From the Publisher
“[Bowker] offer[s] a less awestruck, more warts-and-all account of the writer's life and character . . . Bowker writes clearly and forcefully . . . Gordon Bowker's ‘new biography' is well worth reading, even if Joyce comes across as brilliant but exploitative, admirable as an artist but often mortifying as a man. It's not always a pretty picture, but it seems like a true one.” Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
“Gordon Bowker's James Joyce: A New Biography is a fascinating and insightful portrait of the artist as a young, then middle-aged, and then old man, and goes a long way to explaining the Western world's most enigmatic literary giant . . . Bowker's narrative concentrates on the existential struggle of Joyce's life, going beyond the complex relationship he had with his wife, Nora Barnacle, his muse and template for Molly Bloom. Bowker reveals the yin of this fundamentally bourgeois family man with the yang of his hyper-bohemian and rebellious soul . . . Bowker vividly sets the turbulent life of James Joyce in the context of his time and place, dominated as it was by the über-provincialism of his native Ireland, the land that he loved and scorned, immortalized and repudiated.” Doug McIntyre, The Lost Angeles Daily News
“It is a great boon that British biographer Gordon Bowker, who has written lives of Malcolm Lowry, George Orwell and Lawrence Durrell, should have taken on this task, and better yet that he has produced such a fine portrait of the artist and the man who was James Joyce . . . Instead of being daunted by Joyce having in a sense got there before him, Bowker makes this a strength, as he skillfully presents incidents and experiences both as they happened in life and, suitably transformed to varying degrees, on the page . . . the reader has the best of both worlds, being informed--or in the case of those already familiar with the books, reminded--both of the glories of Joycean fiction and of their roots in his life. Never reductive, genuinely attuned to both Joyce's fictive methodology and his human qualities, Bowker manages to be immensely sympathetic to his subject while managing to preserve necessary critical distance and acuity.” Martin Rubin, The San Francisco Chronicle
“In his unfussy way Bowker gives a sound account of Joyce's maturation as an artist, one who could weather the many vicissitudes, rejections, and appalling bouts of ill-health with which he had to contend . . . Gordon Bowker has written a solidly readable life of one of the great figures of the twentieth century . . . If it succeeds in bringing new and younger readers to these marvelous fictions, his book is to be warmly welcomed.” John Banville, The New Republic
“Joyce himself emerges from these pages as oddly heroic in his seriousness and perseverance . . . The distance between Joyce the man suffering and Joyce magisterial at his desk seems large and mysterious. The story of his life, told here with verve and pace, nonetheless remains a fascinating version of making it new under the most severe pressures.” Colm Toibin, The New York Times Book Review
“The biographer of Orwell, Lowry and Durrell returns with a massively detailed narrative of the life of the author of Ulysses. Bowker (Inside George Orwell, 2003, etc.) begins with several of the myriad epiphanies Joyce valued--the first, a moment when he was 16 and lost both his virginity and the Virgin (he decided that was fun, and no Jesuit priesthood for me). The author then announces his intentions--to show the complexities and contradictions of the man--and proceeds to do so in detail that is . . . impressive . . . Our guide is wise and the journey is wondrous.” Kirkus
“Bowker's splendid, insightful, and witty biography illuminates the connection between Joyce's erotic imagination and humane spirit, offering a clear-eyed celebration of his perverse comic genius . . . Drawing on material published since the 1982 revision of Richard Ellman's classic Joyce biography, including biographies of Nora herself and their troubled daughter, Lucia, Bowker . . . explores Joyce's inner landscape, most of it shaped by Dublin and his Jesuit education. Bowker captures the human comedy that surrounded Joyce, describing Ezra Pound, whose review of Dubliners in 1913 launched Joyce's career, as ‘Literature's own fairy godmother.' As Joyce's reputation grew, he retreated into a circle of friends and family and the increasingly interior world of his writing. His last years were increasingly darkened by illness and concern for his family. Joyce thought his daughter Lucia's strangeness was untapped genius similar to his own and fought to keep her out of the hands of doctors and clinics--egocentric in the extreme, but far from heartless.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Wonderfully detailed and gripping . . . It is different from most literary biographies because Joyce's life and work are so tightly bound. Bowker sets it down: there would have been no Stephen Dedalus without James' father, no Molly Bloom without Nora, no Leopold Bloom without Alfred Hugh Hunter . . . Here we meet the models for everybody . . . And the final success of this book is that when you snap shut the final page there is nothing your hand wants to reach for except a volume of Joyce.” Chris Proctor, Tribune Magazine (London)
