June 2012

Josh Zajdman


James Joyce: A New Biography by Gordon Bowker

Mr. Bowker was asking for it. James Joyce, one of the most complex figures in literature, with two of the most impenetrable books (in any language, and written in several) to his credit, was no fan of biography. He's often quoted as desiring a "biografriend" -- a charming neologism one could define, as someone who would tell the story Joyce wanted told. There were those who agreed to the terms in an effort to get closer to genius. Those who didn't were surely viewed as biografiends. While living, Joyce worked exclusively with the biographer Herbert Gorman and objected to portraits of his wife Nora Barnacle and troubled daughter Lucia, named all too presciently after the patron saint of vision. Those were dealt with, stricken, or ameliorated. More notably, Joyce himself virtually wrote the much-celebrated study of James Joyce's Ulysses attributed to Stuart Gilbert. Or, at the very least, sat in a corner nodding or shaking his head, providing schematics, analyses, or a high-pitched laugh here and there.

Though existent, biographical work on Joyce wasn't of much value until after his death. Then came Richard Ellmann. His biography of Joyce is not only considered excellent in its own right, but an exemplar of literary biography as a genre. Like I said, Bowker was asking for it. Further complicating things was the overly contentious, regularly litigious executor of the Joyce estate, grandson Stephen Joyce, his only living descendant. He has banned his grandfather's letters from being displayed, as well as, more famously, preventing Kate Bush from quoting parts of Molly Bloom's famed soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. That's a lot to consider when knowingly embarking on a biography.

The strength in James Joyce: A New Biography is that Bowker knew exactly what he was dealing with. Somehow, without provoking the ire of executor Joyce, he's crafted a powerful, insightful, and compelling biography of a man who is scarcely better understood than his work. His tone is confident but never familiar, and very rarely speculative -- a pleasure given the trends in recent biography. Considering all of this, what did Bowker end up with and how did he do it? In his estimation, "Salvaging all the scattered pieces and reassembling them can only produce an approximation of the original, and the drama of ghostly existences will depend on efforts of imagination as much as accumulations of fact." There it is, in the author's own words. You hold in your hands the best "approximation" of a life -- no less, but so much more. It's not a novel, or a soulless two-dimensional collection of facts. Instead, it's a more than capable, fast-flowing narrative that is buttressed by facts that contributed to some of the greatest and boldest literature of the twentieth century. This definition-cum-justification of biography, and specifically the one Bowker has penned, is the reminder that precedes the reader's jump into the mind and life of Joyce. Stately, plump Gordon Bowker invites us to "come up" into the sad, fleetingly triumphant, and indelible life of James Joyce, that "fearful Jesuit."           

One of the most crucial sections of Bowker's biography, which precedes the actual chronology itself, is titled "Epiphanies" and isn't even two and a half pages. In a feat of compression, Bowker outlines the three seminal breaks from expectation, and reorientation, taken in life by Joyce. It's worth pointing out that these seminal shifts in his life were all precipitated by the actions of another party. The first, August 1898: Joyce after being aroused by a play, encounters a prostitute. She pulls him to the ground, "seduces" him, and ushers Joyce into a lifetime of struggle as he repeatedly straddles the lines between piety and passion, believing in both and neither fully. The second: June 10, 1904, Joyce's initial meeting with Nora Barnacle. Both interested in one another, an arrangement was made to meet on the Sixteenth of June, securing a place in literary history. Finally, April 17, 1932. Joyce, his belabored wife, and their sad, desperate Lucia are poised to leave France for England. Lucia's "piercing shriek rent the air, bringing the bustling platform to a breathtaking halt." Needless to say, they didn't head to England. Lucia began a period of institutionalization while Joyce began an almost unrelentingly dark period of life, both professionally and personally. Somehow even the successes were marred. As Bowker saw it, "Joyce's great labyrinthine Work in Progress (later unveiled as Finnegans Wake), the nocturnal offspring of his earlier novel, Ulysses ground to a halt. When it restarted, disturbing personal themes would begin to weave themselves into it, leaving him open to dark and prurient suspicions."

