James Joyce: A New Biography

  • Gordon Bowker
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 608 pp.

Eschewing a traditional approach, this biographer brings style and grace to a work that helps us really see the life of a great writer.

Reviewed by Barry Wightman

T. S. Eliot claimed that James Joyce killed the 19th century. And he ought to know — Eliot, reportedly, was at the scene of the crime. Some say it was a mercy killing. Some say it was an atrocity.

After it was all over, after Joyce’s work was done, witnesses testified that the literary landscape was a waste land. All genteel fiction of the past was dead, buried by a flash flood of words from the future. As critic Edmund Wilson wrote, Joyce was “the great poet of a new phase of the human consciousness.” A new literary modernism mapped — the deed was done.

Adding to the evidence, it has also been firmly asserted that Joyce’s work was obscene, pornographic. Yet he had been an altar boy, a pious young man, always at the top of his class. Accused of being crazy, superstitious, manipulative and thin-skinned, Joyce was an acclaimed genius, accomplished linguist, an experimental writer of prodigious virtuosity, a fond father, a man of extremes and excess who was nearly always broke, a Catholic apostate — though one with a curious affinity for the liturgy — and an exiled Irish nationalist steeped in myth and legend. It took him years to get his novel Ulysses past U.S. Customs; an extensive obscenity trial and landmark decision were required to make it available to the American reader.

And his long-suffering mother just wanted her son to be a nice Jesuit-educated priest in Dublin.

Didn’t work out.

What did work out was that, according to just about every Literary List produced by our Top Ten-obsessed culture, James Joyce wrote one of the most important novels of the 20th century. Ulysses — that most admired, loved, hated, mystifying, misunderstood and popularly unread novel. A book that launched a million dissertations.

And now, a most rare event: a new life of a very private man who hated biographers, calling them “biografiends.” Joyce was famously uncooperative, avoiding interviews at all costs. As a result, biographies of him are few and far between. Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce — invariably referred to as “magisterial,” a doorstop of a scholarly standard by which all 20th-century literary biographies are measured — was published in 1959, revised in 1982 and has served the robust Joycean industry well for many decades. Joyce, who died in 1941, would have hated it, and this new one too. The fact that Joyce’s copyright expired this year certainly helped in the creation of this new biography. The Joyce estate, led by Stephen Joyce, the great man’s grandson, has been notoriously uncooperative with writers for years.

But 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. Joyce always claimed he was just part of the furniture of Dublin, a simple, everyday man, much like the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. He might have appreciated Bowker’s vision:

“Sorting through the relics of a life is not unlike sorting through the tangled wreckage of a deserted house — windows shattered, rooms in chaos, bits of broken furniture, smashed china, books and papers torn and scattered, smithereens of mirrors bouncing back flashes of fractured sunlit and fragmented images. Amid the chaos 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. Salvaging all the scattered pieces and reassembling them can only produce an approximation of the original, and the drama of ghostly existences will depend on efforts of imagination as much as accumulations of fact.”

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.

Case in point: a thrilling moment and one of the dramatic peaks of the story. Joyce in 1921, despondent, having had Ulysses repeatedly rejected in the United States and England, goes to Sylvia Beach’s then obscure and very un-famous little bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, for some tea and sympathy. Bowker winds up a dramatic chapter:

“She recalled him ‘sighing deeply in a tone of complete discouragement’ and saying, ‘My book will never come out now.’ On an impulse she said, ‘Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honour of bringing out your Ulysses?’ Joyce was overjoyed, accepting the offer immediately. … One of the greatest novels of the century would be published by a woman who had never published a book before, from a small backstreet bookshop which had been in business for barely six months.”


Ellmann, by contrast, dryly relates this epochal literary event; buries it in a long paragraph hidden within a long chapter. The facts are the same, the style and emphasis completely different. Ellmann is a stern professor; Bowker, a fervent guide.

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. None of this, though, is particularly revelatory in Joyce studies. 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.

A few reservations. Bowker does not much explore the actual writing, the real scene of the crime of the century. His interest is Joyce’s “elusive consciousness.” Those looking for a bit of literary criticism, commentary on the writerly words on paper, the “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay” (Finnegans Wake) or the “ineluctable modality of the visible … seaspawn and seawrack … snotgreen, bluesilver, rust” (Ulysses), must go elsewhere. And Ellmann’s more scholarly use of footnotes and extensive endnotes is far preferable — both are frequently fascinating. Also, Ellmann’s use of a constant guide to the current year and Joyce’s age at the top of each page is very handy, as is his much more useful and fully annotated index.

But hints of the beauty of this biography are hidden in plain sight — on the cover. While past books about Joyce are covered with some famous old photograph, a glimpse of a distant and vanished past, James Joyce: A New Biography is wrapped in a lovely work of art, a portrait of Joyce painted by noted artist and designer Vivienne Flesher. Based on one of those old photos and using colors reminiscent of that first Parisian edition of Ulysses, white and a blue sea green, she, like Bowker, has captured the mysterious music of the writer’s soul. His eyes, nearly blind, are the focus; they are dark but with a faraway look. Joyce saw and he attempted to make us see, which is all a writer can hope to do.

Makes one think: if this cantankerous Irishman killed the 19th century, who will kill the 20th?

Barry Wightman, fiction editor of Hunger Mountain, a literary journal of the arts in Montpelier, Vt., has written a novel, Pepperland — a revolutionary, technology rock ’n roll love story that is coming soon. He’s a corporate marketing guy and a contributing essayist to WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio who also leads a rather vintage rock ’n roll band.

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