“James Joyceby Gordon Bowker is the finest biography of the year . . . but this new work is a consummate and more complete understanding of James Joyce and the source of his inspirations . . . If you care about the making of a new language by the most revolutionary Irish writer who ever lived, you will also find how the persons and incidents in his life became the fragments for Ulysses and more. This is also a brilliant study of young Pound, Yeats, Synge, Eliot. It’s also a potboiler. How could it be anything but? The young James Joyce was licentious, sentient, fearless, and interested in a sexually active world. Literature may be a high form of gossip and this has all the rich and powerful details, as well as a history of European literature in the early 20th century . . . It would be impossible to read this book and not be transported and privileged to be led through the doors and mirrors with this torturedself-created genius. Gordon Bowker’s exhaustive research has given us a triumph of literary scholarship.” Ruth Cavalieri, The Washington Independent Review of Books
“The strength in James Joyce: A New Biography is that Bowker knew exactly what he was dealing with . . . he's crafted a powerful, insightful, and compelling biography of a man who is scarcely better understood than his work. His tone is confident but never familiar, and very rarely speculative--a pleasure given the trends in recent biography . . . You hold in your hands the best ‘approximation' of a life--no less, but so much more. It's not a novel, or a soulless two-dimensional collection of facts. Instead, it's a more than capable, fast-flowing narrative that is buttressed by facts that contributed to some of the greatest and boldest literature of the twentieth century . . . A portrait of the artist, and a not so flattering one at that, emerges . . . Bowker's approach outshines what people come in knowing, destroys rumor, provides fact, and paints a vivid portrait . . . of the scarred life of a genius . . . Each corollary between life and literature, made by Bowker, is enriching and exciting as the knowledge of Joyce's works (major and minor alike) is continually expanded . . . [A] terrific biography . . . . Read the Bowker, and reach to Joyce.” Josh Zajdman, Bookslut
“[A] deft, accomplished biography . . . It shows Joyce's recognition of his creative vocation as a gift to the world, though it cost so much in the way of poverty, misery and mortification.” Richard Davenport-Hines, The Telegraph
“No book on James Joyce goes half as far as this one in establishing connections between passages in the classic texts and incidents in the artist's life . . . This study will be valuable to students as a summation of our current biographical knowledge of Joyce. It captures recurring features of his art [and] shows how difficult he could be even to his greatest admirers; yet it also evokes the heroism of a man who, confronted by poverty, ill health and endless uprootings, somehow found in himself the courage to write epics in celebration of ordinary people and the intricacies of their minds. It is in its way an example as well as an account of dignified audacity.” Declan Kiberd, The Guardian
“Both learned and readable . . . There have only ever been three important biographies of Joyce, including the present volume.” Edmund Gordon, The Sunday Times (London)
“This new book extends the record--and not only the record, but the entire epistemology of the Joycean discourse. Taking previous biographies and published records as a series of knowing but politicised texts, Bowker has restored Joyce to his contradictory, ambivalent humanity. Digging deeper into personal archives, Bowker explores the complex family background . . . [A] shrewd and highly readable biography.” Thomas McCarthy, Irish Examiner
“In James Joyce, Gordon Bowker does an efficient job of presenting the often bleak realities of Joyce's childhood. Since that childhood became the raw material of so much of his fiction, Mr. Bowker is wise to emphasize it . . . Mr. Bowker's endearing advocacy--‘when [Joyce] wrote, all boundaries fell before the force and sweep of his imagination'--is touching and . . . revealing of truth . . . This is a well-researched, accessible book . . . It is refreshingly free of the jargon of literary-critical theory . . . Ultimately, Mr. Bowker's biography leaves the reader with a picture that feels true--of a brilliant, somewhat broken but ineffably brave author who set out while very young to do something impossible and was willing to accept any consequence . . . Joyce is a powerful reminder that only one thing matters: the words on the page and getting them right. He worked hard at that task. It seems only fair that his readers might be asked to meet him halfway, as Mr. Bowker does, to his credit.” Joseph O'Connor, The Wall Street Journal
“Gordon Bowker . . . gives us a massive, intricate, contemporary take on Joyce, making use of newly discovered materials . . . Bowker . . . create[s] a sharp, memorable portrait of Joyce, particularly the youthful Joyce whose ‘merry comedic spirit,' along with ‘his brilliance, his wit and his amusing streak of contrariness' comes across vividly . . . [The biography] remind[s] us of the enormous talent and dedication [Joyce] possessed.” Floyd Skloot, The Boston Globe
“Gordon Bowker's new James Joyce . . . [is] a pleasure, for Joyce fans as well as those fascinated by writers' lives . . . Bowker writes knowledgeably and engagingly about his subject, clearly fascinated by how the life led to the words that survive it. Early on, he compares biography to confronting the wreckage of a deserted house. ‘Amid the chaos,' he writes, ‘we may catch a fleeting impression of what the place once was like when occupied, a presumption of lives lived, of memories stored and passions spent.' Here, he's found a life--and a mind--well worth a second glance.” Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times