It wasn't all dark, the life of Joyce, that is. But funnily, or perhaps sadly (and isn't the fine line between the two Joycean itself), enough, it was a life that informed his work almost completely and could have been lived right alongside that of the Blooms, the Dedaluses, or the Earwickers. Those intrepid enough to have tried his work feel like they know his story -- devoted wife, crazy daughter who had her young heart broken by Beckett, an acolyte of Joyce's and spent the rest of her life "jung and freudened." But there is so much more to Joyce as son, brother, nephew, and the Joyce that came later -- lover, father, son, superstar, and near-blind dependent. Eventually, a portrait of the artist, and a not so flattering one at that, emerges. He is demanding, needy, irresponsible but irrepressibly brilliant. It's the latter that drew people to him, and forced them to forgive all instances of the former. Toward the end, when finally even Sylvia Beach, famed publisher, patron, and emotional support of Joyce's is fed up, the once young and earnest son of John and May is on the brink of blindness (repeatedly), has offended the church, the people of Ireland, and guaranteed himself a place in history. Most of his success was posthumous, or nearly so, as surely was the quasi-mythic position he holds as singing, capering, scarily erudite gatekeeper in the Modernist corner of twentieth century letters. With all this said, Bowker's approach outshines what people come in knowing, destroys rumor, provides fact, and paints a vivid portrait (apologies; the word is unavoidable) of the scarred life of a genius. As he takes the reader through the many peregrinations of the Joyce family (multi-generationally), as it contracts, expands, separates, and reconvenes, he works to place the events and characters that influenced the work alongside it. It's a rich tapestry of lineage, its complications, its necessity, and its output -- both children and books alike, damaged, or whole, successes and failures.

One of the most obvious examples is that of Joyce's mother, Mary Jane Murray, known as May. "May was schooled mostly by the musical Misses Flynn at their finishing school for young ladies... This was the background evoked in 'The Dead,' in which the Flynn sisters become the Misses Morkan, who also feature en passant in Ulysses." This is one of many examples. Another is the sad parallels between young Dedalus's dying, bile-spewing mother begging for a prayer and that of May herself. Joyce's father was no peach either. John Stanislaus Joyce was above all a proud man. "As James's father began to squander his inheritance and the family descended into poverty, asserting claims to a distinguished ancestry became ever more important to him." Like father, like son. Throughout most of his life, James too blasted through money as he lived beyond his means, and consistently borrowed with a smile, wink, and even, occasionally, a song. Few were powerful enough to refuse Joyce -- a quality that becomes increasingly irritating as example after example is provided. Yet, it compels the reader forward, to see what he asks for next and whether he can get away with it. 

Each corollary between life and literature, made by Bowker, is enriching and exciting as the knowledge of Joyce's works (major and minor alike) is continually expanded. The difficulty, which precedes the later works, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, seems to diminish as the root of their inspiration is clearly derived from Joyce's experience. Reading this, as many a critic has pointed out, will push you toward Joyce's actual work with renewed vigor, intensity, and deeper understanding. Then, you'll run into the formal complexity and possibly recoil in terror. Instead, keep the faith and plunge in. Listen to Joyce reading from the Anna Livia Plurabell section of Finnegans Wake on YouTube if you need encouragement before picking it up. Or, try Fionnula Flanagan reading the Molly Bloom soliloquy from one of her many Bloomsday on Broadway appearances. These are only a couple of examples that show how the work is rooted in our lives in much the same way his life was rooted in the work.

As Bowker sees it, Joyce "was able to create his own style, a style which has been immensely influential, emulated but never matched." I, and any other critic, would agree to that. Where we differ is the reason behind our reading of Joyce. There are those who read him because he is difficult, or because he's on a list. Having read Bowker's biography, I now reach for Ulysses and Finnegans Wake for different reasons. The former gives us the day, the latter the night. Between the two, we can experience life and time while we struggle and enjoy the time put in. One can't walk away from this terrific biography without a sense of owing something to the Joyces -- James, Nora, Giorgio, and Lucia, not to mention those who molded him. While Joyce suffered mightily to write those books, they suffered as much to live alongside him. Read the Bowker, and reach to Joyce. Savor it. It's the least we can do. Yes.

James Joyce: A New Biography by Gordon Bowker
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374178727
656 pages