Film Forum: James Joyce in Love
By Joseph McBride, Contributor
October / November 2001
For many years, the conventional wisdom about Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s longtime companion and eventually his wife, was that she was an ignorant but “country cute” peasant from Galway with an unaccountable hold on the great writer, whose work she disdained. How could Joyce have lived all those years with a woman who refused to read Ulysses? Her very name was an excuse for ridicule: Joyce’s father said on first hearing it, “Barnacle? She’ll never leave him.” Even Richard Ellmann’s monumental biography James Joyce (1959, revised 1982) tends to treat Nora somewhat condescendingly.
Although calling the early relationship between Joyce and Nora “as complex as any young novelist could have wished,” Ellmann writes, “That he was extraordinary in his wit or brilliance does not seem to have occurred to her until much later.” Joyce’s biographer describes Nora as “the young woman from Galway, handsome, daring, and untutored…joined to one of the most rarefied minds of the century.”
Brenda Maddox’s 1988 Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce – a book as lively, shrewd, and unconventional as its subject – changed that limiting view of Joyce’s partner and muse. Nora finally received the credit she was due for her vital role in stimulating Joyce’s creativity, not only as the model for Molly Bloom in Ulysses and Gretta Conroy in “The Dead,” but also as the powerful force connecting Joyce with everyday humanity and the spirit of his native Ireland. Maddox describes a Nora far wittier, more adventurous, and more courageous than her “common” facade suggested.
Maddox’s groundbreaking book highlights the vital role of the great man’s wife, a subject neglected until recently by most biographers.
Feminist historians have led the way in studying the previously shadowy lives of women as well as in demonstrating the importance of examining more fully a writer’s social context, including his or her home life. The romantic figure of the solitary, misunderstood genius has given way to a more balanced view of artistic creation and the sources from which it springs.
The Irish biographical film Nora, based on Maddox’s biography, premiered last year in Dublin and began playing U.S. theaters this spring. Pat Murphy directed from a script she wrote with Gerard Stembridge that wisely covers only eight years of the Joyces’ lives.
Beginning with Nora (Susan Lynch) leaving Galway in 1904 after being beaten by her Uncle Tommy (Vincent McCabe), the film shows her working as a chambermaid at a Dublin hotel and meeting Joyce (Ewan McGregor) on Nassau Street.
Nora depicts their departure from Ireland later that year, fleeing the forces of sexual, religious, and cultural repression. Joyce battles his own demons and Ireland’s disdain for his work as he struggles to become a published author in the Austrian-Italian city of Trieste. His passion for Nora was crucial in resolving those issues, for as he wrote her, “I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine and noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.”
Herself a cultural pioneer as an Irish woman writer-director, Murphy has made two previous features, Maeve (co-directed by John Davies, 1982) and Anne Devlin (1984). As Harvey O’Brien notes, Anne Devlin is “an especially unconventional film, a historical biography focusing on the problems of history for women by dealing with a relatively neglected figure whose role was avowedly secondary in the failed rebellion of 1803, where she served as a housekeeper for the conspirators and was eventually tortured and imprisoned by English interrogators.” It took Murphy almost a decade to find the production financing for Nora, which came largely through the involvement of Ewan McGregor, one of the co-producers.
To the embittered and alienated Joyce, Nora Barnacle represented the true and allbut-vanished spirit of Ireland – wild, passionate, earthy, and bluntly frank – as does Gretta to her husband, Gabriel, in “The Dead.” “My beautiful wild flower of the hedges!” Joyce called Nora. “My dark-blue, rain-drenched flower.” Northern Irish actress Susan Lynch, previously seen in The Secret of Roan Inish and Waking Ned Devine, gives a spirited performance as Nora. Lynch embodies Nora’s vivaciousness, her rebelliousness, her need to escape a native land she sees as hopelessly oppressive. Lynch’s fiery eyes and strikingly sensual nose and lips make Nora’s carnality palpable.
Murphy offers some fairly explicit depictions of the couple’s unconventional sex life, including a sequence of them masturbating separately to their famously erotic correspondence. There also are suggestions of what Maddox, borrowing a phrase from H. G. Wells, describes as James Joyce’s “cloacal obsession.” That Nora went along with Joyce’s kinky desires, joining him in ignoring Irish Catholic moral strictures about sexuality, was vital to his eventual happiness. His tormented inability to resolve his Irish madonna-whore complex until he is able to accept Nora’s dual nature is the conflict at the heart of this film.
