James and Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage by Edna O’Brien

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Review by Rob Spence

Last year, Weidenfeld and Nicholson reissued Edna O’Brien’s 1999 biography of Joyce, an entertainingly idiosyncratic volume, which is reviewed here. Now, the same publishers have revived another Edna O’Brien excursion into the world of Joyce, this time focusing on his marriage. This book is somewhat of an oddity: first published by the private Lord John Press of New York in a luxury limited edition in 1981, it now appears as a slight paperback volume of just over sixty pages. It’s really an essay, or what the magazines now call a “long read”,  amounting to about ten thousand words, more or less.

As was the case with the previous Joyce book, this is not a conventional work of biography. O’Brien does not offer dates or evidence, there is no historical context or original research. Instead, this is an intense, almost mystical reverie on the relationship between Joyce and Nora Barnacle, the country girl he courted and with whom he eloped as a young man. O’Brien’s introduction sets out her enchantment with Joyce, which was very apparent in the other volume, and continues here. Despite the title, it is not until we are a quarter of the way through the text that Joyce and Nora meet, and even after that, it is Joyce who dominates the narrative.

O’Brien’s admiration for Joyce the artist is evident throughout, not least in the way that her prose often mimics his in its playfulness with language, to the point where it is sometimes difficult to disentangle O’Brien’s prose from the embedded quotations that she deploys.  In a fairly typical passage, she describes Joyce’s early encounters with the prostitutes of Dublin:

Last but not least were the medical students, the jolly old medicals, and Joyce the lapsed medical student among them. So limp with leching, they betook themselves to the pelvic basin of the icky licky micky red-light district in the Rings End Road where hung out Tresh Nellie, Rosalie and the Coalquay whore.

The echo of the whores blowing “ickylickysticky yumyum kisses” in the Circe episode of Ulysses is obvious. There are other passages too where Joyce’s invention is appropriated for similar effect, but this is not to criticise the author; rather, O’Brien shows both her instinctive appreciation of Joyce’s work, and the ability to match episodes in the author’s life with events in his writings.

In essence, then, this is a love letter to Joyce, and an empathetic account of the experience of Nora, particularly the travails she experiences as a young Irishwoman living mostly alone in a strange foreign land while her lover ekes out a precarious living as a private language tutor. Necessarily, some of the material here is also covered in the previous book, but if anything, this is more impressionistic.

The reader who seeks a well-researched account of Joyce’s life, or Nora’s, would be better off with the standard volumes by Richard Ellmann and Brenda Maddox. But there is a place for O’Brien’s enraptured, eccentric and energetic prose. It is impossible to read this account and not be intrigued by the strange relationship that O’Brien evokes, and drawn once again to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, those two colossal monuments of modernist literature which seem to owe much of their allure to this oddly inspiring marriage of opposites.

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Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro

Edna O’Brien, James and Nora: Portrait of Joyce’s Marriage (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2020). 978-1474616812, 62pp., paperback original.

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