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A revealing new biography—the first in more than fifty years—of one of the twentieth-century's towering literary figures
James Joyce is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, his novels and stories foundational in the history of literary modernism. Yet Joyce's genius was by no means immediately recognized, nor was his success easily won. At twenty-two he chose a life of exile; he battled poverty and financial dependency for much of his adult life; his out-of-wedlock relationship with Nora Barnacle was scandalous for the time; and the attitudes he held towards the Irish and Ireland, England, sexuality, politics, Catholicism, popular culture—to name a few—were complex, contradictory, and controversial.
Gordon Bowker draws on material recently come to light and reconsiders the two signal works produced about Joyce's life—Herbert Gorman's authorized biography of 1939 and Richard Ellman's magisterial tome of 1959—and, most importantly by binding together more intimately than has ever before been attempted the life and work of this singular artist, Gordon Bowker here gives us a masterful, fresh, eminently readable contribution to our understanding, both of Joyce's personality and of the monumental opus he created.
Bowker goes further than his predecessors in exploring Joyce's inner depths—his ambivalent relationships to England, to his native Ireland, and to Judaism—uncovering revealing evidence. He draws convincing correspondences between the iconic fictional characters Joyce created and their real-life models and inspirations. And he paints a nuanced portrait of a man of enormous complexity, the clearest picture yet of an extraordinary writer who continues to influence and fascinate over a century after his birth. Widely acclaimed on publication in Britain last year, perhaps the highest compliment paid was by Chris Proctor, of London's Tribune: "Bowker's success is to lead you back to the texts, perhaps understanding them better for this rich account of the maddening insane genius who wrote them."
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Gordon Bowker has written highly acclaimed biographies of Malcolm Lowry (Pursued by Furies, a New York Times Recommended Book of the Year), George Orwell, and Lawrence Durrell, and articles and reviews for The Observer (London), The Sunday Times (London), The Independent, The New York Times, and The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in Notting Hill, London.
Gordon Bowker has written highly acclaimed biographies of Malcolm Lowry (Pursued by Furies, a New York Times Recommended Book of the Year), George Orwell, and Lawrence Durrell, and articles and reviews for The Observer, The Sunday Times, The New York Times and The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in Notting Hill, London.
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
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
1 Past Imperfect (1800-1882) 11
2 The Dawn of Consciousness (1882-1888) 20
3 Willingly to School (1888-1893) 30
4 Belvedere: In the Arms of the Jesuits (1893-1898) 45
5 Cultivating 'the Enigma of a Manner' (1898-1899) 60
6 Making a Reputation (1900-1902) 71
7 An Uncertain Future (1902) 87
8 'Sinister genius' (1902-1903) 95
9 A Death in the Family (1903-1904) 108
10 Nora (1904) 118
11 Birds of Passage (1904-1905) 134
12 At a Crossroads (1905-1906) 144
13 The Conception of Ulysses (1906-1907) 155
14 Going Freelance in Trieste (1907-1909) 166
15 The Exile's Return (1909-1910) 179
16 Portrait of the Artist in Retrospect (1910-1912) 193
17 A Portrait Completed; A Masterpiece Begun (1912-1915) 206
18 The Exile in Exile (1915-1917) 219
19 The Coming Forth by Day of Leopold Bloom (1917-1918) 232
20 Earthly Trials (1918) 243
21 Settling Scores and Moving On (1918-1920) 256
22 Ulysses: Inside the Dismal Labyrinth (1920-1921) 275
23 An Eventful Labour (1921-1922) 289
24 Ulysses: Birth and Afterbirth (1922-1924) 301
25 A Conspiracy of Concealment (1924-1926) 330
26 Fending Off the Pirates and Envisioning the Invisible (1927-1928) 359
27 A French Connection (1929) 382
28 'Always something new on the Robiac front' (1930) 395
29 A Very English Wedding (1931) 410
30 Death, Birth and Madness (1932-1933) 429
31 Ulysses Unbound (1934-1936) 459
32 The ABC of Blind Love and Ruination (1936-1938) 485
33 A Puzzle for a Puzzled World (1939) 505
34 'Going downhill fast' (1940) 516
35 Death in Exile (1940-) 527
Select Bibliography 577
Index of Poems and Songs 583
General Index 585
'Suuny Jim' or 'Herr Satan': Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Gordon Bowker
"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 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, we asked Gordon Bowker to speak with us via email about his paradoxical object of study. Bill Tipper
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 Finnegan's 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 odors and sounds to great effect throughout his work. He said he thought that every country and town had its distinctive odor.
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 Fifteenth 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 U.S.
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 Finnegan's Wake aloud converted skeptics 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 favorite 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 Finnegan's 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 xnvjdnvjndjvnd
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