Most of us carry about a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. Some carry a portfolio of pictures about, anxious to show all they meet all about themselves – their family, schools, jobs, homes, accomplishments, disappointments, hobbies, books read, movies liked, places visited, lived, abandoned. Friends. Others don’t like having their picture taken, the only photo about them on their driver’s license, and that they don’t like either. Acquaintances may be more interested in your market value than in your face value.
Taken at face value, that is, legal value, net worth at birth, which may or may not bear any resemblance to one’s market value at the end of a life of living, of struggle, of getting by, of adapting to, or avoiding where possible, the more absurd cultural mores, steering as clear of the wildly ridiculous ones met on the street as one possibly can, Nora Barnacle’s life story is nominal, average, without great distinction. Most of us share a similar story. But, as the lifelong partner of the famous writer James Joyce, Nora’s life story far exceeds its salvage value – it’s a life worth a ticket-scalping.
But how should Nora’s story be told? Nora never read her husband James’s books, though he often read aloud to her from them, and she put no stock in literary values other than as a means to put food on the table, and which, as a means to make a living, for most of their lives proved woefully inadequate. They were never, until later in life and only then to satisfy the legal issues of the passing on of debts and assets and to protect their children, married, though they remained devoted to one another, having two children they were almost never separated from, living literally on top of one another in a seemingly endless succession of rented rooms, flats, shared spaces, hotel stays, sustained by gifts from sacrificing siblings and wealthy benefactors, until at long last Joyce’s reputation and writings began to produce earned royalties, distinction, and then the trappings of fame.
Joyce was always, and in all ways, a difficult man to live with. He was impractical, stubborn, inattentive, wasteful, and drank to excess. They fight and argue, Nora threatens to take the kids and leave, but of course she’s nowhere to go, but more importantly nowhere she wants to go – she wants her life with Jim to settle in with the peace and love of its original promise, which was to take her away from a life and family and place of destitution, beggary, and abuse. At the same time, they love and celebrate – their family, birthdays and holidays, their marginal achievements and successes, their apartments, the air and freedom of life away from dreary and unfair Ireland. They celebrate food and drink, family and friends, music and poetry, dance and lovemaking. Meantime, they’ve the bad luck of having to live through two World Wars and the Great Depression.
But how is the life just described, at face value, any different than most? Why do we want to know Nora’s story, particularly when, as we probably already know, she’s destroyed Jim’s letters to her and requested him to destroy her letters to him to keep private their private lives? They both remain victims, or feel victimized, to attempts to shame to control – attempts by the state, the church, society, friends and acquaintances, critics. Their attempt to live an existential life, defined by free choice, true to one another and to Jim’s belief in himself and his ability to make a difference with his writing (a difference to art, literature, and to all of the above), is a messy affair.
Readers familiar with the James Joyce story, whether fan or foe of his writing, may feel differently about the Nora Joyce story. In Nuala O’Connor’s “Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce,” we experience the James Joyce story through the eyes and ears – the sentiments and temperament – of Nora, who tells the story in her own voice. And we get the Nora Joyce story. Nuala’s book is neither straight biography nor straight fiction. Readers may choose to focus on one or the other, but the blend is a perfect mix, and you can’t have the one without the other. The Nora here is Nuala’s Nora, not Joyce’s Nora nor even Nora’s own selfie. But you come to see that you can’t have James Joyce without Nora Joyce, nor can we have Nora without James. What a glorious and perfect union.
Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial.
The biographer Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett’s first official biographer, has passed away, the Times reports: ‘His first words to her, she wrote in “Parisian Lives,” were, “So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am.”’
Beckett may have hoped so. He certainly gave her that start, for he just gave away two key insights to his work. The etymology of charlatan includes “to prattle,” and “I talk nonsense.” And Charlie Chaplin’s work was fully enjoyed by Beckett. Chaplin was popular in France, and was colloquially called “Charlot.” Many (if not all) of Beckett’s characters seem inspired by the clown, the tramp, the outsider, the vaudevillian villain, whose humor reveals deep suffering truths of the human condition. We could die laughing.