“Veteran writer Gordon Bowker's James Joyce: A New Biography is a deft and delightful left turn, a graceful avoidance of the sternly traditional approach to literary biography . . . Gordon Bowker walks through the deserted, century-old ‘rooms' of James Joyce's life, duly noting the location of the furniture, the details, the fabrics, which windows or doors are closed, which ones are open. He fingers the curios on the shelf, but, unlike Richard Ellmann before him, he dares to spin the gramophone, uncover the chair in the corner and try it out, see how it feels; he sits down, noticing the view from that corner of the long-dead room. He shares it with us, helps us see the life of a great writer . . . One of the strengths of Bowker's approach is his presentation of the roots and origins of the famous characters--Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, all drawn from the streets and people of Joyce's Dublin, his friends, enemies, relations. We know them now, we see them . . . It is Bowker's style and grace that illumines and enchants. You will be inspired to reread. Or first read. Finnegans Wake on the beach this summer? It could happen.” Barry Wightman, The Washington Independent Review of Books
“There are obvious autobiographical resonances throughout Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Bowker is helpful in drawing these out . . . Bowker carefully unpicks these characters, settings, and events from Joyce's work, both annotating the life fictionally and allowing biography to ‘foreshadow the work' . . . Describing Joyce's death in 1940, Bowker writes that ‘his condition deteriorated and he lost consciousness, waking only to ask that Nora's bed be placed next to his as his had been close to hers in the hospital once. ("He might die before his mother came," thought young Stephen Dedalus.)' Flights of biographical fancy like this one--where the writing serves as a direct substitute for the writer's thought--have a beautiful, mirror-like quality . . . Bowker . . . conjure[s] sparks.” Jenny Hendrix, The Christian Science Monitor
“Particularly during his account of Joyce's final two decades, Bowker provides useful updates to what Ellmann wrote, thanks to more recent biographies of Nora and Lucia Joyce, Stuart Gilbert's often catty journal and materials involving Ulysses publisher Sylvia Beach. Bowker also draws helpful connections between biographical details in Joyce's life and fragments of Finnegans Wake, where even the most intrepid and devoted Joyce reader can always use more help.” Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“Bowker's work focuses more on Joyce's inner life . . . 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 first half moves along at an efficient pace as many anecdotes demonstrate how Joyce applied everyday details that would be used decades later in his texts . . . 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 . . . Bowker's work is a necessary contribution to the study of Joyce, and should be welcomed by any serious student or scholar . . . The biography ends . . . poignantly; what emerges is the tale of 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.” John L. Murphey, Pop Matters
“Gordon Bowker's biography, based on many new sources, must now be considered the definitive life of Joyce, and it is most welcome.” Tim Redman, The Dallas Morning News
“[An] engrossing new life.” Bill Tipper, Barnes and Noble Review
“For those seeking a terse account of the life, Edna O'Brien's James Joyce will do the job. For those wishing strictly literary criticism, John Gross's James Joyce is recommended. But for readers who want both in sufficient and up-to-date detail, nothing beats Bowker's book . . . Outstanding about Bowker are his judiciousness and readability on top of thorough research . . . Bowker's book becomes a paradigm of how brilliant fictional strategy works up bits of reality, how genius transfigures the givens of life . . . Bowker has further strengths, such as a dry wit that complements Joyce's own, frequently and hilariously quoted. Also keen psychological insight into such matters as Joyce's stupendous love-hate for his native Dublin . . . Joyce's entire life [is] deftly evoked by Bowker . . . I warmly suggest your reading Bowker's spellbinding biography.” John Simon, Uncensored John Simon
“[A] brilliant work by Gordon Bowker . . . clear and straightforward, beautifully written and meticulously researched . . . [Bowker] has produced a portrait of the artist in full. He places Joyce's fiction solidly within the context of his life, relating fictional episodes to their real-life counterparts. Few biographies of Joyce have so clearly established these relationships.” John M. Formy-Duval, about.com
“Gordon Bowker's life, the first significant volume for more than 50 years since Richard Ellmann's version, is a masterly example of how to trace the life of a writer, particularly one as difficult as Joyce. Mr Bowker begins by skillfully describing his early years in Dublin, filling in the background details of an Ireland which Joyce would draw upon, for the rest of his life, as material for his fiction. Mr Bowker evokes the dark and occasionally cramped conditions of the Joyces' various family homes, and refers to meteorological reports, school timetables and details of Joyce's father's various mortgages, his biography meticulously researched. Out of these facts, a picture of a brilliant but troubled writer emerges . . . It is apt, 90 years after 'Ulysses' was published, that Joyce is celebrated on 'Bloomsday', June 16th. This biography is an excellent reminder of why he deserves such a celebration.” The Economist
The Washington Post
…[a] warts-and-all account of the writer's life and character. Hitherto best known for his biographies of Malcolm Lowry and Lawrence Durrell, Bowker writes clearly and forcefully, acknowledges the work of earlier scholars and critics, and generally shies away from any extended analysis of the literary works themselves. His focus, then, is almost strictly on Joyce the human being…well worth reading, even if Joyce comes across as brilliant but exploitative, admirable as an artist but often mortifying as a man. It's not always a pretty picture, but it seems like a true one.
