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Review: James Joyce - Biography

The latest biography of James Joyce focuses on his life and character more than on his literary works

books Updated: Jun 22, 2012 18:41 IST

James Joyce: Biography

Gordon Bowker

Weidenfeld & Nicholson

Rs 2,169 pp 608

Every year on June 16, devotees of James Joyce celebrate Bloomsday. More than 100 years ago, on June 16, 1904, Leopold Bloom and young Stephen Dedalus separately wandered the streets of Dublin, crossing paths with teachers, priests, medical students, journalists, a woman in labour, publicans, bar maids, drunks, rabid Irish jingoists, sentimental babysitters and at least one adulterer, not to overlook Stephen's shiftless father, Simon, the mourners at Paddy Dignam’s funeral and the whores of the phantasmagoric Nighttown. Eventually, the pair return to 7 Eccles St., where Mrs. Bloom will eventually fall asleep after, yes, the most famous stream-of-consciousness reverie in all of modern literature.

That, in a nutshell, is the action of Ulysses (1922), generally regarded as the greatest 20th-century novel in English. It is arguably the most carefully wrought novel ever written. It is also a highly autobiographical book, which is why Joyce’s life has attracted so much attention, starting with the reminiscences of his school friend Constantine Curran, the transcribed conversations with Frank Budgen, a memoir by his brother Stanislaus and an early biography by Herbert Gorman. All of these were dwarfed, however, by Richard Ellmann’s monumental James Joyce, published in 1959 (revised in 1982) and judged by novelist and Joycean Anthony Burgess as the finest literary biography of the century.

So most readers who come to Gordon Bowker’s ‘new biography’ will want to know: Does this book replace Ellmann? It doesn’t, but it does offer a less awestruck, more warts-and-all account of the writer’s life and character. Hitherto best known for his biographies of Malcolm Lowry and Lawrence Durrell, Bowker writes clearly and forcefully, acknowledges the work of earlier scholars and critics, and shies away from any extended analysis of the literary works themselves. His focus, then, is almost strictly on Joyce the human being, the scion of a dysfunctional family, a bohemian misfit at University College Dublin, a Berlitz schoolteacher in Trieste, and, finally, an acclaimed, if sometimes controversial, writer-genius in Paris and Switzerland. He was an excellent amateur tenor, too.

Bowker begins, naturally enough, with Joyce’s father, John, who married a local beauty, kept her continuously pregnant, lived beyond his means, took to drink and ended up depending on the kindness of his friends and the charity of his children. As he grows older, Joyce exudes the swagger and sense of privilege of the eldest son, adopts an attitude of disdainful irony  and generally dismisses ordinary people as ‘the rabblement’. Whenever he meets a notable literary figure, such as the poet WB Yeats or the editor Lewis Hind, he behaves like a boor, coming across as an obnoxious prima donna. When the artiste sends out his later books, he isn’t above inserting slips quoting positive reviews of his 1907 poetry collection, Chamber Music.

In Trieste, Joyce regularly exploits those around him, importing Stanislaus to help pay his rent and one of his sisters to work as the household drudge. Here he lives with Nora Barnacle, the mother of his two children, though he long refuses to marry her. He tends to leave poor Nora alone, while he gets drunk with his cronies and, sometimes cheats on her with prostitutes. He is forthright about his sexual fetishes (female underwear, dirty talk, submission and domination) and betrays an obsession with adultery. Somehow, though, Joyce manages to turn this unsavoury material into gloriously comic and deeply moving fiction.

Ultimately, Joyce does use himself up in creating two great masterpieces (the other is 1939’s Finnegans Wake), while enduring increasing blindness, depression, world war, bodily ills and considerable family unhappiness. And then, in 1941, at 58, Dublin’s most famous literary celebrant and exile unexpectedly dies from a perforated ulcer.

All in all, despite its occasional typos (e.g., ‘Eumeus’ for ‘Eumaeus’), Bowker’s ‘biography’ is well worth reading, even if Joyce comes across as brilliant but exploitative, admirable as an artist but often mortifying as a man. It’s not always a pretty picture, but it seems like a true one.

Michael Dirda is a reviewer for the Washington Post Washington Post Book World Service