James and Nora: Declan Kiberd on Edna O’Brien’s portrait of Mr & Mrs Joyce

Book review: This lovely, lyrical book shows how androgynous marriages can be

Artists, from Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, frequently favour an adrogynous style. Edna O’Brien’s portrait of the relationship of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle develops in a similar mode, dispensing with question-marks and full-stops as Barnacle often did, while employing the learned words and complex phrases which gave pleasure to Joyce. She incorporates lines from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake into her luminous text, based on a strong instinct that such phrases were intrinsic to the couple’s exchanges: “first we feel, then we fall”.

While many marriages of modernists ended in acrimony or indifference, this one was different. These two were married at the deepest levels of imagination. Neither saw bourgeois marriage as a form of property-holding: “with this ring I thee own”. When Leopold Bloom, fictional hero of Ulysses and bearer of many Joycean traits, sighs about his wife’s infidelity, “Can’t stop woman, As easy stop the sea”, Molly hours later (and quite separately) forgives herself her fling with Blazes Boylan by comparing the waves of sexual attraction to the ebb and flow of the sea-tides.

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