Twilight years: James Joyce by Jacques-Emile Blanche
Two things struck me as I started to read Gordon Bowker's biography of James Joyce. Perhaps it's just me, but I no longer want to read about someone's early childhood or family background. I just don't. I don't care where their grandparents lived or what their professions were. Unless there's something truly exceptional or entertaining, or unless you can cover it in half-a-dozen sentences, it's just drudgery to wade through. Stick it in an appendix. No one should start a biography earlier than say the age of 11, and even then you're on thin ice.
The other salient feature, which is not unexpected in an enterprise of this scale, is the reverence. Bowker worships Joyce, and this made me wonder: is Joyce really that good and important? I grew up in what was probably the heyday of Joyce's influence, when the books were easily and cheaply available, when he had firmly penetrated the universities, when carrying a copy of Ulysses said more about you than anything you could say. He was, alongside Proust, heavyweight author No 1, don of dons, with Samuel Beckett his consigliere.
What would readers say if they came to Joyce's text, unknowing, unprepared, not softened up by all the marketing, I wondered? I realised that I knew the answer because I have to teach students (and this is on a literature course, mind you) who have never heard of Joyce and whose level of ignorance is such that they couldn't give a toss about anyone's reputation. Being a classic cuts no ice with merciless 19-year-olds.
It is often amusing to watch students discover Chekhov, Hemingway or Kafka for the first time and decide that they're "quite good". Teaching literature is a lesson in how no one is universally popular. One year Katherine Mansfield is viciously slated, the next she is applauded. Even someone as accessible as P.G. Wodehouse can't be sure of a warm welcome.