16 June Bloomsday – BOOK REVIEW | Flimsy, Fanciful Fun: Edna O’Brien’s “Joyce & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage”

Edna O’Brien
James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage.
United Kingdom: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020.
£6.99

Reviewed by Sylvie Hill

Perhaps a pandemic project, or a favor traded in by the publisher, Edna O’Brien’s book, James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage, is a cute, short collection of important facts that does not tell us anything new about James Joyce’s life and marriage to Nora Barnacle. It is a 2020 reprint of a 1981 edition, and a masterful display of the O’Brien Joycean style … over substance. That’s not to say it is incomplete.

Indeed, this is the same criticism often applied to Joyce’s own masterpiece, Ulysses— linguistic acrobatics that entertain more than explain. In that, O’Brien’s book is in good company. Accusations against Joyce’s later works of art being mere vanity projects have undoubtedly unsettled fans as much as the current charge against James & Nora may, especially given this dusty critic-scribbler is miniscule compared to the seasoned giant writer, O’Brien. Edna O’Brien is an Irish writer of both fiction and nonfiction and has been called “the most gifted woman now writing in English” by Philip Roth.

Regardless, the present verdict is an uncomfortable one: James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage advertises O’Brien’s skills as a creative writer while not representing any vital contribution to Joyce studies.

The book’s publishers, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, boast “Ground-breaking, award-winning, thought-provoking books since 1949” with the aim of “building bridges and opening minds through exceptional works of literature” (“About”). Can O’Brien’s brief sixty-two-page book fit into that catalogue?

The wandering flow and literary prose in James & Nora are impressive and fanciful. It will entertain Joyce fans but not tick the box as a seminal work of insightful analysis driven by academic exploration, which it never pretends to be. The publisher reserves the book’s back cover to praise O’Brien but does not frame O’Brien’s mission nor provide a clue of the intent of this miniature biography.

To orient her reader, O’Brien seems to do away with an overview of Joyce’s marriage quickly and succinctly (as early as page four): “We know that he and the future Mrs. Joyce eloped from Ireland, lived permanently in rented rooms, were hounded by debt, and that Mrs. Joyce did not read much and did not care to cook.” And that is that. O’Brien is done with the plain language, impatient to return to Joycefully jostling the English vocabulary into expressions worthy of Ulysses.


James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage does not delve into the significant impacts of the exiled, immigrant experience thrust upon a couple in foreign lands beyond mentioning that it was difficult. Far from demanding the book be a self-help guide for expatriate couples living abroad, it will not extrapolate through ground-breaking study or with an applied theory what it could have meant for James Joyce to take up with a bumpkin and transplant her into the cosmopolitan milieu of an evolving world in turn-of-the-century Europe. Nor will O’Brien’s experiment explore further the gut feeling Joyce suffered about wanting to break up and quit family life.

The lofty language threads from cover to cover the basic facts from Joyce’s conflicting relationship to love as a lapsed Irish Catholic and writer, and his neglectful boyfriend ways abroad, to an end-of-life punctuated by his lifelong devotion and need for Nora Barnacle to be by his bedside the night he dies alone. Remembering that for Joyce, bland facts of life like farting, sex, and eating were always exalted with flavor and savor in his writing, this is not to say a factual recount is unimportant.

For the freshman Joyce student, this is a lightweight and an accurate introduction and representation of Joyce’s style as channeled through O’Brien’s immense talent and quirk. However, without premise, it does not promise at all to explain fierce attractions nor lifelong bonds between the Joycean odd couple. Sadly, it will not touch on the effects such a warped union had upon James and Nora’s two children’s mental health either. As a retelling of facts in exciting phrasing, does it have any other purpose but to please?

The title, A Portrait … of the marriage, is a nod to Joyce’s autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While ever clever and an honoring homage, it creates a misleading expectation for the reader.

An expertly painted portrait, for example, can render a one-dimensional world nearly three-dimensional in its artistry and craftsmanship, as if the subject were alive among us to touch and smell! Alternatively, a portrait can appear as a cheap copy and flat representation of obvious features. Like a polaroid that fades in time, transience is a fitting word here for how O’Brien’s book comes off like an intriguing conversation at a pub with a terrific character as Edna most certainly is.

