A long-standing, gentle, ethnic joke states that a lawyer is a nice Jewish boy who can’t stand the sight of blood. In the same vein, it might be said that literary scholarship, traditionally, has been practiced by aggressive bruisers who can’t catch a football. Few people read scholarship except scholars, but as a pastime, it’s about as refined as ice hockey. More than that, it is still, to a remarkable extent, a white man’s game.
Imagine, then, the temerity of a woman, without even a Ph.D., daring to tread on sacred James Joyce territory! Imagine Brenda Maddox, going to visit Richard Ellmann, whose monumental biography of James Joyce had been widely praised for its thoroughness, meticulousness and accuracy. Maddox, an American journalist who had lived in London for 30 years, thought she might like to write a biography of Nora Joyce. What did Ellmann think about that? " . . . He was skeptical. There were few letters, he said, Joyce and Nora having so rarely been apart, and their friends were dead. There was not even material, he ventured, for a feminist treatise.”
Of course, from his point of view, he was right. Joyce had written “Ulysses,” the great novel of the century; Ellmann had written “James Joyce” the great biography of the great novelist, and in this “Great Man” view of things, Nora, the chamber maid who eloped with Joyce when she was only 20, venturing off to a life totally unknown and unimaginably alien to her, seemed of little importance. Indeed, in some works, Nora had literally been edited out: Maddox, in her scorching introduction, scores Arthur Power’s “Conversations With James Joyce.” In his original manuscript, Power wrote, “After going to the theater, they often call in on the way home at the cafe. . . .” Power changed this to read, “After Joyce goes to the theater, he. . . .”
Nora Joyce, linked to the great man, was consigned, over time, to relative invisibility; her jokes, for instance, in Ellmann’s biography, relegated to footnotes. The reasons for this were probably twofold: First, she didn’t play by intellectual rules. She never got past Page 27 of “Ulysses.” She teased Joyce, suggesting he write books other people could understand. She wasn’t in awe of Ernest Hemingway. She wasn’t in awe of any of the great writers in her life. Second, she seemed--on the surface, at least--to fit perfectly into a much-loved female stereotype, one that’s been around since Mary Magdalene. Pretty and dumb, and so much in love that you don’t have to talk to her.
It took a woman, one with as little respect for conventional “rules” as Nora herself, to shake that adventurous Irish girl, Nora Barnacle, loose from her stereotype, find new sources, talk to new people, and present us with this dazzling biography.
Nora, according to Maddox, was not the primitive, uneducated chambermaid from the lower classes that we’ve been led to believe. Her education was less than Joyce’s but perfectly standard for any Irish girl of the time. Her family was upwardly mobile, while Joyce’s family was headed in the opposite direction. (Nora’s widowed mother, ironically, left more money in her estate than Joyce himself would.) Nora worked as a chambermaid in that Dublin hotel because she’d run away from Galway after a thrashing by her uncle. Working as a maid was the only way an independent, tainted teen-age girl could support herself at the time.
Everyone who’s taken an English class knows the story of James Joyce: his amazing prose; his quarrel with the Catholic Church; his whirlwind courtship of Nora (“the illiterate” chamber maid); their elopement to Zurich (though they would not marry for another 27 years); their peripatetic existence on the Continent--Trieste, Zurich, Paris. Everyone has, filed hastily in their minds, mental photographs of the Joyce’s dining out with their two children, Lucia and Giorgio; most people remember that Joyce drank too much, and that Hemingway said their apartment in Paris was gloomy. . . .
No one has known, until now, the story of Nora. Maddox builds a narrative of a girl sent off to her grandma, because in “priest-ridden” Ireland, there were always too many children. A girl who was fondled by a priest, and then blamed for her sexuality in the confessional. A girl so intent to get out of Ireland that she had the idea to leave, and sold her timid, near-sighted boyfriend on the idea. A woman who made the first physical moves in their relationship but kept her virginity until they were safely out of Ireland. A woman all alone in a foreign country with an unemployed man who drank too much, but who was extravagant with her, and made her laugh. A woman so dead-game that she took in laundry only three weeks after the birth of her first baby. A woman who didn’t bother with punctuation in her letters. (Her lover made fun of her for it, but in his hands it turned into “stream of consciousness.”)
Nora, who, when she sensed Joyce might be slipping away, sent him a pornographic letter which unleashed in him a mountain of embarrassingly scatological correspondence--the “dirty letters” that Ellmann had scarcely mentioned in his book. Nora, who kept her family clothed and cheered up; who nursed her husband when his eyes hurt; who put up with it when her daughter went crazy and hit her with a chair; who must have suffered every possible snub known to man; who bravely lived through a long widowhood; whose last act was to pat her son on his cheek.
That Joyce could not have written what he did without Nora is obvious, but not belabored, here. The point is, it’s her story. And though Maddox never says a word against Joyce, she uses the reporter’s trick and lets him hang himself through his own action. As an author, Joyce was a great man, but as a companion, he left a little something to be desired. Nora’s bravery in running away with him was exceeded only by her bravery in staying.
To paraphrase Maddox on Nora, I began this book liking Maddox, and ended in awe of her. In awe for four very personal reasons:
--Having been snubbed myself in Richard Ellmann’s living room, I love her nerve for standing up to him, finding those “dirty” letters, using them.
--As an Irish Catholic, I love her for taking Ireland and using it as metaphor: “Whatever problems women have, Irish women have them worse.”
--I love her for apologizing for so many footnotes, and then nailing down her work with hundreds of them.
--I love her most for making Nora the subject, not the object here, forcing the reader to rethink dozens of questions about modern literature, and modern life.
FREUD A Life for Our Times by Peter Gay (W.W. Norton) REBECCA WEST This Is What Matters by Victoria Glendinning (Alfred A. Knopf) RODIN A Biography by Frederic V. Grunfeld (Henry Holt) NORA The Real Life of Molly Bloom by Brenda Maddox (Houghton Mifflin) TIMEBENDS A Life by Arthur Miller (Grove Press)