“You might say I had a happy childhood,” Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett begins. But the 1978 Times review frowns on the biographer’s focus on what appeared to be Beckett’s lifelong condition of anhedonia. For Bair, Beckett seemed the kind of person who had fun once, but didn’t enjoy it. Of course, Beckett himself fueled this kind of confusion, what he called tragicomedy.
Hermione Lee’s recent Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life occasioned a number of reviews in the usual places. Most touched on the questions of how did Penelope do it (the uncanny way she cleans up the mess by throwing out the novelistic clutter extraneous to her enriched needs, leaving almost every sentient sentence embering in its own mystery), and when did Penelope do it (she did not write and publish her first novel until around age 60). Writing and publishing a novel are two different activities. Writing one at any age seems unremarkable; publishing one, at any age, may be. Readers often gawk and might wonder if Penelope was a so-called “late bloomer.” But the flower seduced into blooming too early may come to regret a late frost. In any case, there is little evidence that Penelope was a late bloomer. Her writing seems set in her past. The novels are reflections, reconsiderations of experience, of a life rooted in the mutation and gestation of failure. Failure, like slapstick, can be funny in a way success can never be, but only a writer bloomed wise (rather than, say, embittered) from omission will get this. Slapstick, too, is found where the waves of success (swells that break in a timely manner) dissipate on the strand of a listless audience.
The narrator of a Penelope novel, always in third person, tells only what she wants to when she’s good and ready, often slipping very close to first person in what James Wood calls “free indirect style,” but might pull back and mention a year, not all that useful a piece of information, actually, considering 1960 aboard a barge on the Thames hardly suggests an environment the same as 1960 up from the Strand at El Porto, except that later it might help explain a question of whether or not television was invented yet or were the characters too poor or too bohemian to own one, and one begins to see the ship of one’s own home going down in a domestic storm just as easily on 44th in El Porto as on the Thames in London. Domestic themes are at once both universal and local; what matters is both what is said and how it is said. One doesn’t navigate one’s way through domestic turmoil following some staid rubric or outline; one lives through the hullabaloo and just maybe survives alone to tell the tale. And you must tell it as it happened, full of confusion and doubt about what might come next, wind always full in the sails, or might have happened, if someone, anyone, had their hand, even once in a while, on the tiller.
Of the reviews of Lee’s Life I reviewed, I’ll only mention a few: Caleb Crain in Harpers, “Her Struggle: The reticence of Penelope Fitzgerald” (which I saw note of on his blog but had to renew my lapsed subscription to Harpers to see, only to be thwarted by a six week delay before my first issue arrived, which by then was the next month’s; no matter, by then, impatient, I was able to read Caleb’s review on-line, having gained re-admittance via subscription to go behind the Harper’s pay wall – you need a hand stamp); James Wood in The New Yorker, “Late Bloom”; Alexander Chee in Slate, “The Lady Vanished”; and Levi Stahl, on I’ve Been Reading Lately, “Penelope Fitzgerald’s notebooks.” I mention Caleb’s review because he waited until 46 to write and publish his first novel (following a novella published in n+1 and a number of non-fiction works, including articles, book, and blog); is Caleb a late bloomer? Of course not, but it’s interesting that the setting of Caleb’s Necessary Errors, like most of Penelope’s, occurs decades ahead of its writing and publication. Doesn’t wine aged twenty years taste different from the day it was bottled? Some writers are everblooming. Alexander Chee mentions not just the idea of the late bloomer but recounts the actual critical reaction to Penelope’s success that at the time combined skepticism with derision, as if to have arrived late and wearing a housedress provided adequate support for the claim unprolific oldster can’t write or she would have by now. And Levi Stahl’s review is interesting because it references an earlier review he wrote of Penelope’s The Afterlife, a collection of her non-fiction articles, and on the strength of his review, I picked up a copy and quickly saw that this whole late blooming explanation of anything is a dodge. The clue to understanding Penelope might have something to do with knowledge of patience, as this comment, from Bridget Read’s Paris Review “How She Knows,” explains:
“It is vital to emphasize that Fitzgerald’s novels were not achieved in spite of her domestic life; they were borne directly out of it. Her work is radical in that it suggests that, in fact, a feminine experience, a liminal experience, might be better equipped than a male one to address the contradictions of human existence taken up by the greatest literature.”
