Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom
by Brenda Maddox
Houghton Mifflin, 476 pp., $24.95
Writing the biography of Nora Barnacle Joyce was from the beginning a formidable undertaking, rendered more so by the abundance of expanding material on James Joyce’s life and works. It should be said at once that Brenda Maddox has carried off the hazardous enterprise with remarkable success. Not that she has written, technically speaking, a good book. It is flatly written and padded with material that relates much more directly to Joyce than to Nora; it is often full of trivial details and it has longueurs; for extended stretches it treats simply as boring distractions Joyce’s writings, which are the main reason for a modern interest in this mixed-up couple of scruffy Celts in the first place. Yet in the end it emerges as a humanly fascinating and impressive portrait, alive and open in a lot of ways that the subjects of purely literary biographies usually are not.
This is all the more striking in that Joyce’s own life, after moments of audacity and moral heroism in the first two decades of the century, trails off across the next twenty years into a chronicle of cadging, invalidism, quixotic and irrelevant campaigns, and an immense but intensely private work of literary creation. To define the relation of a largely uneducated Galway girl to an enormously intricate yet muscle-bound mind like Joyce’s is the core of this enterprise; at its best, Ms. Maddox’s book casts a lot of fresh light on the character of Joyce’s achievement and on the energies that went into it. They were not all of them his own energies by any means, though the supplier of them was often puzzled by the directions they took.
Nora Barnacle was born in Galway on the west coast of Ireland. She was the child of an alcoholic baker who ultimately became little more than a convivial vagrant. In a convent school Nora got enough education to keep her from being classified as an illiterate, but not much more. Handsome, red-haired, and arrogant (her careless, “sauntering” walk was one of the things that first caught Joyce’s otherwise myopic eye), she attracted and reciprocated the interest of the local boys, until her uncle Tom Healy caught her out one night against orders and beat her with a blackthorn stick. Within a week she left Galway for Dublin, where she took a job at Finn’s Hotel in Leinster Street. Around the hotel she did a little of everything, serving as chambermaid, waitress, and barmaid (it was a small and not very distinguished establishment). She was just twenty years old when Joyce picked her up on Nassau Street and asked her for a date. Though she didn’t show up the first time on June 14, 1904, she apparently walked out with him on June 16, and in a dark alley of the Ringsend district promptly unbuttoned his trousers and expertly “made a man of him.”
This ambiguous phrase doesn’t necessarily imply consummated intercourse. Nora was …