Picks and Pans Review: Nora: the Real Life of Molly Bloom

UPDATED 07/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Brenda Maddox

Scholars have long portrayed James Joyce's marriage to Nora Barnacle as the mismatch of the century, the union of a sexually haunted genius with a bawdy chambermaid. But, as this excellent biography shows, Nora was in many ways her husband's collaborator—an unlikely muse, perhaps, but an inspiration nonetheless. Joyce borrowed her unpunctuated writing style and parts of her letters for his masterpiece, Ulysses; he incorporated events of her life into his fiction, and she was the model for his most famous character, Molly Bloom in Ulysses. Nora's own story reads like a grand, tragic novel. In 1904, Joyce picked her up on a Dublin street; four months later, at age 20, she fled Ireland with the hard-drinking writer, then 22. He had not said he loved her; he had declared he would never marry her. He kept that promise through two children and 27 years of cohabitation. (Only in 1931, to please his rich daughter-in-law, did Joyce agree to marriage.) From the first, Nora fed Joyce's sexual fantasies. Twice when they were apart, she even sent him obscene letters he could masturbate to. Plagued by eye problems, Joyce had about 10 operations but ended up nearly blind. He also had an ulcer, which finally killed him in 1941. Through Joyce's ordeals, Nora on occasion served as his secretary, corresponded with patron Harriet Weaver and kept up the family's morale. Maddox also credits her with keeping Joyce writing by curbing his drinking. She faced her life's soap opera vicissitudes with dignity, resourcefulness and humor. Despite having left school at 12, Nora was unintimidated by Joyce. "Why don't you write sensible books that people can understand?" she once asked him. And she told a friend, "I guess the man's a genius, but what a dirty mind he has, hasn't he?" Their children were disappointments: Giorgio was a failed opera singer and wastrel (though he married well-born Helen Fleischman); Lucia, a schizophrenic, was institutionalized most of her life. Maddox, a journalist and author, unearthed a few surprises. One is that Nelly Joyce, wife of James's brother, sold some of Joyce's papers—including his and Nora's erotic letters—for about $50,000. That was more than Nora received in royalties from Joyce's writings during her 10-year widowhood. Maddox's writing can be pedestrian: "Is Nora Molly?...Is Joyce Bloom?" But she tells Nora's story with compassionate understanding. Of the Joyces' first date, Maddox writes: "She...was a guileless and bold young woman who offered herself to a timid stranger in the dark. Far more lightly than her conscience-tormented lover, she slipped the social bonds placed to hold her back." (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95)

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