I guess the man’s a genius, but what a dirty mind he has,” Nora Barnacle said after reading Ulysses. For “dirty,” substitute Joyce’s view of the human condition as comedy: Rabelaisian, rather than divine. Bowker’s splendid, insightful, and witty biography illuminates the connection between Joyce’s erotic imagination and humane spirit, offering a clear-eyed celebration of his perverse comic genius. Joyce was an apostate Catholic who still considered himself a Jesuit, a permanent “exile who never left Dublin,” and an extreme egotist. Drawing on material published since the 1982 revision of Richard Ellman’s classic Joyce biography, including biographies of Nora herself and their troubled daughter, Lucia, Bowker (Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry) explores Joyce’s inner landscape, most of it shaped by Dublin and his Jesuit education. Bowker captures the human comedy that surrounded Joyce, describing Ezra Pound, whose review of Dubliners in 1913 launched Joyce’s career, as “Literature’s own fairy godmother.” As Joyce’s reputation grew, he retreated into a circle of friends and family and the increasingly interior world of his writing. His last years were increasingly darkened by illness and concern for his family. Joyce thought his daughter Lucia’s strangeness was untapped genius similar to his own and fought to keep her out of the hands of doctors and clinics—egocentric in the extreme, but far from heartless. Photos. Agent: Phyllis Westberg, Harold Ober Associates. (June)
About.com John M. Formy-Duval
[A] brilliant work by Gordon Bowker . . . clear and straightforward, beautifully written and meticulously researched . . . [Bowker] has produced a portrait of the artist in full. He places Joyce's fiction solidly within the context of his life, relating fictional episodes to their real-life counterparts. Few biographies of Joyce have so clearly established these relationships.
Bowker (George Orwell) goes beyond the facts of Joyce's life (1882–1941) to explore the "elusive consciousness" of this major 20th-century novelist who used revolutionary techniques to creat in Ulysses a "landmark of literary modernism." To show that even minor details from Joyce's experience turn up in his autobiographical fiction, Bowker draws on what he describes as newly available material (although the specifics of the new sources are not clarified) to move beyond previous biographies (e.g., by Herbert Gorman, 1939, and Richard Ellmann, 1959, revised 1982). He identifies three major issues that plagued Joyce's life and work: poverty, often of his own making; failing eyesight leading to a preoccupation with the other senses; and his daughter's mental illness. Pursuing a life dedicated to art, Joyce abandoned Ireland and its restrictive Catholic faith for a life of exile in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris but, as Bowker emphasizes, his native country and city remained his muses throughout his career. VERDICT The extent to which Bowker ties life events, even minor ones, to details in Joyce's works sets this book apart. This is where scholars will benefit as much as Joyce novices who are interested in learning more about this trailblazing author who changed the way fiction is written and read.—Denise J. Stankovics, formerly with Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT
The biographer of Orwell, Lowry and Durrell returns with a massively detailed narrative of the life of the author of Ulysses. Bowker (Inside George Orwell, 2003, etc.) begins with several of the myriad epiphanies Joyce valued--the first, a moment when he was 16 and lost both his virginity and the Virgin (he decided that was fun, and no Jesuit priesthood for me). The author then announces his intentions--to show the complexities and contradictions of the man--and proceeds to do so in detail that is so impressive as to be overwhelming at times. Joyce (1882–1941) emerges as a mess of a man in these pages. The author charts the grim history of his eye problems (nearly a dozen eye operations, some involving leeches), his struggle to survive in the early days of his adulthood and marriage, the sad madness of his daughter, his enormous talents (he learned languages quickly, read everything) and his difficulty finding publishers for Dubliners and the more controversial works that followed. It took a famous Supreme Court ruling to decriminalize Ulysses in the United States. Joyce found a generous patron, though--Harriet Shaw Weaver--whose substantial gifts encouraged the spendthrift genius to live beyond his means, traveling throughout Europe, staying in first-class hotels, no longer the starving artist. Bowker's labor to keep track of the plethora of places the Joyces lived is Herculean by itself. We see Joyce, too, as a prodigious worker who labored for endless hours, completing not just the shelf- and mind-bending novels Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake but a play, stories and essays. Bowker goes light on the literary criticism. We see Joyce at work and read about technique and intent, but there are few journeys into exegesis. The narrative path is sometimes obscured by a lush undergrowth of detail, but our guide is wise and the journey is wondrous.
Read an Excerpt
'The past is not past. It is present here and now.' Joyce, Exiles
In a class-conscious society like British Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century, family origin was the main determinant of social status. For John Stanislaus Joyce and his son James, identity was inseparable from family - its historical line and ramifications. The ancestral presence reminded them of who they were and reinforced their sense of social distinction. As James's father began to squander his inheritance and the family descended into poverty, asserting claims to a distinguished ancestry became ever more important to him. Family associations, escutcheons and portraits became more meaningful, and the family legend passed on to his children became increasingly colourful and inventive.
