It is also a highly autobiographical book, which is why James Joyce’s life has attracted so much attention, starting with the outstanding reminiscences of his school friend Constantine Curran, the transcribed conversations with Frank Budgen, a memoir by his much put-upon younger 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 well as by many readers, as the finest literary biography of the century.
Since then, all other biographical writing about Joyce has had to contend with the looming presence of Ellmann’s book. One major critic, Hugh Kenner, strongly lamented its influence, feeling that it had improperly shifted attention away from the work to the life, making the biography, in effect, a fuller, more straightforward version of “Ulysses” and even, to some extent, of the earlier Bildungsroman, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916), and the short story collection, “Dubliners” (1914).
Most readers who come to Gordon Bowker’s “new biography” will thus 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 generally 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. We learn that over the years Joyce’s early nicknames included “Sunny Jim,” “Half-past six,” “Gussie,” “Kinch,” “The Bard” and “Herr Satan.” Bowker neatly sums up the writer’s boyhood:
“As a youngster, he was assertive with his peers and playmates, but scared of dogs and thunderstorms; he was brilliantly precocious yet ready to accept religious instruction unquestioningly; he was pious, yet prone to using vulgar language. That confusion of incompatibles . . . persisted and came also to characterize his fiction.”
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.