Of all Anglophone writers only Shakespeare has been more written about than James Joyce, and Shakespeare has three-and-a-half centuries on him. Of all modern writers, not only in English, Joyce is probably the most innovative, evocative, and influential. He has had, and still has, numerous followers, some acknowledged, some not, and not a few imitators despite his inimitability. To the huge corpus of Joyceana, now add the apt biography by Gordon Bowker, titled simply James Joyce.
At nearly 600 riveting pages, it is long, but not overlong. Until now, the conceivably definitive biography was Richard Ellmann’s 1982 revision of his remarkable 1959 James Joyce. At almost 900 large, closely packed pages, it remains a cornerstone for all subsequent writings about Joyce. But thirty years since have yielded further revelations, which Bowker, experienced author of three earlier biographies (of Orwell, Durrell, and Malcolm Lowry) has made productive use of.
Bowker’s opus is not primarily a critical biography, in that it refrains from being judgmental even about such lesser efforts as Joyce’s only play, the Ibsenite Exiles, or detailed in its praise of such an early masterpiece as the story “The Dead” and the moving late poem “Ecce Puer.” It offers sufficient accounts of what Joyce’s various works are about, but is primarily interested in the particulars of the life. And what a life it was!
There are easier—which is to say shorter—approaches to Joyce. Harry Levin’s James Joyce: A Critical Introduction remains the best concise evaluation of the writer and man. For those seeking a terse account of the life, Edna O’Brien’s James Joyce will do the job. For those wishing strictly literary criticism, John Gross’s James Joyce is recommended. But for readers who want both in sufficient and up-to-date detail, nothing beats Bowker’s book published here by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and last year in England by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Outstanding about Bowker are his judiciousness and readability on top of thorough research. For more academic—or just more curious—readers there is another forte: relating every step of the way the life to the work. This makes particular sense for Joyce, an extraordinarily biographical and autobiographical fictionist. His plots rely almost exclusively on what he called his epiphanies, a term for events experienced, and conversations participated in or overheard, that lent themselves to
pungent fictional use.
So, reading Bowker, we learn again and again and usually with precise page references, how an incident was exploited in the fictions—and how a person (real name and basic biographical data) became so-and-so in the writings (fictional name and bit of plot summary). For anyone willing and able to follow up on these references, Bowker’s book becomes a paradigm of how brilliant fictional strategy works up bits of reality, how genius transfigures the givens of life.
Especially interesting in this respect is how religion and sexuality figure in Joyce’s life and work. Bowker makes clear how Joyce consciously rejected the strict Roman Catholicism in which he was brought up by family and educated by Jesuits, while instinctively still indulging in much churchgoing, ostensibly only because of enjoyment of the ritual and music involved.
Music indeed, given Joyce’s fine tenor voice, almost leading to a career in music, and love of singing and dancing, which he reveled in with the slightest excuse (parties, literary gatherings, mere dinners with friends) or even without. He could accompany his singing on the piano, and would dance with (usually male) friends in the most exuberant, almost orgiastic fashion.
And what sexuality: Joyce was both masochist and fetishist. The latter in his fixation on female underwear, often urging his wife Nora to purchase and wear sexy drawers. The former in fantasies of, and generally unheeded solicitings for, flogging by Nora, and perhaps also in using and encouraging obscene and scatological language in his letters and fictions, often asking that it be aggressively directed at himself.
Three further fascinating aspects of Joyce emerge. One is Joyce the egoist and rebel who exiles himself from an Ireland that imposed unacceptable restrictions on his ego. Thus we find him with Nora—and later their children, Giorgio and Lucia—steadily changing habitats in Italy, Switzerland, and France, mostly but not exclusively in Trieste, Zurich and Paris. An excellent—indeed fanatical—linguist, he profited from commanding the requisite foreign as well as classical languages, not to mention other, not particularly needed ones. All grist for his existential and literary mills.
Next, Joyce’s ability to acquire and maintain (despite invariable fallings out) many important and useful friendships, in spite of extreme egoistic obsession with his work and personal pursuits. Impractical in many ways, especially in his love of luxury despite minimal earnings as a writer and English teacher, Joyce found his hurtful disregard for others not preventing his living off various patrons. Or, rather, patronesses, such as the French booksellers and publishers Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, the American magazine editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and affluent ladies such as Edith Rockefeller McCormick and, above all, Harriet Shaw Weaver, who alone contributed monies that today would correspond to over a million dollars.
Thirdly, there is Joyce’s struggle for survival amid serious financial straits, sometimes even grinding poverty, whenever gifts or profuse borrowing proved unavailable. There was also the unemployability, as during a failed attempt at banking in Rome, or problems with puritanical institutions of learning, and scarcity of private pupils, though some proved slavishly devoted and variously generous.
Bowker is almost too zealous in reporting every aspect of Joyce’s finances, very often gravely limited by the obtuseness or cowardice of publishers, the almost inconceivable scrutiny and frustration by all sorts of censorship, real or merely putative, and terrible health handicaps, ranging from poor eyesight verging on blindness to raging stomach disorders.
Bowker has further strengths, such as a dry wit that complements Joyce’s own, frequently and hilariously quoted. Also keen psychological insight into such matters as Joyce’s stupendous love-hate for his native Dublin—actually more love than hate, albeit not reciprocated until very late in his life, which ended prematurely just short of his 59th birthday.
He is also scrupulous in documenting Joyce’s tragic relationship with his gifted but demented daughter Lucia, whom he adored, protected and on whose upkeep he spent his frequently scant and desperately needed money, despite her terrifying rebuffs and even physical assaults on her mother.
But Joyce’s entire life, deftly evoked by Bowker, is heroic in his grapplings with landlords, strings of contradictory and confusing doctors, endless relocations, and often noble but exhausting excesses, such as the sixteen years spent on writing his final work, the gigantic but rebus-like antinovel Finnegans Wake. Its perennial and fascinating challenges to elucidation very nearly subvert the well-deserved fame and influence of his epochal masterpiece, Ulysses, largely “acclaimed [Bowker writes] as the greatest novel of the twentieth century.”
Only slightly offputting are Bowker’s admittedly rare lapses of grammar, easily forgivable among so many virtues. I conclude quoting part of a long, characteristic paragraph, displaying not only delightful fluency, but also the fine ability to summarize, a sovereign gift in a biographer.
“[Joyce] passed through phases of Jesuitical piety, Parnellite nationalism, anti-bourgois and anticlerical rebellion, socialism, intellectual aloofness and Ibsenite devotion. He was altar boy, classroom joker, young know-all, great operatic tenor manqué, a carousing ‘medics’ pal,’ a patron of brothels, poete maudit, exile, prurient lover, writer of licentious letters, ‘undiscovered genius,’ fond father, failed businessman, temporary bank clerk, original language teacher, eccentric dancer, blind Dante, fighter against censorship and literary piracy, lyrical poet, opera buff, brave experimental writer of prodigious virtuosity and, finally, ‘acclaimed genius.’ But he was other things, too.”
Bowker neatly encapsulates those other things as well, but I don’t want to overwhelm you, though I must mention Joyce’s “help [to] those who were threatened with Nazi persecution.” Sundry plays and films have been based on Joyce’s writings, understandably without doing full justice to them. What might be interesting would be a movie about this astonishing life, if only a great enough cineast and actor could be found. Meanwhile I warmly suggest your reading Bowker’s spellbinding biography.