Two ideas were very important to James Joyce - that the Joyce family had distant Scandinavian origins, and that Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator, was a paternal ancestor. From his father he inherited portraits of various ghostly forebears, to which he added family portraits of his own. He had a close relationship with his mother and his bond with his father was strong and formative enough for many of the old man's eccentricities to shape his own personality. But he had very little time for his siblings, except Stanislaus, his next-eldest brother, George who died young, and Mabel who suffered the same fate. Consequently for him, as time went by, the past was more immediate than the present, and became the chosen playground of his fiction.
His family had its Irish roots, he claimed, somewhere in the so-called Joyce country of County Galway, in the far west of Ireland, whence, it is said, come all Irish Joyces. They had migrated from Normandy to Wales following William's conquest of England, and thence to Galway following Cromwell's conquest of Ireland. For any imagination haunted by ghosts, here was a rich legendary past to inhabit and explore - as Joyce did in Finnegans Wake.1 But his immediate branch of the family, the historically present Joyces, had by the very late eighteenth century gravitated southwardsto County Cork, 'a southern offshoot of the tribe', or so he claimed.2
The Joyces' recorded history originates with a certain George Joyce of Fermoy who begat the author's great-grandfather, James, born in Cork and married to Anne McCann, an Ulsterwoman. Great-Grandfather Joyce, a lime burner by trade, was by repute 'a fierce old fire-eater' and probably a member of the Whiteboys, a secret terrorist group operating in Munster during the 1820s, attacking the larger landed properties and acting to defend tenant farmers. He was said to have been arrested, tried, and barely escaped hanging, living on to establish himself as a successful building contractor.
According to Peter Costello, unlike his strong-willed forebears, the son of James and Anne Joyce, James Augustine Joyce (1827-66), another Corkman, was 'little more than a feckless charmer; a typical man of the third generation only too happy to spend what his father and grandfather had won.'3 He was a horse-trader and reckless gambler who lost a great deal of money. Perhaps in the hope of stemming his excesses, his family married him off to a woman ten years his senior, Ellen O'Connell, an ex-nun. She was a member of the extensive O'Connell clan which included the great Daniel, MP for Clare and a dominant force in Irish politics during the first half of the nineteenth century. When James Augustine's business eventually failed, his father-in-law, Alderman John O'Connell, secured him a sinecure as Inspector of Hackney Coaches (or 'jingles'), with an office in the City Hall. Here, it has been suggested, is where the idea that the world owed the Joyces a living, which the author's father evidently inherited, first took root.4
John Stanislaus Joyce, James's only offspring, was born in Cork city on 4 July 1849. James proved an affable father, but Ellen a sour and censorious mother. Although John was coached by a pious aunt, who later took the veil, he eventually became anticlerical, possibly influenced by his grandfather, old James Joyce, who believed that religion was only for women.
Intent on transforming his son into a gentleman able to move in the highest circles of Irish society, on St Patrick's Day, 1859, John's father entered him at the newly established St Colman's College in Fermoy, but he was to remain under priestly eyes for barely a year. The youngest boy in the college, he was said to have been spoiled, and although not much of a scholar, acquired a ready wit and gained a familiarity with the priesthood which later he came to despise. He began to imbibe ideas of Fenianism from these men of the cloth and other boys at the college, as well as from those of his relatives prominent in Irish politics. Music and singing, a significant part of college life, became a significant part of John's life. He had 'a good treble voice', it was said, and 'sang at concerts at an early age',5 acquiring a passion for operatic arias and old Irish ballads,a passion communicated to James, the son who took after him most. Some of his favourite songs, such as 'Blarney Castle', formed part of young James's repertoire, and 'The Last Rose of Summer' became Mina Kennedy's favourite song in the 'Sirens' episode of Ulysses. John's stay at St Colman's was curtailed when he was withdrawn on 19 February 1860, either because his fees were unpaid, or after a severe attack of rheumatic fever rendered almost lethal by typhoid.6 After that, most likely he completed his education under private tuition.
After St Colman's, John's parents resolved to build him up, and he began a programme of cold baths, exercise, rowing and athletics, which he claimed accounted for his relative longevity. There are allusions to this Spartan lifestyle in James's story 'The Sisters', and in Ulysses in Bloom's interest in the exercises of the German strongman, Eugen Sandow.7 As part of this regime, John's father arranged for him to work aboard a Cork Harbour pilot boat. There he acquired a stomach for sea travel and what his biographers call a 'vocabulary of abuse that for years was the delight of his bar-room cronies',8 able to draw upon a whole lexicon of inventive expletives. Favourites included 'Shite and onions!', 'I'll make you smell hell!' and, when things went badly for him later, 'Curse your bloody blatant soul ... Ye dirty pissabed, ye bloody-looking crooked-eyed son of a bitch. Ye dirty bloody corner-boy, you've a mouth like a bloody nigger.'9 The story of the seaman (D.B. Murphy) encountered by Bloom and Stephen at the cabman's shelter in the 'Eumeus' episode of Ulysses, full of hair-raising stories of treacherous foreigners, has the smack of John Stanislaus, the young salt, knocking around Cork Harbour. And the songs of Italian sailors, alluded to in the 'Sirens' episode, must have passed through John's musical memory into the creative imagination of his son.
