The author talks to Hilary A White about reimagining the erotic letters sent between Nora Barnacle and James Joyce for her new book charting their relationship
If you’d walked past Nuala O’Connor’s home in east Galway a couple of years ago, you might have heard a noise coming from her back garden. It would have been the author, in the writing cabin she goes to five mornings a week, laughing abundantly as she composed imaginary erotic letters between James Joyce and Nora Barnacle.
Nora, the novel she was working on at the time, depicts the relationship through the reimagined voice of the great Galwegian muse and soulmate of Ireland’s most famous writer.
Joyce’s filthy-dirty missives to Nora were published in 1975 to much bemusement and have been a constant source of titters in the world of high-brow Joycean academia ever since. With their content still under copyright, O’Connor had to rewrite them while keeping in all of the great modernist’s “predilections” (if you’ve read the originals, you’ll have got wind of them). Nora’s side of the correspondence, however, has yet to be uncovered, so O’Connor had free rein there.
“It was a project in itself,” she says. “Very enjoyable, I have to say. I’d be sitting there cackling to myself writing them. You only have to read Ulysses to surmise what Joyce liked. The episode in Nighttown [where Bloom visits a brothel] is one of the most upfront, crazy episodes in it, and it’s amazing to me that it was even published 99 years ago. Even nowadays, publishers would be like, ‘You’re gonna have to tone this down.’
“I really don’t believe in closing the bedroom door on my characters. I don’t see the point in it. Sex is so central to our lives, and we can go around pretending that it’s not, but for literature to ignore that to me just seems a very false bargain for the reader. It can be very bonding to know how your characters bond.”
Nora continues a theme of O’Connor’s to rehouse historic women in sweeping novels, with fully formed breath and movement. Her last novel was 2015’s Miss Emily, a celebrated inhabiting of poet Emily Dickinson, while the Dubliner is currently putting together something about the 18th-century Irish pirate queen Anne Bonny. ‘Biofiction’, as it is sometimes known, can be a democratic and illuminating form, as O’Connor’s works prove. Given its real-life subjects, however, it comes with responsibilities.
“Joyce is a sacred cow,” the 51-year-old explains. “It’s audacious to take him on. But a lot of female scholars have been really supportive because there’s work needed around Joyce and feminism. There’s a lot of misogyny in Ulysses, for example, whether its Joyce’s misogyny or the era’s or the characters’ is up to the reader to decide, but every woman is seen in terms of her sexuality, even a nun. I believe he loved and respected women, but that may not always come across in the writing.
“My responsibility is to Nora and to bring my love of her to people with respect. I try not to have characters do things that they would not have done. Even though I knew the arc of her story, I sort of drip-fed research to myself so that the world of Jim and Nora was opening out for me as it happened. I want you to find Nora as she may have been found in real life, to feel her life along with her.”
O’Connor’s fifth novel picks up just as the unmarried couple are defying the westward conveyor belt of Irish emigration and instead heading east to Italy, where Jim will take up a teaching position. A youthful loved-up naivety is palpable, particularly from the struggling but determined scribe. This manifests in a disastrous (and well-documented) attitude to money that results in the couple living in near penury until benefactors came along years later after Joyce had eventually found fame.
It gets so bad that his long-suffering brother Stanislaus is shipped over to help support them. Children Giorgio and Lucia arrive into the world, but Jim still insists on heading out to bars and cafés and coming home at all hours.
It reflects poorly on Joyce, and brings a real level of domestic tension in the novel, especially as there are children involved. In today’s world, a father handing over a sizeable chunk of household income to publicans when there are mouths to feed at home is unimaginable. Back then, O’Connor argues, it was merely part of male entitlement.
“She wasn’t great with money either,” O’Connor says in his defence. “They did tend to eat out a lot. They weren’t great money managers, and Joyce especially tended when he got money to be very flaithulach. Some people have read it and really objected to Joyce, like, ‘Oh he’s awful, why did she stay with him?’ And I don’t see that at all. I just see them as two gorgeous young people starting out, throwing their lot in together and actually thriving despite all the hardships of life.
“I have heard several Joyce experts brush aside his alcoholism, whereas for me he seems very much like a person who had a problem with alcohol. If you have to drink every single day, you have an issue, and he did seem to drink every single day, no matter how she pleaded with him.”
O’Connor’s loyalty is unsurprising given how deeply she came to live among these characters. She loved them more and more, these murals of Irish literature, and could not have written a novel about them otherwise, she insists.
Back when the world was semi-normal, O’Connor had been able to travel to Trieste, Zürich and Paris to walk in Nora’s footsteps and tune into a bygone wavelength. In a normal year, she would be taken up with promotional trips for Nora across the English-speaking world and probably beyond, given how popular this sumptuous novel is likely to prove. Instead, she has been at home like the rest of us, forced to live in containment.
After an initial bout of creative stupor (something almost every writer reported this time last year), O’Connor set to work on mapping out her current project about Anne Bonny, which took on a very personal resonance following the loss of her father to Covid last summer.
“It’s been a lovely distraction,” she smiles, “and a lot of it is about the father-daughter relationship. Most of my books are about mad mothers, but I find myself thinking about the fathers a lot as I write this, and maybe for the first time.”
Other factors have made this past year noteworthy. Her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she also made the decision to give up alcohol. Turning 50 brought with it much self-examination and a decision to try to be calmer and more positive.
“The idea was really to try and break the cycle of being too rigid about writing,” O’Connor says. “Even though it’s one of the best parts of my day, I felt like other things were getting neglected, like nurturing friendships or things that were totally outside of me. I do have workaholic tendencies, but change is hard. I’ve been able to take weekends off during the pandemic and do gardening, things I never did before, and it’s been brilliant.”
What do her family make of O’Connor’s latest work? Well, her husband, for starters, is a useful sounding board.
“I don’t give him stuff to read,” she laughs, “he just has to listen to me mouthing off about plot and have the decency to look delighted!
“He works in IT, a completely unrelated field, and he’s not even much of a reader, but he’s good at listening.”
As for their two sons (aged 27 and 18) and daughter (12), it is the youngest who is looking most likely to one day read her mother’s masterpieces.
“We talk about Jim and Nora as if they’re people we know,” O’Connor says. “She will read my books when she’s older, but obviously, because of the sex thing, she can’t read them yet. We have another 12-year-old friend who was asking if she could read one of my books, and her parents were like, ‘No!’”
‘Nora’ is published today (the 70th anniversary of Nora Barnacle’s death) by New Island, €16.95