as a teenager and Nora had some experience of young men by the time she met Jim; she had walked out with at least three men that she told him about. And both Joyce and Nora enjoyed the erotic writings of Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, for whom masochism was named.

I had to rewrite Joyce’s letters as they are still in copyright – they were first published in 1975. And Nora’s half of the correspondence was not available, missing – perhaps destroyed – and I had to fill those gaps with imagined letters of my own. So I re-wrote Joyce’s letters by mimicking his real letters as closely as I could. I wrote Nora’s part of the correspondence using Joyce’s letters as a call-and-response guide. When he praised her for using certain stimulating phrases and words, I included them in her letters to him. Joyce planted the seed for the erotic letters – suggesting to Nora that there was a certain type of letter he would love to have from her while he was in Dublin and she was at home in Trieste – and she was well able to oblige.

SG: Yes, and even though she is a sensuous woman – shown though your sensory writing, the fabrics of clothes, furniture, the preparation of and eating of food – Nora is also practical. When Hitler annexes Austria in March, she tells us “I could fall apart thinking about it all – war, Lucy, Georgie – or I can get on with it. I decide to choose the latter” – which shows the strong woman she is – but at the same time, Jim is, she proclaims, “my whole life now…we have to get on with things as best we can, as a pair.” Despite his unreliability he does give her strength.

Real life events such as wars, the Rising, the Civil War in Ireland punctuate their lives and I thought you convincingly depicted some of the parallel difficulties – even for Joyce! – of the world of writing and publishing. We sometimes forget – when reading Ulysses or Dubliners, for example – that Joyce wrote from a particular place, in a specific era and, as you portray, often with serious health issues, notably his eyes. But in a way he could fall apart because Nora always understands him even when he is absent because “he needs to swallow stories many times in order to construct better ones himself”.

Thinking of the broader themes of the book I wondered if it was because their notion of home and nationhood was always changing, as well as the strength of their relationship and the financial and creative supports such as Weaver, that Joyce was able to continue writing, and write so much from the body?

NOC: They were extremely nomadic because Joyce liked novelty, but they remained loyally Irish, even if they grumbled about Ireland and Irishness. Joyce’s fiction is a prolonged love letter to Ireland. Nora liked newness too, but she understood its damage, also, and longed for a settle spot. Joyce needed tumult in order to write; in his biographer’s words, Joyce ‘throve on flurry’. Naturally, he needed stretches of quiet too, to write. As a couple, and later as a family of four, the Joyces moved house over and over, following a pattern set in Joyce’s own childhood, when his father led the family from their lodgings at night to avoid bailiffs. Uprooting home and family every few months, or years, is a sure way to have new writing fodder; in Paris alone they lived at nineteen different addresses.

You have to wonder what Joyce’s monomania about writing, as Brenda Maddox described it, cost the family as a whole. Maybe it was unfair on Nora, Giorgio and Lucia to be constantly relocated because Joyce needed discomfort in order to write, a sort of constant unsettledness, that settled him into the creative work.

SG: NORA had me wondering about that -his discomfort and creativity, the family being constantly uprooted. As well as passion there is much humour in the book. Sam Beckett, in particular, had me laughing. One of my favourite scenes was Bloomsday in Paris in 1929 where they go on an excursion and the “normally rather serene and usually very mannerly” Beckett and McGreevy sing “endless old songs like a pair of escaped lunatics.” It doesn’t help, of course, that Lucia is madly in love with Beckett, or that Jim “drinks wine until it nearly pours out of his eyes.” Once again, Nora is the rock of sense, the protector, with a wonderfully dry sense of humour. As through the novel I felt I was with them! Do you think that in narrating their lives through Nora’s viewpoint you gained greater insight and humour?

NOC: They were a humorous pair; both of them loved jokes, fun, wordplay, odd language, and silly songs, and Joyce’s letters to family and friends are full of mischief. He used humour in his work but also personally, to create levity in what were really quite difficult years to be alive, Ireland and Europe being war-torn and so on; their various health issues; the publishing challenges he faced.

The 1929 Bloomsday was celebrated that way – Joyce was feeling narky and he was envious of the youthful freedoms of Beckett and McGreevy, because they could make a show of themselves, whereas he, as famous writer and family man, was required to behave. I haven’t seen much discussion about Joyce’s drinking and the very real problems it both masked and caused. That Bloomsday Nora was fed up with it, as she must have been quite often. But she was naturally light-of-outlook and, clearly, she had a well of forgiveness to dip into too, so she was able to keep her heart out and get on with life.