For the seasoned Joycean reader, marriage and companionship are “hot topics” that Joyce treats magnificently in his own works; it is what he is known for. In the soul-stirring short story, “The Dead,” from Dubliners, Joyce conclusively paints the ultimate philosophy of marital passion and disconnecting upon the face of a character, Gretta Conroy, in a single moment as she stands on a stairwell hearing the distant music before gathering her coat after a party. In the heart-breaking, story “A Painful Case,” a touch of the hand becomes spiritual and literal suicide in a story of male-female friendship. These two short stories, among many others, evoke in Joyce’s readers such strong emotion that we carry these moments eternally because they are crafted so memorably. Failing to draw out these parallels in Joyce’s own marriage is a missed opportunity in a book about his tempestuous union.

Made famous in part for having contributed such poignant, hard-hitting, and spectacular truths about sex, love, and complicity by way of his literary canon and astonishing imagery in the everyday, Joyce deserves a definitive autopsy of his own coupledom.

A mercurial man in his icy articulations, sharp wit, and as impressive an intellect as he was a base collector of sexual kinks, James Joyce’s magnetism—and tendency to repel most with his penetrating look or honesty so biting and unforgettably hilarious for its unapologetic accuracy—paints him as a contradictory man full of piss and tenderness. Paired up with a chambermaid from Galway, the two explode a chemistry chiefly the territory of a muse and his subject, but how it translates into domestic relations is what begs discussion here!

“To have an inkling of anyone else’s ascension-descension into love is nearly impossible,” O’Brien writes (2-3). “Joyce’s is dazzling, daunting, metamorphosing and imponderable. Here there is no truck with pots and pans, no normality.”

O’Brien’s language is gorgeous, but the exaggeration of “imponderable” is a let- down. Those who know of the type touched a bit like Joyce with narcissism, genius, and an assured sense of self and vocabulary whilst prone to tremble in secret vulnerability can know Joyce’s attraction then for less intelligent but earthy women. Fans of Stephen Dedalus learned that among the Irish Catholics, young men were hounded by their oppressive mothers and sinister priests and suffered sinfully by the hand of guilty masturbation for which hell fire would get them if marital consummation, or a prostitute, did not release them first. The polarizing virgin/whore traits emerge in the image of women for James Joyce, with Nora the non-married wife exemplifying both. For those of us who identify with Stephen, Leopold Bloom, and Molly, our appetite is strong to learn more of the story of the man (and his life) who could read our hearts and souls.

O’Brien’s book is a hearty ode, and a tease. It falls apart—literally. The physical pages detach from the book with a simple bend of the skinny spine, foretelling perhaps the flimsy effort in the packaging. Compare this to O’Brien’s indispensable Penguin classic of 1999, James Joyce: A Life, with its list of rave reviews, including The New York Times quote in a bold Ulysses-blue banner framing the back cover that reads: “Joyce fans should thank their lucky stars.” Yes! It was a treasure for Joyce fans, and touted a “triumph.” Structured and twenty-two chapters strong, that book teaches the life of James Joyce in a compact yet comprehensive and essential read. Explanatory and exhilarating, the book works. But not here.

James & Nora: A Portrait of a Marriage is not the Golden Gate Bridge her publishers promise that expansively connects us to the other side where there lays a deeper understanding of Joyce’s relationship. Instead, it is a charming footbridge into Joyceville, sure. It expedites our knowledge journey easier than laboring upon the more elaborate Richard Ellmann Way. Indeed, as the inside cover cites, it’s a book “brimming with life and energy.” Yet, it can be disputed that this is a resurrection of an intense relationship and represents more of an elaborate and celebratory obituary.

—Montreal

Work Cited
“About.” W&N – Ground-Breaking, Award-Winning, Thought-Provoking Books since 1949, 17 May 2018, https://www.weidenfeldandnicolson.co.uk/imprint/orion/wandn/page/about-wn/.