Unfortunately, filmmaker Murphy is not as well served by Ewan McGregor as by Lynch. The charismatic Scottish actor, best known to world movie audiences as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the dismal Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), is unconvincing as Joyce. Too bluff and stocky, McGregor lacks the writer’s wan, unworldly demeanor, although he seems more Joycean after he begins sporting a beard and mustache.
McGregor captures Joyce’s obsessive jealousy and pigheadedness, but conveys little sense of his creativity. A rather glum piece of work, Nora also misses Joyce’s Rabelaisian humor.
It could be argued that Joyce should be a secondary character in Nora because this is his wife’s story, but their lives in European exile were inextricably close, and concentrating on Nora should not require making Joyce less complex than he actually was. One of Maddox’s achievements is to make the reader understand what the Joyces saw in each other, and how a woman without much sympathy for a writer’s creative imperatives could still devote her life to such a man. Maddox makes us realize what Nora gave to him, completing his personality and preparing him for worldly success even as she regarded him with patient jollity as “simple-minded Jim.”
It was June 10, 1904, when Joyce and Nora met, and their first date came six days later, on the day Joyce later immortalized as “Bloomsday.” As Ellmann writes, “To set Ulysses on this date was Joyce’s most eloquent if indirect tribute to Nora, a recognition of the determining effect upon his life of his attachment to her. On June 16, as he would afterwards realize, he entered into relation with the world around him.”
One way she began that process on their passionate first date was boldly masturbating him to climax in the street, an act that, he tells her in the film, “was sacred for me” (in an actual letter Joyce wrote to Nora about their sexual “compromise,” the more blasphemous word he used for it was “sacrament”). Joyce also told her, “You made me a man.”
His urgent request that Nora reveal her most secret erotic thoughts in letters to him was part of the process by which Joyce learned to accept his, and her, sexuality. Maddox points out that it also gave him “the opportunity to rehearse the techniques he was going to use in his future writing.” Nora shows that Nora’s willingness to participate in this bold sexual adventure, despite some misgivings, helped free Joyce forever from the prudishness that prevented him from publishing in his native country. Indeed, some of the Irish reaction to Nora is a further manifestation of that prudishness – a prominent Joyce scholar as well as Joyce family members have objected to the film’s profanity.
And it wasn’t until earlier this year that the 1967 film version of Ulysses finally was allowed to be screened in Ireland!
As successful as Nora is in dramatizing some areas of the Joyces’ relationship, it neglects other dimensions of their life together.
There is not much comprehension of their straitened finances. Joyce’s admiring but resentful brother Stanislaus (Peter McDonald) is shown funding them, but the Joyces’ own struggle to earn money is scanted. There are only brief mentions of Joyce’s job teaching English at Berlitz, and Nora is not shown taking in laundry, as she did in Trieste. Like Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of Paris in the 1920s, A Moveable Feast, Nora offers a misleading, overly romanticized account of a writer’s early career.
With its sumptuous visual style, its lavish costumes by Consolata Boyle and lustrous cinematography by Jean-François Robin, Nora succumbs to the temptation of Merchant Ivoryism. The supposedly impoverished Nora wears fancy hats and dresses and indulges in jewelry. Joyce’s dandyism in Europe is that of a well-tailored boulevardier rather than of a writer who always seemed frayed around the edges.
Nora is even given the line, “They say that living well is the best revenge,” borrowed from the seventeenth-century British poet George Herbert, an unlikely source for Nora’s repartee. That bon mot is now associated with Gerald and Sara Murphy, the American expatriates who befriended Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other artists in Paris during the twenties, well after this film takes place (by then the Joyces themselves were being subsidized by wealthy patrons).
Nora also gives small sense of Joyce’s tireless dedication to his work. At home in Trieste he’s mostly seen interacting with Nora; away from home he sits in cafes drinking, talking, or singing. The hard labor of creativity is always difficult to dramatize, and this film barely attempts to do so. Nor do we hear more than a passing mention of his hatred of Catholicism, part of the fuel that drove his creativity as well as an obsession he connected with his love for Nora: “When I was waiting for you last night,” he wrote her in 1904, “I was even more restless. It seemed to me that I was fighting a battle with every religious and social force in Ireland for you and that I had nothing to rely on but myself. There is no life here – no naturalness or honesty.” In another letter, Joyce wrote, “How I hate God and death! How I like Nora! Of course you are shocked at these words, pious creature that you are.”
