Portrait of Joyce and Nora as young lovers
Graphic biography brings our greatest novelist to life, writes John Spain
The life of James Joyce – and his all- consuming love for Nora – are brought spectacularly alive in graphic novel form for the first time in a new biography from the O'Brien Press.
The book is a remarkable depiction of the Dublin of Joyce's time, his family, his friends, his travels in Europe and how he overcame poverty, rejection and ill-health to create some of the greatest work in the English language.
But at the core of the book is the great love affair between James and Nora. As is usual in graphic novels, the love affair is shown in an explicit manner at some points, including sections showing them cavorting together in the nude on Howth Head and naked on a bed in the town of Pola, now in Croatia.
James Joyce – Portrait of a Dubliner tells the complete story of Joyce's life. The 228-page graphic novel has thousands of drawings and the surprising thing is that the book is not the work of an Irish artist, but a young Spanish illustrator and Joyce admirer, Alfonso Zapico.
The author is an award-winning graphic artist and writer whose work has been published in comics across Europe and in two books. His book on Joyce was first published in Spanish, winning a major award in Spain last year.
Michael O'Brien of O'Brien Press came across the original Spanish version of the book at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year and was immediately taken by it.
He was impressed with how successfully the drawings brought Joyce and Dublin to life, as well as Joyce's travels in Europe. He realised immediately that it had the potential to bring the story of Joyce to a much wider audience and decided it must be published in Joyce's homeland.
Having got the the rights to the book, O'Brien then commissioned David Prendergast, former Professor of English at the University of Barcelona, to do the translation from Spanish to English.
Because it's in novel form, the book recreates Joyce's conversations and inner thoughts. It begins with his youthful life in Dublin before following him on his journey to Paris, Pola, Trieste, Rome, London and finally Zurich. It features a colourful cast of characters, such as Proust, Yeats, and Hemingway, all of whom Joyce knew.
With the story told completely in speech bubbles and captions, the book is uniquely accessible and depicts the tumultuous life of Joyce as never before.
As well as reading Joyce, Alfonso Zapico spent considerable time in Dublin doing research. "I try to build a life with all the elements around a character: the scenery, the places, the other characters, and to recreate the atmosphere of the time through my drawings. I suppose it's similar to making a film, but with paper and ink."
"I spent many months doing research for the book in Dublin and the experience was fantastic! I didn't just want to create my drawings from old photos in books.
"In order to get across the essence of a place, you have to visit that place. I walked the Dublin streets, I saw the colour of the sky, I drank beer in the pubs, I ate fish and chips, I talked to Dubliners.
"Old photos are all very well, but Dublin is a magical city, and you have to go to the heart of Dublin to try to understand Joyce. Maybe this special atmosphere is not always visible to people who live in Dublin, but for me as a visitor, it was a joy the first time, and every time I return to this wonderful city."
Zapico was also attracted to the story because he liked the way Joyce focussed on ordinary people.
"Joyce was a pioneer in 20th-Century literature: he changed people's view of the world and society, he rejected the big heroic characters and gave prominence to ordinary men and women, real life, the little details of human existence," Zapico says.