What could have been for Joyce, Nora and Italo Svevo

What could have been for Joyce, Nora and Italo Svevo James Joyce. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Penelope Unbound, by Mary Morrissy (Banshee Press, €15.00)


When James Joyce and Nora Barnacle arrived in Trieste in 1904, Joyce left his inamorata sitting outside the railway station with their meagre luggage while he went into the city to find accommodation for them.

In the city centre he intervened in a quarrel between some drunken English sailors and was arrested with them for disorderly conduct.

It was many hours before he was released, having established his innocence with the help of the British consul in Trieste. Nora was dutifully waiting for him when he returned to the station.

In Mary Morrissy’s novel Penelope Unbound, Nora gets fed up waiting for Joyce to return. She goes off with a suave gentleman whose attentions she has attracted as she sits outside the station.

He brings her to his family home in Trieste, and she later becomes his lover in London. When the affair ends abruptly in 1908, he settles a large sum of money on her.

She then returns to Dublin and buys Finn’s Hotel where she had been working as a chambermaid when she met James Joyce. The gentleman in question is a fictional representation of the author Italo Svevo, who was Joyce’s great friend in Trieste – though the two do not meet in the novel. Svevo was partly the model for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.

Meanwhile, the fictional Joyce becomes a teacher of English in Trieste – as happened in real life. Before long, however, he gives up writing and trains as a professional singer – and he marries the young pupil with whom Joyce actually became infatuated in Trieste, Amalia Popper. Joyce and Amalia visit Dublin briefly in 1915. He gives a recital at the Antient Concert Rooms, and meets Nora – but I must not give away the denouement.

This is an ingenious book, which uses authentic details from the lives of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle to fashion an alternative version of their lives – a ‘what if?’ narrative.

Joyce himself would have approved, for he acknowledged the importance of contingency in our lives and in history. He wrote in Ulysses that the events of the past were “lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass?”

Mary Morrissy has envisioned other possibilities for Joyce and Nora. Aficionados of Joyce’s work everywhere will enjoy this novel. The title of the novel is, of course, a homage to Nora Barnacle in her fictional guise as Molly Bloom – the ‘Penelope’ of Ulysses.