SG: For our final question Nuala, I’d like to concentrate on the beautiful portrait you paint of the relationships between Nora and her children, Giorgio and Lucia. I was particularly taken with the portrait of Lucia from childhood to adulthood, Lucia who, polar opposite to Nora herself, “neither knows who she is nor cares to find out”.

On one of Lucia’s many hospitalisations as a result of her violent tendencies, both Jim and Giorgio point to the, at times, difficult relationship between Nora and Lucia, insisting that Nora not visit her in case she might be agitated. I felt you touched a little on the ‘mother blaming’ here. Nora wonders “if it’s the rearing we gave …or if it’s something that was already in her when she grew inside me. We’re born with a soul, maybe we’re born with all our faults, too?” (Later, after so many institutions and doctors and years of worry, Lucia is diagnosed with schizophrenia.) Can you talk a little about this mother-daughter relationship?

NOC: In NORA, I have great sympathy for the Joyces as parents of a child with mental illness. I have particular empathy with Nora as mother to Lucia, whereas others have demonised Nora, for her apparent lack of care about Lucy, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her twenties and institutionalised for fifty years. I don’t agree with this anti-Nora stance; it’s clear that Nora loved Lucia hugely and did as much as she could to help her, until Lucia’s illness became too much to handle in the home environment. Nora had Lucia’s care and, in my novel (and, I believe in life), Nora is fearful, concerned, but loving towards her daughter; crucially, she’s also pragmatic – she can see Lucia needs professional help.

Lucia hit her mother and threw furniture at her; she was volatile, unpredictable, sexually permissive, prone to disappearing for days on end, and she was sometimes catatonic, and often violent, and it fell to Nora to care for her. It’s frightening and worrying enough to have a child who suffers mentally, without being in fear of them too, and Nora bore the brunt of Lucia’s aggression. Added to that Joyce, for a long time, refused to believe there was anything seriously wrong with Lucy, which must have been an isolating experience for Nora, who could see that she was ill, out of control, and needed proper help. It was, in fact, Giorgio who first had Lucia sent to an asylum, but it is always much easier, in our patriarchal world, to blame the woman.

When Lucia was committed, Nora was often advised to stay away as she ‘excited’ Lucia. In 1936, in an institution in Ivry, Lucia tried to strangle Giorgio and Joyce when they visited. So they ‘excited’ her too, but that’s not what people choose to remember. Once, when Nora visited her daughter in a Zürich hospital, Lucia had painted her face with ink and was wearing an opera cloak. She was clearly very unwell and Nora wanted her taken care of properly. When Lucia went to Ireland to live with her cousins in Bray, she took naked sea swims; lived on a diet of champagne, cigarettes and fruit; went out without underwear and told people that; she went to pubs alone (unheard of for women); and set fires in her cousins’ house, putting them all in danger. Her condition meant she was volatile to be around and she must have found her own self troubling too. I feel strongly that Nora did her best in difficult circumstances; Lucia needed professional care and she got that.

SG: Thank you, Nuala for such insight into your process and research. We’ll end with some short questions:

What was your favourite city out of the those you visited as part of your research?Trieste was a revelation; I hadn’t been there before, so it had a shiny, newness for me. It’s a seductive place, ‘the jewel of the Adriatic’, sitting by that blue, blue sea. It’s still very ancient, with a huge piazza and winding cobbled streets, but it has wonderful food and a bright, light, cosmopolitan feel to it. We went as a family and the kids loved it too. We look forward to going back.

If you had Nora and Jim as dinner guests, what would you serve, and why? Hearty Irish food – bacon and cabbage, or some such. It’s not my kind of food (as a longterm veggie) but they would love it. Apple tart and custard for dessert – Joyce mostly preferred sweet things.

You’re very good – pandering to their choices! What are you working on now? Another bio-fictional novel about another feisty Irish woman, This one set in the 18th century. It’s been good fun, and I’m free to invent more, as there are very few hard facts about this woman. I’m enjoying it.

What are you reading now? About a gazillion things. Research books for the novel I’m writing (other novels set in the 18th C, court trials, history books) but, also, Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories for a reading group I’m in (we exclusively read Bowen). I’m also reading/reviewing Julia Parry’s The Shadowy Third about Parry’s grandfather’s affair with Bowen and it’s really, really good.

More on NORA:

NORA launches online in Galway on 23rd April in association with Cúirt International Festival of Literature where Nuala will be interviewed by Elaine Feeney. Time 5.30pm.

Nora was launched online in Dublin on 9th April at 7pm, in association with MOLI to a large audience. It was a great event.

See Nuala’s website for details of more upcoming events.

Black and White Photograph of Nuala O’Connor

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