Of the makers of modern literature, none has mounted his niche in the pantheon of classics with more secure pre-eminence than James Joyce. A respected critic at 18 and a polished lyric poet at 20, he remade the short story at 30 with "Dubliners," the novel at 40 with "Ulysses," and the English language at 50 with "Finnegans Wake." The view is one that I retain, having expressed it in a review of the Joyce letters written 20 years ago. It seemed we knew everything then. Wading through the 2,500 pages of those letters at the time, letters largely edited by Joyce's great biographer, the late Richard Ellmann, I sensed a self-protective reserve, the artist as paranoiac (mustn't the great ones always be, to preserve the sanity of privacy?) and financial tyrant demanding always more from his endlessly patient brother, Stanislaus, his female Maecenas, Harriet Weaver, his effervescent American-Parisian publisher, Sylvia Beach. In the interim, the profile has been reconfirmed, but a seemingly endless flood of details has leaked through Ellmann's hagiographic depiction as documents and interviews have been gathered from the aging, dying sharers of Joyce's life into the archives at Buffalo, Yale, Texas and the British Museum (and elsewhere; I once bought a freshman Harvard essay by Joyce's grandson, Stephen, on the last days of "nonno," his grandfather. Like so much of the Joycean detritus from the last years, it was not worth preserving. Let the great lie in their graves and rest on the words they have woven into laurels).
But this book is another thing. Brenda Maddox is no distinguished reader of Joyce's work, and frequently offers some heavy-handed psychologizing (as in the incest speculations on pages 301-303). An introduction blurb explains, "As a journalist she has written extensively on women and marriage, and also, when Home Affairs editor of The Economist, on Ireland." These are very moderate credentials for a study centering upon James Joyce. Ellmann apparently agreed, for a time discouraging Maddox from the projection of a portrait of Joyce's wife. But the portrait survives all its minor shortcomings to finally allow us, with the author, to do justice to Nora Barnacle.
Nora was a young woman Joyce met in Dublin at Finn's Hotel, where she was variously employed. They eloped to the Continent--child rebels without the amenities of marriage--in 1904. Aside from a couple of crossings back into her native Galway to see her aging mother, a few scattered months in London and on the English coast, Nora never returned from Trieste, Paris, Zurich--forests of strange mores and tongues through which Joyce would trace out her future. It was a dangerous familial quartet: James Joyce and the feckless son, Giorgio, both alcoholics; the daughter Lucia a dangerous schizophrenic, institutionalized from her mid-20s, still contemplating marriages from a sanatorium in her 70s, fantasizing that her parents might still be alive. Then there was the American heiress daughter-in-law gone off and over the bend, too, while Nora was still alive. And then, there were all those people in Parisian bistros as Joyce became an increasingly great and impossible man--Hemingway, the McAlmons, Beckett and the rest who became familiar figures in the Joyces' European carpet. But in this book based on Nora they appear differently, as do so many familiar people and old assumptions.
"Whatever problems women have, Irish women have them worse." This is Maddox's luridly exaggerative premise, at one point. But from such a crazy assumption, she has managed to resift the social life of those two decades between the Roaring '20s and Hitler's coming as the history of a middle-class Irish woman (we are reminded that Nora's uncle died with a larger estate than James Joyce had access to in his lifetime) who learned languages and mastered loneliness, and contributed more to Joyce's work than Galway rhythms, being his "portable Ireland," and vehicle for special insight into the female psyche. Maddox reiterates the critically familiar fantasies about Nora as model and persona for Molly Bloom (one recalls the unfortunately misleading subtitle of "Nora") and Anna Livia. Both "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" are much too layered and structured for these identifications to be of more than casual conversational value.
But what Maddox has given with great success in her gathering of the fragments of the Joyces' own fragment of mid-wars European and literary history is a love story. It is not a happy history at either the public or familial level, but it lays to rest permanently, I think, the notion that they were ill-matched, ill-suited. We have to give over the image of Nora Barnacle as an ignorant wife unable to cook or to appreciate Joyce the author. She did both--and was one of the few who recognized "Finnegans Wake" as perhaps superior to "Ulysses." Driven by his extravagance (which she shared) and his drink (which she didn't), Nora could cry out, "I wish I had never met anyone named James Joyce." But she could also sum up their lifetime together when asked for her recollections of Gide: "Sure, when you've been married to the greatest writer in the world, you don't remember all the little fellows."