A "meditation" might be the best way to describe the slightly untethered formal energies of this 1981 essay by Edna O'Brien, now revived for this year's Bloomsday celebrations.
The purpose here does not seem to be to merely chart one of Irish literature's most enigmatic romances but to disassemble and inhabit in a manner that perhaps novelists are better suited to than professional biographers.
It was while studying pharmaceutical science in the 1950s that O'Brien came across a copy of TS Eliot's Introducing James Joyce. At that very moment, she says in her original introduction from 1981, her burgeoning dreams of becoming a writer suddenly found some form of purchase in the reality of her situation. "I saw that literature was not mysterious lofty stuff," she recalls, "but the rough and tumble of everyday life."
A lifelong fascination with Joyce began, one that would encourage O'Brien to go straight to the well of family drama for fiction inspiration time and time again.
What Joyce perhaps also offered O'Brien was a literary portal into the male reverence of the female form as placed against the cloistered backdrop of Catholic Ireland. For Joyce, women's apparel were "a source of spermic titivation" and "a spring to catch woodcocks", she reminds us in one of countless channellings of arch Joycean wordplay.
"The molecules of the body shuttling to and fro, as the artist in the man weaves and unweaves woman's image and the man in the artist desecrates and considers the stains on her drawers. Forever mingling the genitalia and the transubstantial."
Throughout this psychoanalytical reading, O'Brien makes riverine swerves into Joyce's two difficult maternal spectres in his life - his mother, "an umbilical drudge", and the Catholic Church, "the scullery maid of Christendom". Nora, a goddess-whore dichotomy made flesh, was inextricably tied up in all of this.
The séance that O'Brien conducts over these two souls is light on beauty and sweep. That may just be the fact of how things were between them, gleaned as it all has been from epistolary and archival materials. There is libidinous animalism that can veer into near-grotesque, internal warfare, and the constant poverty they both existed in as Joyce consistently proved to be a disastrous manager of finances.
Above all, Barnacle, the Galway chambermaid, facilitated physical and mental transport in Joyce, O'Brien opines.
She has never hidden her idolisation of Joyce and this slim edition sees her conjuring not only the inner sanctum of his life with Nora but also his aim to "do a Humpty Dumpty on the English language". There are ticks and puns and knowing nods throughout this text, neologisms taped together from the Joycean dictionary.
But there is also the knowledge that comes with being a writer and therefore capable of understanding another at a deeply profound level, the push and pull of it, the things it saps out of one. She is able to empathise with Joyce's simultaneous presence and absence in his marriage, and how any longing to see into the other person is "discharged into the work". Her image of Joyce spending most of his time in semi-darkness, "lost to the outside world" and away from a solemn, unsmiling Nora is one of the most lasting here.
This is one of many paradoxes O'Brien presents without having to sell them to us. "No man has ever wanted so to be a woman," she says, and yet the writing of Ulysses resulted in scant attention towards the very woman who would become the blueprint for Molly Bloom herself.