Joyce was constantly jealous that Nora would go back to Galway — he could imagine her ‘sauntering into Mass and giving some other boy one of her long glances’. O’Brien’s depiction of what it was like for Nora to live with Joyce while he was writing his two great novels is darkly hilarious. Ulysses took him seven years: 20,000 hours of work, ‘causing havoc to body and brain, nerves, perspiration, and unreasonable agitation at the slightest sound’.
O’Brien does James and Nora justice, and quoting lines from the end of Finnegans Wake asserts that “No man composed and decanted words that so utterly depict the true and desperate heart of a true and desperate woman.”Her essay is a tribute and an understanding one – to Nora as well as James.
All of O’Brien’s writings, like Joyce’s, have said goodbye to all that, ushering in a kinder, wilder, more loving world. For all her candour about sex, O’Brien writes with a moving discretion about how the love of humans is the nearest we can approach to the heights and despairs of the mystic’s religious ecstasy.
It’s strange to have dredged this book up from four decades deep, then spared it the editor’s knife. But you can forgive the idiosyncrasies: James and Nora is a work of love. Besides, O’Brien has never cared about “good taste”, or what other people tell her it is. She has taken shots at Catholic Ireland for much of her career, and in her most recent novel, Girl, she wrote from the perspective of a Nigerian abductee. This little book is sometimes brilliant, often peculiar, and not, for a second, dull. It may verge on kitsch, but why shouldn’t it? Joyce’s novels are kitsch, and proud.