You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Lost Leader

James Joyce: A New Biography
By Gordon Bowker
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 608 pp., $35)

THERE ARE CERTAIN artistic geniuses who demand that we should know their lives in detail, since for them the story of their lives is a living component of thewider story of their art. In this new biography of James Joyce—the first major one since Richard Ellmann’s monumental Life, now fifty years old—we encounter again an oft-told tale. Here is the brilliantly gifted youth who makes the Daedelian flight from mother, church, and homeland to a nomadic life of “silence, exile and cunning” in order to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, a superhuman struggle that culminates in the triumphant production of a modernist masterpiece, Ulysses; then follows a seventeen-year monk-like dedication to the writing of what will eventually be Finnegans Wake, a book the likes of which has never been seen before and will not be seen again, a darkling history of the world told in a single night; and at the last, worn down by the demands of his calling, the artist-saint flies by the nets of mere mortality and is assumed into the empyrean of unending fame.

There is another version of the story, which Gordon Bowker slyly draws to our attention while yet observing the common pieties of the Joyce legend. His Joyce is not only Finnegan, the sleeping giant with his head at Howth who cradles the city of Dublin in his belly, but also a drink-sodden sentimentalist, an egoist racked by uncertainties, a tireless self-promoter, a bad parent, a lifelong sponger, a dandy prone to pratfalls who many a night fetches up dead drunk in the gutter. This Joyce is an epic figure tricked out in the costume of Chaplin’s tramp, the Joyce who happily acknowledged that he was more Leopold Bloom than Stephen Dedalus, and who assured anyone who would listen that he was a joker—a great joker, as he said—at the world’s expense.

The Dublin into which he was born, on February 2, 1882, had seen better days. Once the proud second city of the British Empire, it was now a shabby backwater living on its wits, in all senses of the phrase. But Joyce loved his “Dear Dirty Dumpling,” and throughout his life he kept the image of the place inviolate in his imagination. He was immensely proud of his family, despite the Joyces’ unremarkable social origins. His father’s people hailed from Cork, but James Joyce claimed their deeper roots were in the so-called Joyce Country of County Galway in the west of Ireland—the west was very important for Joyce, not least because Nora Barnacle, the love of his life, was a Galway girl—and, even farther back, in the Scandinavia of the sagas and the Norse legends that are woven so closely into the tapestry of Finnegans Wake. But his mother’s family, the Murrays, were Dubliners through and through, although they were never quite as significant for James as the rakish and (initially at least) well-to-do Joyces.

At an early age young James was sent as a boarder to the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood College, in County Kildare. His education there is another important strand in the Joyce story, made famous of course in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce and the Jesuits would seem to have been made for each other, and the boy, although he was often unhappy, thrived under their finical care—not for nothing does Buck Mulligan in the opening pages of Ulysses address Stephen mockingly as a “jejune Jesuit.” After Clongowes and, later, Belvedere, another Jesuit school, Joyce went on to the Royal—later the National—University, founded by Cardinal Newman, which in those days was also run by the clergy.

He was a hard-working student, with a dazzling gift for languages—he taught himself Dano-Norwegian in order to read Ibsen in the original—but if he was a budding Dr. Jekyll he was also Mr. Hyde, a precocious hedonist with a taste for voluptuous sin. He was in his middle teens when on his way home from the theater one night he lost his virginity to a prostitute. The play he had been to see was called Sweet Briar, and no doubt he was pleased later on to discover that “sweetbriar” is not only a kind of wild rose but was also, as Bowker points out, a rather lovely Elizabethan term for female pubic hair. All his life Joyce had a charmed way of happening on such happy linguistic coincidences.

IN HIS COLLEGE YEARS he began to lead a life of serious dissipation, drinking heavily and frequenting the stews in Monto, Dublin’s red-light district surrounding Montgomery Street. By day he was deciding to become a doctor—perhaps, one might unkindly think, on the principle that as a physician he would be able to heal himself, for it seems likely that he contracted some kind of venereal complaint on one or more of his forays into Nighttown. Yet he did not care to follow his studies in Dublin, and wrote instead to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris requesting a place there. In preparation for his first escape attempt he did the rounds of his literary acquaintances in search of support. A letter he wrote to Lady Gregory is a splendid early example of the peculiar mixture of hauteur and whining self-regard in which throughout his life he would couch his begging letters. He was going friendless, he told her, and alone into a strange country, and asked for any help she could give him. “I shall try myself against the powers of the world,” he wrote to her. “All things are inconstant except the faith of the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light. And though I seem to have been driven out of my country here as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.”

