Ode to Joyce

Book review of James Joyce: A Biography by Gordon Bowker

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.

Having seen the story “Araby” in Dubliners evaporate repeatedly under the withering glare of students over several years has made me reconsider Joyce. I’d never argue that Dubliners or Portrait of an Artist are bad books, but re-examining them I no longer see them as books I’d urge others to go out of their way to read. Joyce’s claim to greatness lies with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Bowker has done a Herculean task in charting Joyce’s career. But for me, this biography only comes to life in chapter eight, when Joyce sets off for Paris. The years of traversing Europe with Nora Barnacle are the liveliest part of the work. Then the narrative slows down again at the end with endless details of Joyce’s litigation over Ulysses, his eye problems and the typesetting of Finnegans Wake. As a read, the relentless litany of Joyce’s bickering with publishers just isn’t that interesting. While I can’t fault Bowker’s writing, it’s a pity that so many    biographers think more of their subjects than their readers.

Joyce’s brother Stanislaus described Portrait of an Artist as “lying autobiography” and Joyce himself, despite his verbal inventiveness, admitted: “Unfortunately, I have very little imagination.” Bowker very carefully gives us illustration after illustration of how Joyce’s companions and family helpfully provided him with the material for his books.

Joyce comes out of this biography as a contradiction. His single-minded devotion to his writing is remarkable and admirable, as he ploughed on through poverty, nomadism, indifference and illness. But his willingness, almost delight, in sponging off others is less appealing. And you don’t feel surprised that his daughter went mad.

Like many successes, Joyce seems to have begun as a failure, in his case as a failed singer. I didn’t know that he had an exceptionally fine tenor voice; with a little more luck and encouragement he might have made it in opera. Think how different the history of 20th-century literature would have been if Joyce had spent his life straining for the high Cs at La Scala. 

One peculiar feature of his career is that he went from zero to hero virtually overnight, from staggering failure as a writer to the prestidigitating dandy of world literature. Ezra Pound pulled him out of obscurity, and it is fascinating to note how the writing game has always been of a club nature; it’s very hard to find a major figure who hasn’t schmoozed it up with others. Social insufficiency seems to equate to professional death, and vice versa; although two of the best examples in the book are non-anecdotes: Joyce’s  meetings with Proust and Nabokov, where no one had anything pithy to offer.

Reading Bowker on the genesis of Finnegans Wake made me want to read it again, but although I enjoy flipping through it, and although I admire its unabashed lunacy, I can’t take more than a page or two at a time. I don’t know anyone who has read the whole thing. Ulysses certainly gets a much wider readership, but it is sustained, it seems to me, by university syllabuses. Can you really be considered a great writer if you fail to win emotional buttressing from the public? The great Joycean novel, I’d argue, is by Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange.

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