A portrait of the artist's woman

Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom, by Brenda Maddox. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 472 pp. $24.95. In ``Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom,'' Brenda Maddox gives us the woman behind the man James Joyce, the woman who, the great novelist said, ``made him a man.'' The reader of this sharply composed biography will learn to distrust such statements by Joyce and is reassured to learn that Nora told her sister that she had not made him man enough.

A journalist by training, Maddox calls her life ``the real life'' as opposed to the fictional life of her subject as presented in Joyce's novels. Joyce used Nora, his comrade in exile, the mother of his children, and later his wife, as a model for many of his most important characters (she was the original of Molly Bloom in ``Ulysses''). Yet for many readers, Nora's real life will have an interest beyond fiction.

This is in part due to the intrinsic interest of the materials, in part because until now Nora has been given short shrift. Joyce himself has attracted an enormous amount of ink; his works are elusive, not to say illusive, and yet seem to repay the kind of study usually reserved for Homer or Dante. But in all the studies of Joyce, Nora has been underestimated. It is only one of the burdens of this book that Nora was far more influential on Joyce than were Homer and Dante.

Maddox's argument is elegantly simple and of great explanatory power. It all unwinds from the initial scene in Dublin 1904, a scene Joyce would memorialize in fiction. Twenty-two years of age and about to break with Ireland in order to better serve it in the eternal dimension of literature, Joyce discovers a ``statuesque and sexy redhead'' named Nora Barnacle. She's a chambermaid in Dublin. She comes from Galway. Experienced beyond her years, she startles Joyce on their first date by anticipating his desires. Her worldliness would later come back to haunt the rather otherworldly poet; still, he is in love.

Maddox explains his side of it by saying that Joyce, headed for a life in exile, wanted to take Ireland with him. Nora became his ``portable Ireland.'' As it turned out, Nora proved far more than that. As Joyce was the first to recognize, Nora not only ``made him a man,'' but made him a great writer by giving weight and ballast to his tendency toward romantic, intellectual flight.

Maddox shows what some Joyce scholars have intuited. Much of the credit for Joyce's literary innovations must go, in a roundabout way, to Nora - or rather to Joyce's wisdom in choosing her and rededicating himself to her with each book. The stream-of-consciousness style in which ``Ulysses'' seems to be written could well have taken its hint from the passionate, eloquent abruptness of Nora's epistolary and conversational style.

Joyce's famous commitment to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary goes back to Nora's ordinariness. He shaped a sequence of feminine voices on Nora's. Maddox gives him credit: ``In using a female voice to utter the universal truth ... Joyce was making women's speech the universal tongue.'' Joyce's capacity for joy, his apparent secularization of the notion of epiphany, is a response to Nora's gusto and her skepticism of his muse.

Maddox finds many qualities in Nora that were missing in Joyce. Chief of these is strength. At times Maddox sounds like a feminist biographer. She often seems to argue that Joyce's failure was Nora's success. ``Nora'' at times reads like Nora's revenge.

There were accounts to settle. Nora's strength was sorely tested. Joyce's nomadic life style kept them on the move from city to city, dragging the children through languages and cultures. (Maddox thinks the impact of this life style had much to do with the son's ineffectual nature, the daughter's madness.) Worse, Joyce toyed with her affections, setting up triangles by which he could observe her and his own feelings as she was observed by another man. Part of the perverse satisfaction he took in her came from the lack of marriage certificate until late, and the fact that though free, she was still known - and courted - as Mrs. Joyce.

Rage at Nora's fate underlies this book. At times the writing nearly sputters with indignation. Maddox does point out that Nora enjoyed being lionized in society. Though the rent often went unpaid, the Joyces lived in hotels much of the time and ate out (which gave rise to the erroneous idea that Nora couldn't cook). Nora loved fine clothes and kept herself and Joyce and the children in fashion. They both loved opera; Joyce had a fine tenor voice and Nora often thought he should have stuck with singing.

And Nora was up to his fantasies. Early in their relationship, during a rare separation (Joyce was in Dublin on business), she responded to Joyce's demand and created an erotic fantasy world by writing pornographic letters.

``Nora'' is richly documented; much of the material is new. Maddox has striven to separate Nora from fiction. But, as she shows, Nora did supply the originals for a sequence of feminine voices in Joyce's books. It's in these voices - they give their names to the four parts of this biography - that Nora survived until Maddox gave her her own book. In a sense, Maddox has competed with Joyce and bested him. Nora stands free now, erect, proud, as in life.

Nora's significance goes beyond Joyce, but only because Joyce helped create that significance. The voices of Lily, Bertha, Molly, and Anna Livia preserve Nora's earthy, witty candor. By cutting human pretensions - including Joyce's - down to size, Nora did all of us a favor. Out of their relationship, made legitimate late in life when their son wished to marry, comes a single sound, oscillating between low and everyday things and the most general concerns of humanity, the sound of Molly's ``yes'' to life and its vicissitudes.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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