Later in life he followed the hounds, a love of the chase caught presumably from his father's love of horses. 'Begor, hunting was the game for me,' he told a journalist in old age.10 This passion is given voice in Ulysses, when, in 'Circe', the hunting cries 'Holà! Hillyho!' and 'Bulblul Burblblburblb! Hai, boy!' echo between Bloom and Stephen amid the surrealistic anarchy of Bella Cohen's whorehouse. And John's habit of regular long walks around Dublin and environs, caught by his children, foreshadows the wandering narrative line which snakes through most of his son's fiction.
Politics was a running theme throughout John's life. As well as the Fenianism imbibed as a schoolboy, two O'Connell uncles became town councillors in Cork, and one of his cousins, Peter Paul McSwiney, became Lord Mayor of Dublin. The 1860s saw the resurgence of a Fenian movement prepared to take up arms to liberate Ireland. Under their leader, James Stephens, they led an abortive uprising in February 1867, resultingin imprisonment for the rebels. The movement's conspiratorial air appealed to John, and while the extent of his involvement with it is unknown, escaping to university might have saved him from a stint behind bars.
Although he gained entry to Queen's College, Cork, in October 1866, the death of John's father, who was barely forty, delayed his starting there until the following year. He chose to study medicine and found life as a medical student highly congenial - the conviviality, the drinking, the swapping of obscene anecdotes. Cherished memories of those carefree days were passed to his son who fed them into A Portrait of the Artist. John is said to have had 'stage presence', and the demands of student life did not prevent him from acting, singing comic songs at college concerts (including the then-popular 'Tim Finnegan's Wake'), and throwing himself into college sports. He was especially keen on field athletics and cricket, a passion his literary son inherited. In the 'Lotus-Eaters' chapter of Ulysses, Joyce recalls one celebrated Dublin cricketing hero:
Heavenly weather really [muses Bloom] ... Cricket weather. Sit around under sunshades. Over after over. Out ... Duck for six wickets. Still Captain Buller broke a window in the Kildare street club with a slog to square leg.11
John failed his second-year exams, and returned to college for a further year before leaving without a degree.
In July 1870, at the age of twenty-one, he came into part of his inheritance, including properties in Cork yielding an annual income of some £500 from rents. Almost simultaneously the Franco-Prussian War broke out. It caused a sensation in Cork, with demonstrations and Irish volunteers rushing to the aid of the embattled Catholic French. John decided to join the fray, only to be intercepted in London by his mother and shipped straight back home. She was also alert to any female entanglements she considered unsuitable, and John's affairs were often cut short by maternal intervention. However, he was not deterred. As a young man, according to James, his father was 'a conqueror of women'. This reckless pursuit of the female once led, it seems, to a venereal infection, though his claim to have cured himself of a syphilitic chancre seems exaggerated. The idea that inherited syphilis led to his favourite son's later near-blindness has been argued and discounted, John never having shown any of the advanced symptoms of the disease. Nevertheless, that James may himself have contracted some sexual infection leading to rheumatic and ocular afflictions is not entirely improbable.12
Following university, John's life began to progress. After a few years asan accountant he took a job, for £300 a year and a £500 shareholding, as secretary of a distillery established by Henry Alleyn, a Cork businessman, at Chapelizod (meaning 'the Chapel of Isolde'). This Dublin suburb with legendary associations would capture the imagination of his son, the author, who made it the home of James Duffy in his short story 'A Painful Case', and is the setting of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's 1861 novel, The House by the Churchyard, which features in Finnegans Wake. Robert Broadbent of Chapelizod, a friend of John's, owned the Mullingar Hotel which became in the novel the home of landlord Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, him of the ambiguously recurrent initials. H.C.E. (Here Comes Everybody; Haveth Childers Everywhere) owed something to Hugh C. E. Childers, Gladstone's Chancellor and Secretary of State for War, an Irish Home Ruler, whom John met at Dublin's United Liberal Club in 1880.13
To his various pastimes John now added yachting around the mouth of the River Liffey and into Dublin Bay, and serious opera-going. He delighted in the great singers who visited Dublin during that period. John himself had developed a fine tenor voice, and sang occasionally in concerts at Dublin's Antient Concert Rooms. He was thrilled on being told that he had been declared 'the best tenor in Ireland' by Barton McGuckin, a celebrated singer with the Carl Rosa Opera Company - a story he never tired of repeating to anyone who cared or did not care to listen.