Levi Stahl’s review was of Penelope’s notebooks, and he quotes Penelope saying:
“I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.”
It’s possible that Penelope’s testimony, expressed in her novels, belies even her most perceptive reviewers: did she not feel herself, during all those years of veritable single motherhood and low rung jobs thanks in large part to the miscreant missing husband – did she never feel neither beat nor no direction home?
I am reminded here of Daisy from Penelope’s The Gate of Angels. Maybe Daisy wasn’t born defeated, but loss came nevertheless, which perhaps makes things even worse, for if one is not born defeated, one may not have the skills necessary for sane survival (wit and sense of humor, irony, empathy, honesty, ability to pack quickly and travel light) yet Daisy, in so many ways, never seems either defeated or lost. Even when she is actually lost, as in without a map, she manages to find a way out of that lostness. And of course the lone woman going astray into the for-males-only cloistered arena of Fred’s college is hilarious with irony. Daisy, for her obvious suffering, is existentially happy, the most telling characteristic of her personality, upon her like a birthmark, that she finds it easier to give than to take, to provide for than to ask from.
This sense of being born lost, though, surely is gender neutral, but to find oneself lost with children in tow is a condition most often reserved for women. Reading Penelope, I am reminded of both Stevie Smith and Clarice Lispector, Stevie for humor, Clarice for a style of omission, and both for a hold on the occult. While I was reading The Bookshop, which employs a poltergeist, coincidentally Susan informed me a squirrel had taken up residence in an eve recently slightly opened by ice damage to a fascia board of our old house. I argued, since we had not actually seen the squirrel, that it could be a poltergeist. But Susan said, no, because the squirrel only made noise in the early morning, just before dawn, whereas a poltergeist prefers the hour just after you’ve fallen asleep.
What else characterizes the style of Penelope’s short novels? The narrator often comments on the behavior of characters as if there are three parties at play at once: the character, the narrator, and the author. While to some readers, this may seem like a loose grip on point of view, it’s actually a way of condensing and rotating observation, like with a kaleidoscope. The action is close in, the distant details of world news obviously irrelevant. The focus is on detail – if things seem vague, it’s not for lack of detail, description, or dialog that reveals character. Character as Chaplinesque cog, subject to naturalistic randomness. Free indirect style, with the narrator making evaluative, reflective, and analytical comments, as if claims made may indeed be challenged, though of course there will be no reply. Still, almost everything continually on the go, or on the move, coming, as it were, as surprise. But isn’t that the nature of the domestic, which cannot be domesticated?
So, I’ve read so far, of Penelope novels, in this order, as they came up in library queue: Offshore, my favorite I suppose for its setting of water and boats and mix of characters major and minor as well as the unexpected turns; At Freddie’s, again, a mix of young and old characters, age sometimes having little to do with maturity, and Freddie’s is how all schools should work; The Bookshop, atmosphere so strong you can smell the water and the books and hear the poltergeist and the cash machine; The Golden Child, bit of a mystery this one, though they all contain something of that genre; The Gate of Angels, again, while the plot is dated in a specific time zone, it hardly seems relevant in the sense the characters and their predicaments could be playing out even as we read. And I’m opened now to Human Voices. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I started Innocence, but did not finish it. I had read about a third of it when I nonetheless had to admit that I couldn’t get my ear around it. I think something of the “historical novel” angle and too much of the fairy tale got in my way. Maybe I’ll go back to it some day. It’s often I pick up an old favorite book and wonder, how did I ever find this enjoyable? Likewise, I might pick up a book I long ago was unable to get into, and wonder, how could I not have appreciated this? Maybe I’ll have to wait until I turn 60, a late blooming reader. Meantime, I’ve also put Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald in the queue.