Review: Biography: James Joyce: A Biography by Gordon Bowker
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €30
If words dominated James Joyce's life, so did women, and though his feelings towards them could be both utilitarian and destructive, women were central to his emotional, psychological and imaginative universe, whether as mothers to be remorsefully mourned over, lovers to be enjoyed, daughters to engender bewildered anguish or benefactors to be cajoled and flattered.
The Dublin youngster who found himself roused to excitement by the sound of one of his nursemaids urinating would become the callow young man who, frequenting prostitutes, regarded women as "warm, soft-skinned animals" and declared to his brother: "We make no difference between a whore and a wife, except that a whore we have for five minutes, a wife for our life."
He met his own wife for a life while walking along Nassau Street on June 10, 1904, and such was his instantly powerful attraction to her that six days later -- on a date that was to become the most famous in literature -- she provided him with the greatest epiphany of his life so far.
On this matter, Joyce's new biographer is less circumspect than his illustrious predecessor, Richard Ellmann, relating that on their Ringsend walk, "well away from the heart of respectable Dublin," Nora Barnacle "took the rampant young Bard in hand... and deftly satisfied his immediate urge."
On hearing of his son's relationship with the young Galway woman and noting her surname, John Joyce remarked: "She'll stick to him", which is what she did, despite the single-minded selfishness he displayed in pursuing a literary vocation for which she had little time ("She cares nothing for my art," he moaned to his brother Stanislaus) and despite his profligacy and frequent drunken behaviour -- leading to tensions that, even late in their lives, had her threatening to leave him.
But they were devoted to each other, even when the exuberant carnality of their earlier life had subsided and even when Joyce was suggesting that she indulge in extra-marital affairs -- "Jim wants me to go with other men so he'll have something to write about," she tearfully told her husband's friend Frank Budgen in Zurich in 1918.
Nonetheless, and along with other biographers, Gordon Bowker sees Nora as Joyce's life-long muse and also as the woman whom Joyce from the outset regarded as someone who would "remain true while others betrayed him." He had found, Bowker suggests, "his faithful long-term mother-substitute."
Another mother-substitute who would remain true was the remarkable Harriet Shaw Weaver, with whom he first came into contact in 1914 and who would become -- even though in a relationship entirely platonic -- probably the other most important woman in his life, certainly in his professional life. Editor of the literary magazine The Egoist, this daughter of a wealthy family and, in her own words, "hopelessly English," was one of his earliest publishers, his staunchest advocate and his life-long benefactor -- posting regular money to him, often anonymously, right up to the end of his life.
In today's terms, her funding of the Irish writer would amount to well over €1m, though her devoted munificence was as often met with whinges for more as with gratitude for her generosity. However, Joyce, always alert to where his bread was being buttered, was astute enough to keep her on side, even when a less-smitten philanthropist would have decided that enough was enough and that tolerance of geniuses had its limits.
Certainly, her almost superhuman patience with Joyce lasted longer than that of his other crucial benefactor, American expatriate Sylvia Beach, who published Ulysses from her little Shakespeare and Company bookshop in 1922 but who, over the years, came to be less indulgent of the author's demands than the saintly Harriet. But she served him heroically, too.
Not so lucky was the other principal woman in his life, his daughter Lucia. As the writer moved his family back from Locarno to Zurich in 1917, Nora and the children had already become, in Bowker's view, "merely guests at the moveable feast that was James Joyce," and it seems clear that from early in her life Lucia resented living under the shadow of a famous father -- though Bowker holds back from suggesting, as some commentators have done, a complicating sexual undercurrent to her wayward feelings and increasingly strange and violent behaviour.
However, he does wonder about the effect on a pubescent girl of "a household in which sex and her father's strange libidinous obsessions were an ever-present source of tension."
But as the years progressed, it broke Joyce's heart to observe his "angel of light" as she gradually descended into a madness that he couldn't comprehend but ultimately was forced to confront. And her own tormented feelings about the father whose fame had been so alienating to her lasted to the end -- when she was told, in the asylum to which she'd been committed, that he was dead, she exclaimed: "That imbecile? What is he doing under the ground? He's watching us all the time."
I've focused here on the women in Joyce's life, but there's much more to Bowker's book than I've mentioned. Since Ellmann's magisterial biography was published in 1959, there have been many other accounts of his life, the most absorbing that I've read being Peter Costello's James Joyce: The Years of Growth 1882-1915 and John McCourt's The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920.
Ellmann, though, remains the benchmark against which all other biographies of Joyce (indeed, perhaps all literary biographies) are judged and certainly no one has equalled him in his balancing of the life and the work . Yet if Bowker's book isn't as rich in its insights or as fruitfully suggestive about the relationship of the art to the man who created it, it's an admirably clear, shrewdly observed and elegantly written account of an extraordinary life -- and for many readers it may prove more welcoming and immediately accessible than the Ellmann.