James Joyce, by Gordon Bowker

“Doublin’ all the time”
–Unofficial motto of Dublin, Georgia

This new biography is supposed to build on more recent scholarship than was available to Richard Ellmann, even in his 1982 revision of the classic biography. After an enlightening 120 pages on the early life in Ireland, Bowker takes a Johannine approach, filling in details left out of the prior work. Oh, boy, does he fill in the details! Every dinner out, trip to the seaside, etc. is described. There is no attempt to create any tension in the writing of the major works–even the obscenity prosecution of Ulysses in the United States, which could be a story of its own, occurs offstage. Much of the book is no more than a notebook dump–nothing must be left out–a lesson that the author unfortunately picked up from his subject.

Joyce wrote all day, drank all night, and endured a lifelong series of eye operations by what were apparently a succession of quacks. He put himself at the center of all activity and demanded that others act accordingly. He had many visits from his brothers’ and sisters’ families (“Oh, let’s go to Trieste/Paris–Jim can put us up.”)– but he made few visits back home and even skipped his father’s funeral, not out of spite, ill health, or lack of funds, but simply from lack of interest or any serious sense of duty. Bowker writes that Joyce was able to give money to Jews fleeing France, in what may be his only recorded act of charity.

The book has little literary analysis, which would have crowded out the details of who had what at which café. If you don’t know why Dubliners, Portrait, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake are important, or who Samuel Beckett is, you won’t get any help from this book, which assumes that knowledge–or opinion. There is no effort to put Joyce in context–who came before him, what is his relation to, say, James or Hardy, how political events in Austria-Hungary and France influenced him and his works. If the biography is not intended for the specialist, but for the general reader, this context is necessary. The author’s life was really pretty dull–he spent his time writing and scraping up funds to pay the bills. Joyce only reluctantly counseled with other writers. He founded no school or movement and didn’t take a public stance. He was not a man of letters in the sense that Yeats and Eliot were, or even Wallace Stevens. Joyce was a singularity that sucked everything in. This is not so rare or a necessary obstacle to the narrative; Brecht, for example, was perfectly selfish, but his life could make a good story simply because the nature of his work demanded the participation of other people.

The book fails as a work for specialists because it flits so lightly over the works themselves. When Bowker does attempt analysis, he slips into howlers, such as when he writes that the “Wandering Rocks” chapter of Ulysses “follows” Fr. Conmee through the streets of Dublin–actually, Fr. Conmee is only the first of many separate scenes in that chapter.

Like Wagner, Joyce was dependent on the kindness of patrons, but you can’t hum Finnegans Wake.

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