RICHARD ELLMANN's James Joyce, which ap-
pears now in a new and revised edition, is one of the greatest of modern biographies. When it was first published, in 1959, it was at once honored as the massive and scrupulously documented account of a major writer, one whose life had been both legendary and remote. But reading it again, more than 20 years later, after its contributions to our understanding of Joyce have long been assimilated, it is easier for us to perceive its own existence as a work of art.
It is first necessary to define the way in which James Joyce, far more than is the case with most literary biographies, illuminated not only the life but the art of its subject. The relationship between an artist's life and his work is inherently complex and baffling. Joyce himself, in the "Library" episode of Ulysses, suggests some of the complexities, as Stephen Dedalus urges upon his incredulous listeners a richly textured and wildly imaginative theory which "explains" Hamlet as a dramatization of Shakespeare's domestic problems. But Ulysses is a Chinese box of jokes and tricks, and this is one of them, for Stephen is a character in an autobiographical novel, many of whose "secrets" have to do with the private life of its creator. (Do you believe your own theory, Stephen is asked, and promptly replies, "No.")
Ellmann's task was a dual one. He re-created for the reader what had become one of the exemplary lives of modern literature, conveying its color and its textures, its characterizing movements and stances, by the adroit but unobtrusive deployment of many thousands of details. Joyce says somewhere (the quotation, we may be certain, is somewhere in Ellmann, although I cannot find it) that he invented nothing, that his was the art of arrangement. It is also, of course, the art of the biographer, of which Ellmann is a master. The facts of an extraordinary life are so organized for us that we come to recognize its shape and meaning.
Our initial debt to Ellmann, however, was critical and scholarly. This was so precisely because Joyce "invented nothing," because his life was the quarry from which he drew his fictions. Thus, it was long known, in a general way, that the facts of Stephen Dedalus' life, as we are given them in A Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses, conform closely to the facts of Joyce's youth. But Leopold Bloom, the other "hero" of Ulysses, seemed an anti-type of his creator. Joyce, like Stephen, was aloof, sardonic, aesthetic, a rebel, a spiritual exile. Bloom, by contrast, was a comic philistine, the butt of Dublin jokes, kindly, well-meaning, cuckolded, satisfied by creature comforts of a humble sort, intellectually limited. After Ellmann, all that changed, and we came to see Bloom as a portrait of the artist in middle age, a portrait richer, deeper, more nuanced, than that of Stephen.
Or, again, in the chapter called "The Backgrounds of 'The Dead'," which explores the shaping of the greatest of Joyce's short stories, every line, it almost seems, is traced to its sources in Joyce's experience. And yet the effect is never reductive. Ellmann knew, as Joyce himself of course knew, that the final alchemy of art is an absolute mystery. His avoidance of the reductive was largely a consequence of his own personal and stylistic tact. Like Joyce, again, he knew that to be serious one need not be solemn, and he conducted us through the life with a delicate, sympathetic humor, edged at times with a wit not unlike the master's.
Now, nearly a quarter-century later, we have James Joyce in a new edition. Over the years, a small wealth of additional material has turned up--letters, the recollections of friends, notebooks, a brief and characteristically tentative flirtation -- and all this has been skillfully sorted out and woven into the narrative. It is a measure of the original accomplishment that this serves to enrich without disturbing the portrait. But one of the chief pleasures offered by this edition is that of discovering afresh those virtues which pertain not to Joyce's art, but to Ellmann's.
Like most of the great masters of modern literature, Joyce was a very odd fish. Self-exiled from his native Ireland, which nevertheless remained the solitary setting on his books, committed with fierce concentration to difficult and exacting techniques, indifferent to the expectations and capacities of his readers -- he was the very model of the obsessed and driven genius. Ellmann's task was to discover the man behind that cultural image, and the task was the more difficult because Joyce, although the most autobiographical of writers, was not so in any simple sense. His art is a gallery of mirrors set at angles to each other, dazzling and confounding where it promises to expose.
Ellmann succeeds not merely because of his mastery of scholarly techniques, his sense of Joyce's place within the canon of modern art, but also, and perhaps especially, because of an attitude toward his subject which has become almost nonexistent in scholarship. It is defined in a prefatory note to this edition: "I have followed Joyce's own prescription of total candor, with the knowledge that his life, like Rousseau's, can bear others' scrutiny as it bore his own. In working over these pages, I have felt all my affection for him renewed."
The candor of Ellmann's biography and the affection for Joyce which is a felt presence in its pages in fact sustain each other. Joyce's art was a scrupulous and unending exploration into the recesses of his own being. He sought out all the worst that could be known about himself -- the trivial, the ignoble, the shameful, the base. And because of the integrity of his search, he was allowed to discover that the worst was not, after all, very bad at all. This seems to me the reason, or one of the reasons, why Ellmann holds him in such evident affection. And Ellmann, in turn, because of the unsparing scrupulousness of his own methods has been allowed to write the kind of book which has become unhappily rare -- a work of exacting scholarship which is also a humane and liberating document. Joyce found the proper biographer, and there can be no higher praise.