‘Sunny Jim’ or ‘Herr Satan’: Gordon Bowker on James Joyce

As a child, because of his placid temperament,” writes Gordon Bowker of James Joyce, “he was known as ‘Sunny Jim’; as an adult he was dubbed ‘Herr Satan.'”  Those two nicknames stand as an appropriately sardonic emblem for a writer whose contradictions, in life as in his work, were manifold: “He loved his mother but spurned her intense Catholicism; he loved Ireland but not its romanticization; he grew up an Irish nationalist but rejected the Ireland that nationalism created; he loved the English language yet attempted to reshape and reinvent it; he grew up hostile to Britain but had a lingering attachment to it.”  Add to this perhaps that in Ulysses he created the template for twentieth-century psychological realism in fiction — by writing a book that has been variously lauded for its achievements, dismissed as obscene, and neglected by readers due to the challenges mounted by its revolutionary narrative style.

Gordon Bowker’s engrossing new life of the author, James Joyce: A New Biography, traces its subject from his Dublin boyhood to his maturation as an artist, moving with his family from Trieste to Zurich and to Paris, where the artist-as-exile would become one of the most celebrated — and, to many, one of the most infamous — creators of his age.   To mark the book’s U.S. publication, and the arrival of Bloomsday, we asked Gordon Bowker to speak with us via email about his paradoxical object of study.

The Barnes & Noble Review: What first motivated you to take on this project – you’ve said that your previous biographies of Lawrence Durrell, Malcolm Lowry and George Orwell were all about figures who excited you in your youth.  Have you wanted to write a new life of Joyce for a long time?

Gordon Bowker: Two things:  First, all my chosen subjects have been self-elected exiles — even Orwell who, as you may know, spent five years in Burma as a colonial policeman and began his first novel there. Later he went to Paris to be down and out among the tramps and dishwashers of the Left Bank before returning to England and exiling himself socially. And all of them — Lowry, Durrell and Orwell — were greatly influenced by Joyce (Lowry is sometime called ‘the English Joyce’).  Orwell, however, rebelled against Joyce’s over-elaborate language having decided that he needed a crystal-clear prose for the political writing to which he intended to commit himself.  So Joyce was the exile and stylist who blazed a path and influenced each of them one way or another.

 BNR:  Joyce came from a political family, and you describe the way his father John’s ardent support of the tragic political figure of Charles Stewart Parnell left its mark on Joyce’s own political outlook and his work.  Joyce distanced himself, as an adult, from the increasing turbulence of Irish politics — but did it ever lose its grip on his imagination?

GB:  Joyce identified with Parnell as a man beset by enemies, a man denounced by priests and treacherous politicians. That is how he saw himself.  As to politics, I think that, like Parnell, Joyce wanted Ireland to be self-governing but not to be permanently separated from England, the country whose language was his passport out of parochial Ireland and into the wider world.  

BNR:  Music and singing of course appear as theme and atmosphere throughout Joyce’s work.  There are many moments in your book that are revelatory of Joyce’s musical gifts, and his not-very-hidden desire to be recognized as a great tenor leads to a truly pathetic moment, when his inability to sight-read music washes him out of a competition.  You point out the great musicality of Dublin society in that period — how special, in that context, were Joyce’s talents?

GB:  Everyone who has read Joyce must have recognized the musicality of his prose.  His parents were both musical, and he became, as you say, a fine tenor who sang at concerts in Dublin. His first poems were written to be set to music, music which in some cases Joyce himself composed. It’s difficult at this distance to judge Joyce’s talent but friends who heard him sing said he was as good as John McCormack, the great Irish tenor and a youthful friend of his.

BNR:  As Joyce left behind his Jesuit education, he was convinced by his friend Oliver Gogarty, to embark on what would be a quickly abandoned medical career.  You quote him as saying that he saw it as an “escape” from “mysticism to science.”  But while it’s impossible to ignore the current of skepticism that runs through much of the work that followed, he wound up by the time of Finnegans Wake engrossed in his own elaborately constructed mythology and employing a habit of mystery-making in his work, one which seems to share more attributes with religion than science.  And, as you record throughout, he was thoroughly superstitious.  Was the turn to “science” a false start?

GB:  I think he wanted to tear himself away from the particular mysticism (Catholicism) which he thought had ruined his mother’s life and health and was attempting to shackle his mind. His own superstitions and the myths he wove in his fiction were another thing – not imposed but of his own creation. This, of course, is only my interpretation of events.

