Wednesday 7 December 2016

Review: James Joyce: A Biography by Gordon Bowker

Weidenfeld, €35.00

Ronan Farren

Published 28/08/2011 | 05:00

IN AN untypical burst of modesty, he once offered the world a mock epitaph: He was a man of small virtue, inclined to alcoholism. James Augustine Joyce, archetypal Dubliner (he invented the word: before him it was always Dublinman or Dublinwoman), had many virtues and not a few vices.

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Above all he was a consummate artist -- which is neither a virtue nor a vice -- who, in an often difficult life of just under 59 years, was driven by a passion to create something entirely new.

The intense self-belief, which he exhibited from his teenage years and which was often interpreted as arrogance, co-existed with a suspicion of others that sometimes seemed to amount to paranoia. People were out to get him; there was a conspiracy against him and his writings in Dublin: at one stage he believed, or professed to believe, that if he returned to his native city from the Continent he would be in danger of being shot. This grew from the conviction in some proto-nationalist circles that he was a true Brit.

He actually was quite patriotic in a non-doctrinaire way, until Sinn Fein moved to the path of violence, which he abhorred. His views, though, were not entirely sifted through the mists of paranoia: the pious Catholic establishment was suspicious and hostile from the beginning. A failure to conform with the norms of the puritanical society of the time was an even more serious offence than that of being an artist.

He was immensely well read, in several languages (while a student in University College he taught himself Norwegian in order to read the works of Henrik Ibsen), but rarely praised other writers, especially his fellow countrymen. Exceptions were Synge, whom he admired, and George Moore, an influence on the stories of Dubliners.

He was championed during the long battles to get his work published, by people such as Yeats, who read an extract from Ulysses in the American magazine Little Review, which ran 23 instalments of the work in progress between March 1918 and the end of 1920. Yeats wrote: "It is an entirely new thing -- neither what the eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly passed in intensity any novelist of our time."

During the years in Trieste, Zurich (to which he fled during the First World War) and Paris, he was actively helped by the American writer Ezra Pound and acclaimed by TS Eliot. He received financial aid from a number of wealthy literary-minded women, in the difficult years that led up to the publication of Ulysses in 1922. And it was a woman, Sylvia Beach, owner of the Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Co, who had the courage to publish Joyce's masterpiece when the mainstream publishers in Britain and America were running scared.

James Joyce was born into comfortable circumstances in Brighton Square, Rathgar, on February 2, 1882. Due to the profligate disposition of his father, John Stanislaus Joyce, a hard-drinking braggart born to a well-to-do family in Cork in 1849, the Joyces -- all 10 children -- sank gradually into poverty.

Joyce's mother May, born Mary Murray in 1859, was a gentle, religious woman who seems quietly to have put up with her husband's ways, which became increasingly erratic as the years went on. As May lay dying, at the age of 44, John Stanislaus reeled into her room in a drunken frenzy and roared: "I'm finished. I can't do any more. If you can't get well, die. Die and be damned to you!"

James's younger brother, Stanislaus, shouted, "You swine!" and went for his father. As May tried to struggle out of bed to separate them, James led the raving father out of the room.

Stanislaus didn't forgive his father and relations never recovered between them. Joyce himself seems to have tolerated the old man, keeping in touch over the years. But he didn't come home from Paris for the funeral of John Stanislaus. James felt deep and lasting sorrow after his mother's death and the story that he refused to kneel down and pray when she asked him to at her death bed was untrue -- an invention of the poet-surgeon Oliver Gogarty, whose love of mischief-making was at times tasteless.

In University College, Joyce had already acquired an aura or mystique: the aloof genius well able to tackle the professors with slabs of St Thomas Aquinas -- when he felt he could be bothered. His years after that, in Trieste at first, were dogged by poverty as Nora Barnacle and their two children depended mainly on what Joyce could earn by teaching languages.

Later, he was to become a celebrated figure in Paris, people staring at him as he dined in his favourite restaurants, usually en famille, the four chatting in Italian. The myopic, reserved, polite figure, already looking stately in his 40s, had gradually turned into the most celebrated writer in the English language.

What's new here? What has Gordon Bowker, biographer also of George Orwell and Malcolm Lowry, to offer? For a start Richard Ellmann's magnificent 1959 James Joyce, revised in 1982, has never been superseded (and there is no indication that Bowker had any such lofty intention); and there have been many more books about various aspects of Joyce's life since; Bowker scrupulously acknowledges some of these. His publisher in a press release refers to "considerable new material", though to a Joyce enthusiast (as distinct from a Joycean scholar), little that is new jumps off the page. It is, though, readable and enjoyable all the way.

Some small points. No Irish writer would have placed University College on the north side of St Stephen's Green (page 60). Taking illicit leave from school in Dublin is "mitching" -- not "miching" (page 49). And Yeats's play (written with George Moore) turns up as Diarmuid and Crania, rather than Diarmuid and Grania (page 81).

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