Lady Gregory, ignoring the grandiloquence, alerted Yeats to the young man’s plight, and also arranged for him to meet J.M. Synge, an old Paris hand, and gave him the names of some others who might help, the majority of whom he would later lampoon in his writings. As Richard Ellmann drily observed, “all were to discover that [Joyce] was not a man to be helped with impunity.” There was plenty of practical advice on offer, but no mention of monetary aid, which was what Joyce was really after.

Undaunted, on the evening of December 1, 1902, he embarked from Kingstown pier—that “disappointed bridge,” as Stephen Dedalus calls it in Ulysses—and, having breakfasted the next morning in London with Yeats, crossed on the ferry to Dieppe and from there took the train to Paris, City of Light, where things went rather darkly for the young man. There were difficulties in registering at the medical faculty—he soon gave up the notion of becoming a doctor; his little room at the Hôtel Corneille was bitterly cold, and his scant resources forced him often to go hungry. Yet he persevered, despite homesickness and occasional failures of nerve. The frugal idyll ended in early April, when a telegram arrived from Dublin: “Mother dying come home father.” The nets he had sought to fly by, young Joyce discovered, had an exceedingly fine mesh. He had ascended the heady heights of freedom, though, and savored the experience.

Back in Dublin for the death-watch, Joyce diverted himself in the company of his old drinking pals, including the egregious Oliver St. John Gogarty, who would be portrayed in Ulysses as the treacherous buffoon Buck Mulligan. The year or so that Joyce spent in Dublin between the death of his mother and his second, permanent departure was a period of loafing and drunkenness, and it might have been the end of him as an artist—many a promising Irish writer has wasted his sweetness upon the desert air of Dublin’s pubs—had he not one day, in June 1904, spotted on Nassau Street a tall, handsome, auburn-haired young woman who worked as a chambermaid in nearby Finn’s Hotel. This was Nora Barnacle—when Joyce’s father heard her name he remarked, “Well, she’ll always stick to him.” Accosted by the young man in the yachting cap, she agreed to a date. As Bowker, who has an intermittent weakness for cliché, remarks, “Unknowingly, Nora Barnacle from Galway had made a date with history.”

At twenty, Nora was two years younger than Joyce, yet for all Joyce’s wide reading and his recent venture into foreign parts he was far less well apprised of the ways of the world than she was: life will withhold few secrets from a chambermaid. It would be hard to exaggerate the momentousness of this encounter, as Joyce acknowledged by setting Ulysses on the day of that first date—June 16, 1904. Before it, Joyce was an overly precocious aesthete with a taste for debauchery, but Nora took him in hand, figuratively and literally, and made of him a man, and an artist.

In the coming years it would be Nora, with her simplicity and shrewdness, her generosity of spirit and, above all, her earthiness, who would show him the direction his art must follow. Without her there would probably have been no Molly Bloom or Anna Livia Plurabelle, and perhaps no Leopold Bloom or Henry Chimpden Earwicker, or even no Stephen Dedalus. “Her disposition, as I see it, is much nobler than my own,” Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus, “her love also is greater than mine for her. I admire her and I love her and I trust her.” Within a few months of their meeting, the pair departed Dublin on October 8 to begin their European life together. It was to be one of the most remarkable marriages in the history of literature. Joyce’s father was right: she stuck to him.

In his unfussy way Bowker gives a sound account of Joyce’s maturation as an artist, one who could weather the many vicissitudes, rejections, and appalling bouts of ill-health with which he had to contend. He was an extraordinarily mercurial mixture, displaying an unremitting dedication to his art and at the same time an almost anarchic disregard for his own person and for the sensitivities of those around him—reading his friend Frank Budgen’s James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses,” he remarked to the author, “I never knew you could write so well. It must be due to your association with me.” He used people without compunction. Stuart Gilbert, the Englishman whom Joyce coerced into writing a book on Ulysses, frequently cast a distinctly cold eye on the master:

He got people . . . to follow him wherever he wanted them to accompany him; boring plays and operas, dull expensive restaurants; to [cancel] their arrangements if he wanted their assistance in some trivial, easily-postponed task; to run errands for him, pull strings for him, undertake delicate and distasteful missions which exposed them to snubs, rebuffs and ridicule at his bidding.

Ezra Pound, who gave Joyce much help in the early days, saw through the “shell of cantankerous Irishman” to the “author of Chamber Music [Joyce’s early, insipid volume of verse], the sensitive. The rest is the genius; the registration of realities on the temperament, the delicate temperament of the early poems.” This is probably accurate. There was a side of Joyce that was forever the Edwardian poetaster, the lover of sentimental ballads, the flâneur complete with cane and boater strolling on the promenade, appreciatively eyeing those lovely seaside girls and at the same time scheming how to wheedle a florin out of one or other of them. Rebecca West was on to something when, having also read Joyce’s poems (which Pound advised should be put away in the family photograph album along with the ancestral portraits), she claimed to have discovered that Joyce was a “great man who is entirely without taste.” And she was not speaking of his manners in the drawing room.