BNR: There seems to be a deep irony in the way that his training in thinkers like Aquinas made him proof against the allure of ‘that motley crew’, the Theosophist mystics — and likely, one guesses, therefore gave him a means differentiate his aesthetic point of view from that of Yeats, whom he admired but clearly needed to distance himself from.

GB: His embracing logic was a way of first enabling him to counter Jesuitical casuistry and then, by extension, the Theosophists. According to his brother Stanislaus, Joyce did at first embrace Theosophy before rejecting it.  But he did not only distance himself from the cultural revivalists; he distanced himself from most of his contemporaries. This skeptical posture probably contributed to his later producing the most original prose of the century, written against just about all prevailing traditions of the novel.
BNR:  One of the most moving and arresting aspects of the book seems to me to be Joyce’s near-constant physical suffering — particularly from his eye troubles but also due to his struggles with money — as he was creating Ulysses and then Finnegan’s Wake.  One comes away with the sense that these burdens were woven into the work.  Was that your impression?

GB:  One Joyce scholar has made the point that as his sight failed Joyce came to reply more and more on his other senses. I have tried to show how he uses odours and sounds to great effect throughout his work. He said he thought that every country and town had its distinctive odour.

BNR: Throughout the book, you make clear the theme of contradiction that so many of Joyce’s intimates express — committed to honesty yet frequently manipulative, socialist in many impulses but deeply attached to luxury.  One paradox that seems to stand out is his commitment to a depiction of psychological and sexual reality in his fiction that was revolutionary.  Yet he was devoted to a sort of sexual espionage and game-playing in his personal life.

GB: His love of luxury was the main source of his need for money — before he incurred large medical bills having his sick daughter treated. Joyce said that everything he did in life was experimental. His own sexual explorations in the brothels of Dublin and Trieste, his flirtations and attempts to set up his own wife in adulterous relationships were, as Nora recognized, done almost invariably with some writing in mind.

BNR: In the late 1930s, as many other writers and artists were taking up rhetorical arms in what would soon become a material struggle with Fascism, Joyce, as you note, remained something of a neutral (his address to the 15th PEN conference in Paris was on copyright piracy!).  But later he was active in helping a number of Jews to escape the Nazi-controlled Europe.  What sort of help was Joyce called on to provide?

GB:  Yes, Joyce was essentially a pacifist who hated talk of war. He had contacts with embassy people from various countries, even in Vichy France (old students and admirers of his). Through these people he was able to obtain visas for refugees at risk (Jews for whom he had a particular sympathy) to travel to England, Ireland and the US.

BNR:  In your acknowledgements, you mention the fact that biographers inevitably “stand on the shoulders” of their predecessors, and go on to cite many influential and well-known previous writers on Joyce’s life and work.  Having steeped yourself in their scholarship, what aspects of Joyce’s life surprised you the most as you conducted your own fresh research?

GB:  I was surprised by his antagonism towards the new Ireland and his fear of being shot if he returned there. I was surprised at how far he went in order to gather experience as material for his writing.  I think I was also surprised at the intensity of his aloofness – his hatred of the ‘rabblement’ and his readiness later in life to isolate himself from much of the rest of humanity, even though for a time he called himself a socialist and was curious about other languages and cultures. I was surprised at how very revealing of his feelings and state of mind some of his letters were – especially his letters to Harriet Shaw Weaver, his patron, and how persistent and devious he was in trying to extract money from her and others.  I was surprised at how his reading of Finnegans Wake aloud converted sceptics to an appreciation of the method in the apparent madness.

BNR: Do you have a personal favorite among Joyce’s books – and did writing this biography cause you to change from one to another?

GB: I suppose my absolute favourite is his exquisite Dubliners  story, ‘The Dead‘, which John Huston filmed so beautifully. That I love and admire as I love and admire the great Ulysses for its brilliantly-captured picture of Dublin life and magnificent verbal and stylistic fireworks.  In writing the book, however, I came to a closer appreciation of Finnegans Wake , especially in following the letters he wrote to Harriet Weaver, giving her a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the book’s progress.  Then, listening to Joyce’s reading passages from it convinced me that it was be enjoyed at the level of music as well as the level of meaning.

–June 15, 2012