James Joyce

James Joyce

by Edna O'Brien

The fifth book in the bestselling Penguin Lives -- Penguin Lives pairs celebrated writers with famous Great writers on great figures individuals who have shaped our thinking.

With all the earthy sensuality and majestic storytelling that have made her one of Ireland's preeminent writers, award-winning novelist Edna O'Brien paints the most…  See more details below


The fifth book in the bestselling Penguin Lives -- Penguin Lives pairs celebrated writers with famous Great writers on great figures individuals who have shaped our thinking.

With all the earthy sensuality and majestic storytelling that have made her one of Ireland's preeminent writers, award-winning novelist Edna O'Brien paints the most passionate, personal, and sensuous portrait of her fellow countryman yet written. James Joyce is a return journey to the land of politics, history, and the saints and scholars that shaped this creator of the twentieth century's most groundbreaking novel, Ulysses.

In her beautiful, poetic telling, O'Brien traces Joyce's early days as the rambunctious young Jesuit student; his falling in love with a tall, red-haired Galway girl named Nora Barnacle on Bloomsday; and his exile to Trieste where he met with success, love, and finally, despair. Only Edna O'Brien, with her deft, supple prose, her rebel Irish heart, and her kindred spirit, could capture the brilliance and complexity of this great modern master.

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Editorial Reviews

Dallas Morning News
Ms. O'Brien's lack of objectivity is to Joyce's advantage, as she works herself up to white-hot bursts of prose that illuminate dark corners of her subject's life and work.
Patricia Craig
The James Joyce story is well known, but this new abbreviated version by Edna O'Brien illuminates is essentail components while presenting a useful, and resourceful, summary of the facts...This book is a pungent and high-spirited contribution to Joycean studies.
Times Literary Supplement
Jeremiah Creedon
O'Brien's slender, vivid portrait of her fellow Irish writer captures both the brilliance and the sadness of a life given to the pursuit of literary beauty.
The Utne Reader
Joyceans should rest assured: not since Anthony Burgess has anyone so gorgeously sung such praise for a man whose work, let's face it, can seem incomprehensible to the noninfatuated...Joyce fans should thank their lucky stars... O'Brien's triumph is that while celebrating Joyce and his ecstatic quest to lay image on counterimage, to weave his ''weirdly beautiful word constellations,'' she has drawn the desperation and sadness of the man whose name means joy.
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
This new entry in the Penguin Lives series is a thumbnail portrait of the artist, from brash young man to old master of Modernism, from the acclaimed author of the Country Girls' Trilogy. On the edge of exile from Ireland in 1904, Joyce wrote to a dismissive Lady Gregory, "Now I will make my own legend and stick to it," and so does O'Brien, with obvious passion for her subject. Told in compressed pocket-edition form, Joyce's life has a raucous picaresque atmosphere about it: penurious childhood, rebellious adolescence, ambitious youth, acrimonious exile, and notorious publication, along with an impassioned marriage and a few literary masterpieces. O'Brien's description of Joyce's education by Jesuits and Dubliners deftly foreshadows his eccentric wandering character. Writing about Joyce, O'Brien often succumbs to the temptation to write like Joyce, which is fine for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but not Finnegans Wake ("icky licky micky red-light district"?). Nonetheless, between quotes and pastiches, she does provide a reasonable flavor of multifarious Joycean prose. For such a thin book, however, there are an annoying number of inconsistencies and errors. For example, O'Brien misidentifies Henry Carr as playing "a minor part" when he was in fact cast as Algernon in Joyce's ill-fated Zurich production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which led to legal action all around and a hilarious episode in Ulysses. Also, the apparently apocryphal origin of Joyce's stream-of-consciousness technique—arising from the author and his brother Stanislaus talking in their sleep—is presented at face value in one place, while elsewhere O'Brien also gives the more traditionalantecedent, Edouard Dujardin. Joyce's eventual marriage to Nora Barnacle in 1931, 27 years after their elopement, goes unmentioned, although their union otherwise gets plenty of juicy detail. Just as Ulysses spawned numerous short guides, O'Brien's brief biography reads like a crib to Richard Ellmann's magisterial life: a quick, colorful outline for those about to tackle the real thing. (First serial to the New Yorker; Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection)

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Product Details

Phoenix House
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Read an Excerpt

