James Joyce's remarkable story, readably told . . .


BIOGRAPHY: James Joyce: A Biography, By Gordon Bowker, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 608pp. £30

THE LIFE OF James Joyce could be expected to hold an irresistible fascination for a biographer. It is a life marked by heroic literary achievement, a tender, sometimes tempestuous but enduring love relationship, and much suffering, especially in family concerns and in health. It has a pronounced, rather romantic shape, one that no biographer needs to impose on it: a young man with all the arrogance and confidence of genius, who goes into voluntary exile with his lifelong partner, who overcomes huge obstacles to write and publish his work, and whose fame, when it comes, remains ambiguous and controversial. He then, in his later years, endures great anguish over his irretrievably damaged daughter, Lucia, before dying, worn out, at the early age of 58. While his dedication to his work and his family certainly ennobled his life, he could be highly manipulative and cynical in other areas, sometimes rather shockingly. So, all in all, there is plenty for biographers to get their teeth into when embarking on the story of this remarkable life.

It may therefore seem surprising that Gordon Bowker’s book is only the second substantial, full-scale biography of Joyce to appear since his death. The reason, though, is not far to seek: the biography by Richard Ellmann, also called just James Joyce, which appeared in 1959 (and again, in a revised edition, in 1982), was so comprehensive, so monumental – the word is unavoidable for a work that is rightly seen as one of the major achievements of 20th-century biography – that subsequent writers have been understandably deterred. At the same time, there has been more and more awareness of certain problems with Ellmann’s account, as well, of course, as the emergence of new data since the appearance of that work.

For at least the past 20 years Joyce scholars have debated the feasibility, indeed the desirability, of producing a major new full-scale biography. But while the academics agonised, Gordon Bowker has boldly made the attempt. Bowker is a British professional biographer who specialises in 20th-century writers: his biographies of George Orwell, Lawrence Durrell and Malcolm Lowry were all very well received. He thus comes to Joyce from a certain distance, and not being a full-time Joycean can have its advantages for a biographer, who can perhaps take a more detached view than those who are more fully wrapped up in this material.

How does Bowker fare? It soon becomes evident that this biography is not an anti-Ellmann: Bowker does not present his work as a correction of Ellmann or as necessarily implying radically new material or an alternative viewpoint. In many ways this is a perfectly valid approach: Bowker may well see his task as writing the life of Joyce, not as taking on the work of a previous biographer. But this somewhat bland treatment of his predecessor’s achievement does mean that it is hard to identify what is distinctive and new about Bowker’s work.

This is not to say that there is no new material in Bowker’s book: for example, he is a good deal more informative than Ellmann about the writing of Finnegans Wake during the 1920s and 1930s, an activity that the earlier biographer rather scanted. On the biographical level, the account of Joyce’s marriage in 1931 is fuller than that of Ellmann and of considerable interest, as is the expanded account of Lucia’s illness.

Nor are there no new interpretations, though it becomes difficult to appreciate or evaluate these in the absence of any comparative reference point. For example, in discussing Joyce’s relations with his patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, Bowker suddenly declares: “To Joyce, Harriet was now (and secretly perhaps always had been) a figure of fun from whom to extract money by laying it on as thickly as possible.” This is a really important and almost certainly correct insight, one that was not available to Ellmann. (In fact, it is one of the few new perceptions that have been provided to us by the National Library of Ireland’s Joyce-Paul Léon correspondence, released in 1992, on which Bowker is relying here.) But Bowker’s rather casual way of presenting it, and the absence of any context for it, means a reader may have difficulty in appreciating its significance. (It also, arguably, comes rather too late in the biography’s progress.)

Bowker’s tendency not to engage with earlier Joyce biographies does not mean he is unwilling to avail of his predecessors’ work. He is quite prepared to use the Ellmann archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to bolster his case. This can sometimes lead to distortions, because not all of Ellmann’s sources were reliable – and this process is repeated here. For example, Bowker freely recycles (with acknowledgment) the information given to Ellmann by William D’Arcy of Dublin in the 1950s, without apparently realising that considerable doubts have been raised about all that evidence, particularly about D’Arcy’s assertions concerning the “rescue” of Joyce by Alfred Hunter following a fracas (his account of Hunter himself is similarly speculative). One can only regret that a new biography did not take the opportunity to lay this particular myth to rest.

The existence of such dubious areas does not by any means invalidate this book. Ellmann himself, as mentioned, has his own share of errors, and that does not fundamentally damage the immense stature of his work. A more basic problem here is one of approach. That approach, like Ellmann’s before him, is relentlessly chronological. One thing follows another, and a reader does not feel the necessary wholeness, the necessary connections, that might help to organise this material, to organise a life. There may be other ways to structure all this than just the mode of temporal succession. Is not this one of the lessons that Ulyssesitself teaches us? Might there not be merit in treating the life of a great modernist writer in a more modernist way?

Bowker does, in fact, make a gesture towards such an approach by highlighting at the very start three epiphanies that he sees as determining, seminal (in one case literally) moments of Joyce’s life. But it could not be said that a great deal is made of these in the work itself. So the questions raised above are literally impertinent in view of what Bowker has actually chosen to do. Within these self-imposed limits, however, he has produced a biography that is largely reliable, sensitive, up to date and highly readable.

Dublin James Joyce Journal, No 3