Book review: James Joyce: A Biography

James Joyce: A Biography by Gordon BowkerWeidenfeld & Nicholson, 640pp, £30

It is almost 30 years since the revised version of the last full biography of James Joyce, Richard Ellmann's updated masterpiece, was published. Since then, biographers have focused on specific aspects of Joyce's life, like his time in Trieste (John McCourt) or his troubled daughter, Lucia (Carol Loeb Shloss), or have given us a shortened, handier version (Edna O'Brien). During those three decades, new information has also come to light thanks to sources such as the Paul Leon papers, currently held in the National Library of Dublin.

Bowker, a highly able and acclaimed biographer, who has given us portraits of George Orwell and Malcolm Lowry, brings much of this varied and new material together - his publishers are careful to say that he "draws on much considerable new material that has only recently come to light", but this statement almost sounds as though Bowker would be uncovering further new material himself which had me hurrying to the Introduction to see what it was. His "Epiphanies", a sort of Preface to the Preface, also feel a little misleading, as they posit three situations or encounters in Joyce's life which all centred on women (his first sexual experience, his first meeting with his future wife Nora Barnacle, the public breakdown of Lucia). These give the impression that this will be predominantly a biography about Joyce and the women around him. If that is what Bowker intended, then more investigation into the women themselves would have been desirable.

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Nevertheless, Bowker has given us a very accessible and solid biography of a man whose work so many find impossible to fathom. He takes time to establish Joyce's genteel Irish origins as the son of the middle-class onetime secretary to the United Liberal Club. John Joyce's effusive personality, his singing voice, his profligate ways, his drinking and his downfall from middle-class respectability have become as much of a legend as that of his wife May's suffering through 17 pregnancies in 20 years, and her early death at the age of 44. Their son James, born in 1882, was the eldest of 13 children who survived past infancy, and by all accounts, was the most adored. Certainly, he benefited from growing up whilst his father still had money to send him to good schools, but by the time he reached university, he had rejected his mother's devotion to the Catholic faith, and seemed to be emulating his father's vices, as well as his virtues.

Joyce was always ambitious and a favourite example of his precociousness is of the young student informing Yeats, by then a well-established poet and high-profile leader of the Celtic Revival movement, "We have met too late. You are too old for me to have any effect on you". (Bowker acknowledges this was usually retold as "It is too late for me to help you"). Yeats didn't take offence and tried to give him some good contacts on his way to studying medicine in Paris. When he returned to Ireland to see his dying mother, he decided to leave his native country for good, to "fly by these nets", and be free to write. He took Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid from Galway, whom he met while out walking in Dublin, with him. The occasion of their first outing was 16 July 1904, a date he memorialised by setting his second novel, Ulysses, on the same day.

Nora bravely threw in her lot with a man she had only met a few months previously, and they travelled first to Zurich and then to Trieste. The early years were difficult, with Joyce trying to establish himself as a writer, Nora giving birth to two children, Giorgio and Lucia, and there never being enough money in the house. Joyce could never settle, going back and forth between Paris, Zurich and Trieste over the next couple of decades. His eyesight, always poor, often resulted in near-blindness, and crippling stomach aches were a nod to the ulcer that would eventually kill him just before his 59th birthday.

But by the time of the First World War, his short story collection, Dubliners, had been published (only after much wrangling with his publisher, as he resisted required edits to avoid charges of indecency) and he had been hailed - if only by one reviewer, Gerald Gould in the New Statesman - as a genius. With A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1916 attracting attention and the support of people like Ezra Pound, who worked hard to get Joyce money, the Joyce family fortunes changed.

Ulysses was published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach's bookshop Shakespeare and Company, after various publishers ran scared of the censor. It was initially banned in both the US and the UK - Bowker is excellent on the details of the book's troubled publishing history, although this is hardly new information. He does emphasise another woman, Harriet Shaw Weaver's, financial support of Joyce, which enabled the writer finally to live well, and her wavering on Finnegans Wake, a work she, like many others, struggled to understand.

Bowker refrains from offering much in the way of explication of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, unlike Richard Ellmann, whose more imaginative approach to both the works and the life is missed here. Bowker likes the facts - he won't speculate on the causes of Lucia Joyce's mental breakdowns, which resulted in her father's many desperate searches for a cure as he tried to save her from the madhouse, nor will he ponder the nature of Lucia's dubious relationship (according to Shloss), with her brother. Privileging objectivity over subjectivity means that Bowker has given us a solid Joyce for us to view rather than a way into understanding the man. We do not get inside Joyce's head here - and the wary may be grateful for that. For those of us less wary, this is a pity.