Once Upon a Time
Once upon a time there was a man coming down a road in Dublin and he gave himself the name of Dedalus the sorcerer, constructor of labyrinths and maker of wings for Icarus who flew so close to the sun that he fell, as the apostolic Dubliner James Joyce would fall deep into a world of words-from the "epiphanies" of youth to the epistomadologies of later years.
James Joyce, poor joist, a funnominal man, supporting a gay house in a slum of despond. His name derived from the Latin and meant joy but at times he thought himself otherwise-a jejune Jesuit spurning Christ's terrene body, a lecher, a Christian brother in luxuriousness, a Joyce of all trades, a bullock-befriending bard, a peerless mummer, a priestified kinchite, a quill-frocked friar, a timoneer, a pool-beg flasher and a man with the gift of the Irish majuscule script.
A man of profligate tastes and blatant inconsistencies, afraid of dogs and thunder yet able to strike fear and subordination into those he met; a man who at thirty-nine would weep because of not having had a large family of his own yet cursed the society and the Church for whom his mother like so many Irish mothers was a "cracked vessel for childbearing." In all she bore sixteen children; some died in infancy, others in their early years, leaving her and her husband with a family of ten to provide for.
"Those haunted inkpots" Joyce called his childhood homes, the twelve or thirteen addresses as their financial fates took a tumble. First there was relative comfort and even traces of semi-grandeur. His mother, Miss May Murray, daughter of a Dublin wine merchant, versed in singing, dancing, deportment and politeness, was a deeply religious girl and a lifelong member of the Sodality of Our Lady. She was a singer in the church choir where her future and Rabelaisian husband John, ten years her senior, took a shine to her and set about courting her. His mother objected, regarding the Murrays as being of a lower order, but he was determined in his suit and even moved to the same street so as to be able to take her for walks. Courtships in Dublin were just that, through the foggy streets under the yellowed lamps, along the canal or out to the seashore which James Joyce was to immortalize in his prose-"Cold light on sea, on sand on boulders" and the speech of water slipping and slopping in the cups of rock. His father and mother had walked where he would walk as a young man, drifter and dreamer, who would in his fiction delineate each footstep, each bird call, each oval of sand wet or dry, the seaweed emerald and olive, set them down in a mirage of language that was at once real and transubstantiating and would forever be known as Joyce's Dublin. His pride in this was such that he said if the Dublin of his time were to be destroyed it could be reconstructed from his works.
James Augustine Joyce was their second son, born February 2, 1882. An infant, John, had died at birth, causing John Joyce to indulge in a bit of bathos, saying, "My life was buried with him." May Joyce said nothing; deference to her husband was native to her, that and a fatality about life's vicissitudes. John Joyce's life was not buried with his first son; he was a lively, lusty man and for many years his spirit and his humor prevailed. But sixteen pregnancies later, and almost as many house moves, impecunity, disappointments and children's deaths did make for a broken household. His enmity toward his wife's family and sometimes toward his wife herself was vented at all hours-the name Murray stank in his nostrils whereas the name Joyce imparted "a perfumed tipsy sensation." Only the Joyce ancestry appeared in photographs and the Joyce coat of arms was on proud display. He was a gifted man, a great tenor, a great raconteur and one whose wit masked a desperate savagery.
James, when young, was known as "Sunny Jim" and being a favorite he would steal out of the nursery and come down the stairs shouting gleefully, "I'm here, I'm here." By the time he was five he was singing at their Sunday musical parties and accompanying his parents to recitals in the Bray Boat Club. By then too he was wearing glasses because of being nearsighted. That he loved his mother then is abundantly clear, identifying her with the Virgin Mary, steeped as he was in the ritual and precepts of the Catholic Church. She was such a pious woman that she trusted her confessor more than any member of her own family. She was possessive of Sunny Jim, warning him not to mix with rough boys and even disapproving of a valentine note which a young girl, Eileen Vance, had sent to him when he was six:
O Jimmie Joyce you are my darling You are my looking glass from night till morning I'd rather have you without one farthing Than Harry Newall and his ass and garden.
His mother with her "nicer smell than his father" was the object of his accumuled tenderness and when he was parting from her he pretended not to see the tears under her veil.

Reprinted from James Joyce by Edna O'Brien by permission of Viking Publishing, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Edna O'Brien. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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