What we learn of Joyce’s work from Nora is mostly of Nora’s influence upon it. She is shown rescuing Stephen Hero (the first version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) after Joyce tries to burn the manuscript. But she later admits, “He’s a stranger to me…I don’t understand half of what he says to me sometimes.” Joyce complains about her lack of interest in his work, but she does admit having read “The Dead.” When he asks, “Do you think it was good?” she responds with an enigmatic smile.
Nora interweaves the recurring image of Nora looking out her window in Galway at a rejected young suitor. The haunting image comes, of course, from “The Dead,” where it is Gretta’s memory of Michael Furey, who she thinks “died for me.” The film’s Joyce plays his guitar in a pub as Nora sings “The Lass of Aughrim,” the Irish song that triggers Gretta’s memory of Michael in “The Dead.” This delicate frisson ends with Nora breaking down. Later she tells Joyce about her dead suitor in words very similar to those in the story.
“So he died for love of you,” says Joyce.
With this passage, Murphy artfully suggests how Joyce borrowed Nora’s experiences and words for his art.
Nora, following Ellmann, identifies the rejected suitor as Michael Bodkin, who is played in the film by Andrew Scott. But Maddox suggests that Joyce combined Bodkin’s early death with that of another suitor of Nora’s, Michael Feeney, in creating the character of Michael Furey.
Viewers who have seen John Huston’s 1987 film The Dead also will find many visual and aural echoes of that cinematic masterwork in Nora.
Like many of the Joyces’ friends, another unsuccessful suitor, Vincent Cosgrave (played in the film by Daragh Kelly), is snobbish toward the seemingly uncultured Nora. But the Iago-like Cosgrave deliberately fostered Joyce’s jealousy with his romantic attention to her. Once Joyce’s closest friend, Cosgrave served as the model for the untrustworthy Lynch in Portrait and Ulysses. Murphy shows how the pathological nature of Joyce’s jealousy threatened to destroy his still fragile relationship with Nora.
“People in Dublin are laughing at her for bein’ a girl that many men enjoyed,” Joyce says in the film. “…She was so easy the first time – I should have known.” He leaves Nora in Trieste and returns to Dublin to seek the truth, hoping to purge his jealousy one way or another. Murphy shows how self-destructive Joyce could be when his conflicts over Nora and sexuality held him in their sway.
“Joyce was ripe for rescuing” when he met Nora and “did not know where his instincts, unrestrained, might lead him,” observes Maddox. “He did know they imperiled his art. In Nora he sensed his rescuer – a woman who would save him, satisfy him, and forgive him. `You were to my young manhood,’ he later told her, `what the idea of the Blessed Virgin was to my boyhood.'”
At Joyce’s urging, their correspondence became graphically erotic, though he insisted she lead the way in discussing certain topics.
“Nora’s initiative in writing what Joyce dared not be the first to do showed great courage, erotic imagination, and loyalty for which she has been deprived of recognition by everyone except Joyce,” writes Maddox. “When he wrote `your letter is worse than mine,’ it was praise indeed.”
Enrapt in pleasure during their long-distance mutual masturbation sequence, Nora ignores her small daughter, Lucia, whose later descent into schizophrenia is suggested by the constant inattention she is shown by both her parents. Maddox accuses James Joyce of “malignant self-absorption – it ruined Nora’s life and forced his children to subordinate their lives to his.”
The mutual decision Joyce and Nora made to remain self-exiles from Ireland and its myriad hypocrisies was a painful necessity for both of them. For Joyce, it was also his making as an artist. As Anthony Burgess notes in his book on Joyce, “Exile was the artist’s stepping back to see more clearly and so draw more accurately; it was the only means of objectifying an obsessive subject-matter.”
The ending of Nora shows the couple reunited at the edge of the sea, walking off into a golden sunset. In counterpoint to this vision of future glory, the soundtrack reminds us of the melancholy tug of the past by reprising “The Lass of Aughrim.” ♦