At that time, Dublin musical culture was suffused with a passion for opera. As Joyce told Stuart Gilbert:
One of the most remarkable features of Dublin life in the heyday of Mr Bloom [and John Joyce] was the boundless enthusiasm of all classes of citizens for music, especially of the vocal and operatic varieties ... and their cult of the divo, carried to a degree unknown even in Italy.14
The lasting and profound influence of this enthusiasm on James has been well noted, and Peter Costello underlines the point by asking, 'What after all is Finnegans Wake but a species of operatic chorus?'15
Nor had John lost his penchant for acting, especially when tipsy and telling colourful stories. One which spun itself into Finnegans Wake was the Crimean War story of Buckley the Irish soldier, who once had a Russian general in his sights, but, in awe of his uniform and decorations, was unable to fire. Then, reminding himself of his duty, he took aim again, at which moment the general dropped his pants to relieve himself, again prompting the soldier, unable to shoot so vulnerable a target, to lower his gun. However, when the man then proceeded to wipe himself with a piece of turf, Buckley could no longer respect the man and shothim. How he might use this story did not dawn on Joyce until, in the late twenties, he told it to Samuel Beckett, who commented, 'Another insult to Ireland.' 'Now,' said Joyce delightedly, 'now I can use it.'16
At the distillery, fate suddenly took an unfortunate turn. The manager, Alleyn, was misappropriating the firm's funds, and, when challenged by John, disappeared with the spoils. The company later went into liquidation and John lost not just his job but his £500 investment. Alleyn barely survived to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, dying just two years later in January 1880. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he became Joyce's model for the irritable, curmudgeonly boss in his story 'Counterparts'.
John worked for a time in an accountant's office in Westland Row in central Dublin, and became a familiar figure in various city bars and hostelries where his congeniality, scathing wit and fondness for drinking became legendary. He was something of a dandy, sporting a monocle, a carefully waxed moustache, and sometimes a colourful waistcoat later memorialized in his son's short story 'The Dead' 'a waistcoat of purple tabinet, with little foxes' heads upon it, lined with brown satin and having round mulberry buttons', made for him by his mother as a birthday present.17 In keeping with the image, he was also very charming - a 'character' convivial, amusing, full of 'blarney' with a sharp line in repartee. Asked if he knew anything about the quality of Liffey water, he replied, 'Not a damn bit because I never drank it without whiskey in it.'18
Through O'Connell contacts John was appointed secretary of Dublin's United Liberal Club, catering for members of the party which represented the independence-minded rising middle class against the Conservative pro-British Establishment. It was that section of Irish society which produced James Joyce and upon which he would focus his creative intelligence. For John, here was an opportunity to enjoy the social life, the parties and balls at the Mansion House.
At around this time he became romantically involved with nineteen-year-old Mary Jane Murray (known as May), the beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed daughter of John and Margaret Murray (nee Flynn) who ran a tavern in what is now Terenure, a suburb in the west of Dublin, and he patronized the distillery. May's father disapproved of the small, handsome but rakish John Joyce pursuing his beautiful daughter (someone dubbed them 'Beauty and the Beast'), and his mother, reproachful as ever, objected to her only son's marrying into the family of a mere innkeeper. But John ignored his mother for once, and his ardent pursuit of May first charmed and finally won the young girl's heart.
Mary Jane was born in the county town of Longford on 15 May 1859, the third child of a Leitrim Murray and a Dublin Flynn. John Murray's family, it was said, included a priest with literary talent; Margaret TheresaFlynn's family were musical and, claimed Joyce, she and her sisters had studied singing with Michael Balfe, the Dublin composer of The Bohemian Girl. May had two older brothers, John and William, who did not get on, a family situation, as Costello points out, replicated in Finnegans Wake - a pub landlord, his wife, a beautiful daughter and two quarrelsome brothers. Brother John, a journalist with the Freeman's Joumal, was forced into marriage when he impregnated the sixteen-year-old daughter of his lodging-house landlady, something John Joyce, who disdained his brother-in-law, never allowed to go unmentioned. John Murray's plight - a young man inveigled into marriage - became the basis for his nephew's story 'The Boarding House'.19 William, the younger of the brothers, a self-employed cost accountant, married the convent-educated Josephine Giltrap, who became James's favourite aunt. Kind and empathetic though she was, William was a martinet who bullied his children, providing James with yet more material for a story 'Counterparts' in which a browbeaten clerk in turn browbeats his own son.