The flight from Dublin marked the close of the formative and most vigorous part of Joyce’s life. Thereafter there was the usual dullness: hard labor with the pen, the struggle to earn a crust, the wrangles with publishers, the world’s failure of comprehension, the adverse reviews, and, at last, the inevitable triumph. Bowker does his best to keep up the pace, but the interest mainly lies in painful matters: Joyce’s chronic and agonizing eye troubles, his stormy relations with his long-suffering and astonishingly generous benefactor Harriet Weaver, his son Giorgio’s fecklessness and his beloved daughter Lucia’s madness. The difficulty for a biographer is that the life of a writer is just not exciting, since it is so much a life of and in the mind.

A PART OF JOYCE’S greatness lies in the fact that, paradoxical as it may seem, he did not have a fertile literary imagination, as he recognized and frequently acknowledged. He was an Aristotelian to the tips of his writing fingers, and based all his art in actuality. Can there ever have been an author who incorporated so many real, living people into his fiction? He famously told Frank Budgen that he “wanted to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”

Joyce the hard-headed novelist loved the world as it is, not as Joyce the swooning versifier would have wished it to be. The general reader treasures Ulysses not as a modernist experiment, but for the luminous moments of ordinariness that it so vividly and movingly captures, those epiphanies of the actual: the young men at their edgy breakfast in the Martello Tower, Stephen teaching in the classroom, Bloom on his perambulations, above all the loving evocation of Poldy’s and Molly’s morning rituals. Of course Joyce was a master of language; of course he was a great manipulator of forms—“I am really one of the greatest engineers, if not the greatest, in the world”; of course he transformed the modern novel, if indeed he did not kill it stone dead. But surely it is when he is at his simplest and most lucid that we love him best.

Such a suggestion would not have pleased him, despite his frequent protestations of being the quintessential homme moyen sensuel. It delighted him to be the literary lion, an object of veneration and awe. Stuart Gilbert was not the only one to leave acid accounts of his vanity and his need for adoration. Harold Nicolson, who knew a monster of ego when he met one, wrote in 1934 after a visit to Joyce in his Paris flat that “one has the feeling that he is surrounded with a group of worshippers and that he has little contact with reality.” There are frequent accounts from the 1930s of Joyce basking in the midst of fawning bands of sycophants murmuring quotations from his work and sighing over the beauty of his prose. Yet one cannot help but regret that he did not heed the warnings against “bad companions” that no doubt the Jesuits years before had dinned into him. Pound was one such, with his call to “Make it new!” when, as even T.S. Eliot recognized, what is to be primarily valued in art is precisely the maintenance and furtherance of tradition.

In Ulysses we discern the ghost of a great realist novel, the pinnacle and culmination of the nineteenth-century form—the book that might have been, had Joyce closed his ears to much of the modernist claptrap buzzing round him and reined in his innovative urges. Are we really as impressed as we pretend to be by the gestatory bravura of the “Oxen of the Sun” episode, or by the codscientific interrogations of “Ithaca,” or by the gigantism of “Cyclops”? Ulysses is a masterly work, protean, funny, occasionally moving, yet who but the most dedicated Joycean could disagree with Roddy Doyle’s daring assertion that it would have benefitted from the attentions of a good editor?

Such notions will seem heresy to many, while others will say they are simply the same old reactionary objections that outdated curmudgeons such as Shaw and H.G. Wells mounted when the book first appeared—and perhaps they are. But one puts them forward more in sorrow than anything else. The stylistic experiments of Ulysses led straight on to Finnegans Wake, that magnificent disaster, Joyce’s final gift to the professors and the hobbyists, from which so many of the rest of us turn away, empty-handed, in bafflement and melancholy regret. As Parnell was to Joyce, so Joyce himself is to us disappointed ones: the lost leader. Reading of his final years of triumph and renown, one recalls Braque answering a critic’s request for an opinion of his old friend Picasso: “Pablo? Oh, Pablo used to be a good painter—now he’s just a genius.”

Gordon Bowker has written a solidly readable life of one of the great figures of the twentieth century. Although in his preface he claims that he will draw on recent products of the Joyce industry and, rather mysteriously, “more recently discovered material,” in an attempt “to go beyond the mere facts,” the fact is he has not much to add to Ellmann’s halfcentury-old biography. Yet if it succeeds in bringing new and younger readers to these marvelous fictions, his book is to be warmly welcomed.

John Banville is the author, most recently, of The Infinities (Knopf). This article appeared in the August 2, 2012 issue of the magazine.