Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Gordon Bowker's "James Joyce: A New Biography": Book Review

Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce, published over fifty years ago, has long remained the standard. Shorter studies of Joyce's early years and Trieste experiences appeared a few decades later, as well as archival finds and editorial corrections to his innovative works. Gordon Bowker incorporates this research into his study of Joyce and his circle. It focuses more on his inner life and less on the texts. As a biographer of Malcolm Lowry, George Orwell, and Lawrence Durrell, Bowker is well-placed to take on those English writers' high-modernist Irish predecessor and contemporary.

The page spread signals the adjusted balance compared to earlier lives of Joyce. About halfway through Bowker's text proper, Joyce is serializing what will soon appear as "Ulysses." He is nearly forty years old. Two-thirds of his life has passed, but the last third--ending with his death in 1941 when the Irish Free State refused to repatriate his body from Zurich for burial--comprises a considerable portion of Bowker's biography. The years of triumph blur into those of guilt, bickering, and tension. After the publication of "Ulysses" in 1921, Joyce descends gradually into pain and darkness as his eyesight diminishes. He struggled with his "Work in Progress" fourteen years. Meanwhile, he battled with Nora Barnacle and their children Lucia, as she faced madness, and Giorgio, as he married a woman whom years earlier his father had attempted to seduce.

At sixteen, he began "to slough off the crust of religious superstition," yet never extricated himself from "a deposit of entrenched sentiment," in Bowker's metaphor. He conveys in the first half of this new biography an efficient pace as many anecdotes demonstrate how Joyce applied everyday details used decades later in his texts. For example, Cranly, Henry Flower, Blazes Boylan, and Mrs. Sinico hover in real life first, before appearing in coded but logical forms of association in his fiction. In later years, this appeared to some observers to hint at madness, for Joyce could not extricate his mind from such a pattern of catching details only to release them, long after, within an appropriate time and space in his writing. He relished coincidence and superstitions, such as a fear of dogs and of thunder.

Along the long way, Bowker corrects common misnomers such as the assumed Jewish identities of Reuben J. Dodd and Alfred Hunter, and he regales readers with bawdy and witty snippets from Joyce and his cronies, notably his "Mephistopheles" Oliver St. John Gogarty. By the time of his residence with Gogarty at the Martello Tower that will open "Ulysses" a few years after the 1904 fact, Joyce tires of his homeland and leaves soon after with his mistress Nora Barnacle, to teach Berlitz English in Trieste. His "air of detached superiority" annoys many, and he cultivates the mystery that will find, in wartime Zurich, another nickname from the chorus girls at the theater: "Herr Satan."

Yet, overseas, he finally learns "to evoke Dublin at long range through the spyglass of tranquil recollection." Bowker's phrase sidesteps the jittery rage and formidable ego, and his study appears to downplay these emotional aspects in favor of what at times proved a more humdrum life than that imagined by other biographers. His tedious life in Trieste precedes a Roman bank translation job as dull if for far longer hours. Soon Joyce with two children to support must survive only on his true talent--and his family and patrons whom he cultivates for funds and duties skillfully and diligently.

However, his bohemian and anarchic spirit fades as the Great War darkens his European haunts. He suspects Nora of betrayal: "Inside the mercurial, articulate intellectual, there still lurked the man from Monto," the red-light district of his youth in Dublin. Insecurities, financial and emotional, compelled him to create in his play "Exiles" as well as "The Dead" and "Ulysses" the works which would secure his reputation as "a genius" as well as enhance his reputation as "a mystery." Both aided his vanity, his self-publicity, and his rise to recognition among the avant-garde and the literati.

Bowker does not delve much into the works themselves, sensibly as many studies proliferate. He does ask astutely of "Portrait" whether it expresses a narrative "directly from" Joyce's "own consciousness," or from Stephen Dedalus as if that stand-in would have written it with his own stylistic shifts charting the evolution of the young man. Overall, the early works gain a nod and a quick summation, as the biographer expects the reader to know them already or to recall them easily.

When "Ulysses" begins to be serialized in its preview chapters in the "Little Review," one batch in January 1919 falls into the hands of the censors at the U.S. Post Office. An official reports to the Chief Postmaster: "The creature who writes this Ulysses stuff should be put under a glass jar. He'd make a lovely exhibit."

As a riposte, when the novel appeared to the disdain of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence but to the acclaim of many fellow writers, Joyce chortled about that great book's opposition: "Puritans, English imperialists, Irish republicans, Catholics--what an alliance!" He reckoned he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize.

Such asides pepper the better parts of this large study, enhanced by photographs with sometimes witty captions. Joyce's fraught relations with Nora, hot and cold over so long, find their own typical summation in Joyce's estimation: "My wife's personality is absolutely proof against any influence of mine." The later years, as with many figures once they reach their prime, seem less intriguing.

Accounts accumulate of eye surgeries, drinking bouts, financial tiffs, ornery despairs unsurprisingly precipitated by physical torments and mental anguish at the household of Nora, Lucia, Giorgio and his wife, and the hangers-on and the hanging-on that an often impecunious Joyce depended upon. They all receded compared to his compulsion. This drove him despite near-blindness at times to work eleven hours a day on what became the dream state of "Finnegans Wake." He told his devoted patron Harriet Weaver: "from time to time I lie back and listen to my hair growing white."

Nobody can blame a biographer for attending to such detail over Joyce's final twenty years. It's a necessary contribution to the study of Joyce, to be welcomed by any serious student or scholar. All the same, well over two hundred pages fill with chapters of diminishing personal and familial joy, and they make for sobering instruction. They end the story wearily if poignantly, from a man whose books often brim with the mingled anguish and hopes of his fellow Dubliners and the milieu which paralyzed them first, and then their maker. None formed in that Irish time and place, perhaps, could free themselves from the net cast over them by that city and that culture Joyce evoked powerfully.
(Amazon US 6-12-12; PopMatters 6-15-12, as close to Bloomsday as could be.)

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