May was schooled mostly by the musical Misses Flynn at their finishing school for young ladies at 15 Usher's Island (on the south bank of the Liffey in the heart of Dublin). There she learned deportment, how to dance, play the piano and sing, and, as John also sang, James would grow up in a world of music and song - from Irish ballads to operatic arias. This was the background evoked in 'The Dead', in which the Flynn sisters become the Misses Morkan, who also feature en passant in Ulysses.20
As secretary of the United Liberal Club, John played a key role in helping Maurice Brooks, a Home Ruler, and Robert Lyons, a Liberal, triumph over the Conservatives James Stirling and Sir Arthur Guinness (later Lord Ardilaun, doyen of the Dublin brewing family) in the election of March 1880. Afterwards, so he alleged, he had the pleasure of informing Sir Arthur that he was no longer an MP. It was a triumph for the energetic secretary who liked to boast that he had received 100 guineas for his services from each of the grateful candidates. 'I won that election,' he would claim, and from this success he acquired a reputation for organizing election campaigns which would find him employment in harder and less friendly times. A month after that election, in May 1880, Charles Stewart Parnell became leader of the Home Rule League, of which John was to become an ardent supporter. (Parnell's close associates Michael Davitt and Timothy Healy, also among the Joyce family's heroes, would play a key role both in Irish politics and in the lives of John and his impressionable son James.) As it was, with his reputation riding high, there was talk of John being offered a parliamentary seat. The future looked assured for this young man on the rise.
By the beginning of 1881, as Irish opinion, with Parnell in the vanguard, turned against Gladstone, the United Liberal Club was losing its purpose, the secretaryship was dispensed with and John was looking for a job. He got his break when the post of rate collector at the Collector General's Office in Dublin became vacant. This pensionable Civil Service post (in the gift of the Lord Lieutenant) was worth over £400 per annum (comparable to that of an experienced Irish doctor) - with additions for administering jury lists and checking electoral registers, John's friend Alf Bergan put it at £800.21 With support from various political contacts, and after having to re-sit the Civil Service entrance examination (failed first time), he was duly offered the post by W. E. Forster, the Chief Secretary for Ireland.
John and May were married on 5 May 1880, ten days short of her twentieth birthday, at Rathmines Church. May afterwards liked to say, 'I was born in May, am known as May and was married in May.' The newly-weds honeymooned in London and Windsor before setting up home at 15 Clanbrassil Street, a few doors from the Murray family home. In Ulysses, drawing as ever on his personal past, Joyce made this street the home of Rudolph Virag, father of its wandering anti-hero Bloom, pictured as 'precociously manly, walking on a nipping morning from the old house in Clanbrassil street to the high school, his booksatchel on him ban-dolierwise, and in it a goodly hunk of wheaten loaf, a mother's thought'.22
But living close to his in-laws did not suit John. Like his mother, who, outraged by the marriage, had now cut him out of her life, he thought the Murrays beneath him, and the bad blood between him and that family would persist. He always referred to May's twice-married father as 'the old fornicator', and on hearing William refer to one of his children as 'Daddy's little lump of love', John quickly rendered it into 'Daddy's little lump of dung'. They soon moved to Ontario Drive, Rathmines, just a brisk walk from the United Liberal Club on Dawson Street.
May Joyce, a pious Catholic, would endure seventeen pregnancies from which came thirteen survivors, two of whom died in infancy. The first child, John Augustine Joyce, was born three months prematurely on 23 November 1880 and died after eight weeks. His father, unlike his mother, found little consolation in religion and was known to call Irish bishops and priests 'sons of bitches' as does Simon Dedalus, his fictional incarnation.23 But John could forget his troubles in the company of his many congenial friends.
For May, the sad loss of her firstborn was compounded in February 1881 by the death of her mother Margaret (the only Murray John liked), and her life was further disturbed when her restless husband moved twice more within the next twelve months. Less mourned was the death inJune that year of John's mother, Ellen, who had not communicated with him since his marriage.
Coming from a strong male line, the loss of his first son affected John profoundly, and probably explains why he focused almost all his affection and pinned all his hopes on the next son to come along. James ('Jim' to his family) was born at 6 a.m. on Thursday 2 February 1882 at 41 Brighton Square West, in Rathgar. That day, reported London's Meteorological Office, the barometer was falling, south-easterly winds turning to gales were forecast, with fog, dull mists and rain over all Ireland. The outlook, said the report, was gloomy.
The new arrival was baptized three days later by the Rev. John O'Mulloy at St Joseph's Chapel of Ease at Terenure. A distant relative of John, Philip McCann (ship's chandler on Burgh Quay), and his wife Helen were godparents, undertaking to pray for him regularly, set a Christian example, and encourage him in the faith. In the case of the newly christened 'James Augustine Joyce' that would prove a somewhat thankless task.
The date of Joyce's birth coincided with the religious festival of Candlemas and the pagan Groundhog Day, an appropriate birthday for a writer who would combine a religious (if impious) cast of mind with a fascination for myth and legend. He had emerged into a solid, predictable Victorian world dominated and enshrouded by tradition, in a country which stood in the shadow of another, and whose indigenous language and culture had been supplanted. He was not only destined to shake the world of modern letters, but eventually, by taking and subverting the intrusive English language, would help put Ireland firmly on the literary map.
Copyright © 2011 by Gordon Bowker