As he grows older, Joyce exudes the swagger and sense of privilege of the eldest son, adopts an attitude of disdainful irony and superiority to those around him, and generally dismisses ordinary people as “the rabblement.” Above all, he is full of self-importance and poetic posing, inscribing one manuscript: “To my own Soul I dedicate the first true work of my life.” Whenever he meets a notable literary figure, such as the poet W.B. Yeats or the editor Lewis Hind, he behaves like a boor, derides their work and generally comes across as an obnoxious prima donna. At one point, he actually writes a letter to King George V asking him to condone an offensive passage about his father (Edward VII) in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”However, when the youthful artiste sends out his later books, he isn’t above inserting slips quoting from the 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. At about this time, he also turns against many of his oldest friends, ostensibly because they have somehow betrayed him. Of course, it might be argued that his often cruel depiction of them in his books constitutes its own betrayal.
In his personal life, the young Joyce is thoroughly disreputable. He tends to leave poor Nora alone, while he gets roaring drunk with his cronies and, it would seem, sometimes cheats on her with prostitutes. He is forthright about his sexual fetishes (female underwear, dirty talk, submission and domination) and betrays a prurient obsession with adultery, going so far as to hint that he’d like Nora to have an affair so that he might observe and learn from it. (This would support William Empson’s contention that at the end of “Ulysses” Bloom actually proposes a menage a trois to Stephen.)
At one point, Bowker sums up Joyce’s personal obsessions as “fear of betrayal, the unfulfilled marriage, sexual frustration, thwarted ambition, the smothering effects of religion, cruel and casual bigotry, the wretchedness of wasted lives.” Somehow, though, Joyce manages to turn this unsavory material into gloriously comic and deeply moving fiction, characterized by an even more gloriously musical English. “Ulysses” is a book one hears as well as reads.
Ultimately, even heroically, James Joyce does use himself up in creating two great masterpieces (the other is 1939’s linguistically multi-layered “Finnegans Wake”), while enduring increasing blindness, depression, world war, bodily ills and considerable family unhappiness, much of it centered on his beloved but mentally troubled daughter Lucia. And then, in 1941, at 58, Dublin’s most famous literary celebrant and exile suddenly, unexpectedly dies from a perforated ulcer and is buried in Zurich, Switzerland, where he and his family had fled after the Nazis invaded Paris.
All in all, despite its occasional typos (e.g., “Eumeus” for “Eumaeus”), Gordon Bowker’s “new 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.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.