As the centenary of its publication approaches, we can see how Ulysses was shaped by a nomadic existence and strong women in the author’s life
On the morning of February 2, 1922, a Paris bookshop owner took delivery of two copies of its first published book.
Each volume weighed over 1.5kg, was 7.5cm thick and 732 pages long. Sylvia Beach, a bookseller turned publisher at Shakespeare and Company, took one of the huge, blue-covered books and made her way to the Parisian home of its Irish author to present it to him. The most memorable 40th birthday gift James Joyce received was the first copy of Ulysses.
Joyce was a man who liked novelty. Changes of country, changes of address and changes of style were as natural to him as breathing. His brother Stanislaus said Joyce lived on “the excitement of events”, and his biographer Richard Ellmann wrote that Joyce operated at his best when there was “flurry” in his life.
Along with his life partner Nora Barnacle, and their children Giorgio and Lucia, Joyce moved house and country over and over, following a pattern from his own childhood, when his father led the family from their lodgings at night to avoid bailiffs.
Joyce’s own small family sometimes moved because of eviction, though during both world wars they had to flee to neutral Switzerland to keep safe. At other times, he just wanted to move flat, or city to have different surroundings and new experiences, to serve his creative purposes.
As our pandemic-drenched world has taught us, it can be difficult to concentrate when upheaval is a dominating force, and Joyce also needed stretches of quiet in which to write — there is no other way to get ink on to paper. So how did he write Ulysses, and the rest, when he insisted on shallow roots and endless flurry?
The first sparks of Ulysses were lit as early as 1907, three years after Joyce and Nora migrated to Europe and settled in Trieste, then part of Austria-Hungary. Joyce originally conceived of Ulysses as a short story that would be part of his collection Dubliners, but his ideas and notes expanded, and he realised he wanted to work on a larger scale. He began writing Ulysses in earnest in 1914 and was still finessing the novel up until it went off to the printers at the end of January 1922.
He wrote organically over those seven years, telling a friend that it wasn’t necessary to plan everything in a novel: “In the writing the good things will come.”
Great art cannot be made without supports, many of which are invisible, and Nora Barnacle was Joyce’s main support through the years he spent writing Ulysses and beyond. Without her steady hand to Joyce’s back, the novel simply would not exist. Nora was muse and rock to Joyce, and he could not live, or write, without her. Other women were also crucial to the production and success of Ulysses. As someone who admired female strength, Joyce was glad to accept these women’s help.
Loyalty and practical help
Apart from Beach, the American in Paris who published Ulysses, there was English editor Harriet Weaver, who became Joyce’s unfailing sponsor, giving him the equivalent of €1.5m in today’s money over the course of their friendship. The American editors of The Little Review, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, featured extracts of the daring novel before its publication, and were tried for obscenity when Joyce’s work caught the attention of censors. This group of women, with their loyalty and practical help, ensured Ulysses could be written and later that it would reach readers.
Nora, a pragmatic, naturally cheerful Galway woman, eloped unmarried with Joyce in 1904 and, with her practical nature, was the perfect foil to his nervy, sensitive disposition. Unlike other literary wives, she was not Joyce’s editor or secretary; rather she cared for Joyce the man so that Joyce the writer could function.
Life with him was not always easy and sometimes Nora despaired, but she was also stubbornly loyal to the man she called Jim. She minded Joyce’s health — he drank to excess and suffered both eye and stomach problems. She made sure he took treatments, and that he had the time and peace to write, when necessary steering him home at night before he got too drunk. Joyce adored Nora and in 1909 he wrote to her: ‘“If I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.”
Despite his faithful Nora, and his very real love for his children, Joyce craved intrigue, novelty and the provocative to create story fodder. Ulysses, with its many worlds, needed a lot of feeding. But when you have an ordinary job — in Joyce’s case, teaching English — a long-term partner, and children too, life has a way of flattening out.
The humdrum though quietly joyful business of heading a household and working outside the home can mean unvarying hours, days, and years. When life’s keel became too even and he ran out of personal memories to use, and gifted scraps from other people, Joyce created tumult. In Trieste he drank and sang by night with sailors; he chased money-making schemes and returned, briefly, to Dublin to set up Ireland’s first cinema on Mary Street. Another time he fancied himself as an importer of skyrockets and Irish tweed to Europe.
Family in flux
During the time Joyce was writing Ulysses and intimately planning the structures that would carry the book forward, Nora and her disgruntled children found themselves in a new country — Switzerland — learning a new language.
The children were born and raised in Trieste, they spoke Italian at home and now they had to master a dialect of German and be schooled through that language. Nora’s hair began to fall out and she suffered with anxiety; Joyce had eye attacks that left him paralysed with pain. Despite all untoward events, being in exile in a new country wasn’t excitement enough for Joyce.
Always a busy-minded man, he found more to amuse himself and, potentially, to write about. He co-founded an acting troupe in Zurich, while continuing to teach English. He drank at the Pfauen Café and made new friends, he read voraciously, he sang, he loved Nora and the children, and he looked for new things to learn: languages, cultures, the names of things — he was a great man for naming.
Also in Zurich, he arranged a candlelit dalliance with his neighbour Marthe Fleischmann, during which, he claimed, he “explored the coldest and hottest parts of a woman’s body”, while an oblivious Nora sat at home. Joyce suffered further debilitating attacks of eye inflammation and glaucoma, and Nora nursed him. In the scraps of time left to him, Joyce wrote his intricate, funny, innovative and bawdy Ulysses.
Uprooting home and family every few months or years is a sure way to keep your novelty synapses alight. All that packing and unpacking, all those variously shaped rooms and fresh, unexplored streets, all those strange beds. But at what cost to a beloved family? Was it fair on Nora, Giorgio and Lucia to sacrifice so much just because Joyce needed discomfort to write, a basic unsettledness that helped him settle into the creative work? Giorgio and Lucia were continuously pulled in and out of schools as they moved from Austria-Hungary to Switzerland to France to England. Their later lack of careers and focus may have been a result of their wandering childhoods and the shifting between languages and friend groups in country after country. Nora, though unfailingly steadfast, longed for a home of her own and felt settled when the family enjoyed stints of a few years in various Paris flats. There she could cook and entertain friends, sing with Jim on piano and keep a watchful eye over him.
Nora liked newness too, for sure, and travelled with Jim wherever he took her, though truly she wanted a home of her own by the time the Paris years were ending. She tried to get Joyce to move to London, but he didn’t want to go.
Joyce’s stories — Ulysses most famously — played out in Dublin, far away from the Europe he made his home; the city lodged firmly in the geography of his mind. He needed temporariness, a feeling of unbelonging, to dig deep into the genius of his imagination.
For Joyce, despite illness and disorder, uncertainty was a sure and welcome thing — in that place of shallow roots, anything might occur.
Nora and the children had to hold firm on the unsteady bedrocks he chose, offering themselves as stabilising supports when they were most needed. And though Ulysses was written through times of precarious upheaval, on its 100th anniversary it remains a steady, fixed colossus in the canon of great literature.
Nuala O’Connor’s novel ‘Nora’ (Harper Perennial/New Island, 2021), about Nora Barnacle was published last year. It was named one of the Top 10 historical novels of 2021 by the ‘New York Times’. She is editor of the flash fiction e-zine ‘Splonk’. See nualaoconnor.com