Books

On Listening to His Hair Growing White: 'James Joyce: A New Biography'

Gordon Bowker's work is a necessary contribution to the study of Joyce, and should be welcomed by any serious student or scholar. His observation of Joyce's diminishing personal and familial joy makes for sobering instruction.


James Joyce: A New Biography

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 656 pages
Author: Gordon Bowker
Price: $35
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2012-06
Amazon
UK Publication Date: 2011-05-30

Richard Ellmann's biography of James Joyce, published over 50 years ago, has long remained the standard. Shorter studies of Joyce's early years and experiences in the city of Trieste appeared a few decades later, as did archival finds and editorial corrections to his innovative works. Gordon Bowker incorporates this research into his study of Joyce in his new biography, but Bowker's work focuses more on Joyce's inner life and less on the texts. As a biographer of Malcolm Lowry, George Orwell, and Lawrence Durrell, Bowker is well-placed to take on those English writers' high-modernist Irish predecessor and contemporary.

About halfway through Bowker's text, Joyce is serializing what will soon appear as Ulysses. He is nearly 40 years old. Two-thirds of his life has passed, but the last third--ending with his death in 1941 when the Irish Free State refused to repatriate his body from Zurich for burial--comprises a considerable portion of Bowker's biography. The years of triumph blur into those of guilt, bickering, and tension. After the publication of Ulysses in 1921, Joyce descends gradually into pain and darkness as his eyesight diminishes. He struggled with his "Work in Progress" for 14 years during this time.Meanwhile, he battled with Nora Barnacle and their children Lucia, as she faced madness, and Giorgio, as he married a woman whom years earlier his father had attempted to seduce.

These later sections sum up, despite the domestic drama, less exciting events than those which conventionally relate to Joyce's earlier accomplishments. Their familiarity affords them shorter treatment in the retelling. Yet, Bowker does this well. The "morose" distant relative and governess nicknamed Dante takes "Sunny Jim" and his siblings into Dublin, but her "teaching always carried an underlying moral threat." We learn what "smugging" meant at Clongowes Wood, where Joyce was sent for schooling before the family fortunes soured. Joyce returns to a city where as an adolescent "expectation" combines with "inertia", and such a blend will enter his stories and novels.

At 16, he began "to slough off the crust of religious superstition," yet never extricated himself from "a deposit of entrenched sentiment", in Bowker's metaphor. The first half moves along at an efficient pace as many anecdotes demonstrate how Joyce applied everyday details that would be used decades later in his texts. For example, Cranly, Henry Flower, Blazes Boylan, and Mrs. Sinico hover in real life first, before appearing in coded but logical forms of association in his fiction. In later years, this appeared to some observers to hint at madness, for Joyce could not extricate his mind from such a pattern of catching details only to release them, long after. He relished coincidence and superstitions, such as a fear of dogs and of thunder.

Along the long way, Bowker corrects common misnomers such as the assumed Jewish identities of Reuben J. Dodd and Alfred Hunter, and he regales readers with bawdy and witty snippets from Joyce and his cronies, notably his "Mephistopheles" Oliver St. John Gogarty. By the time of Joyce's residence with Gogarty at the Martello Tower that will open Ulysses a few years after the 1904 fact, he tires of his homeland and leaves soon after with his mistress, Nora Barnacle, to teach Berlitz English in Trieste. His "air of detached superiority" annoys many, and he cultivates the mystery that will find, in wartime Zurich, another nickname from the chorus girls at the theater: "Herr Satan".

Yet overseas, he finally learns "to evoke Dublin at long range through the spyglass of tranquil recollection." Bowker's phrase sidesteps the jittery rage and formidable ego, and his study appears to downplay these emotional aspects in favor of what at times proved a more humdrum life than that imagined by other biographers. His tedious life in Trieste precedes a Roman bank translation job as dull if for far longer hours. With two children to support, Joyce must survive only on his true talent--and his family and patrons whom he cultivates, skillfully and diligently, for funds and duties.

However, his bohemian and anarchic spirit fades as the Great War darkens his European haunts. He suspects Nora of betrayal: "Inside the mercurial, articulate intellectual, there still lurked the man from Monto," the red-light district of his youth in Dublin. Insecurities, financial and emotional, compelled him to create in his play Exiles as well as "The Dead" and Ulysses the works which would secure his reputation as "a genius" as well as enhance his reputation as "a mystery". His rise to recognition among the avant-garde and the literati aided his vanity.

Bowker does not delve much into the works themselves. He does question, however, if A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man expresses a narrative "directly from" Joyce's "own consciousness", or from Stephen Dedalus as if that stand-in would have written it with his own stylistic shifts charting the evolution of the young man. Overall, the early works gain a nod and a quick summation, as the biographer expects the reader to know them already or to recall them easily.

When Ulysses is serialized in the Little Review, one batch in January 1919 falls into the hands of the censors at the U.S. Post Office. An official reports to the Chief Postmaster: "The creature who writes this Ulysses stuff should be put under a glass jar. He'd make a lovely exhibit."

As a riposte, when the novel appeared to the disdain of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence but to the acclaim of many fellow writers, Joyce chortled about that great book's opposition: "Puritans, English imperialists, Irish republicans, Catholics--what an alliance!" He reckoned he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize.

Such asides pepper the better parts of this large study, enhanced by photographs with sometimes witty captions. Joyce's fraught relations with Nora, hot and cold over so long, find their own typical summation in Joyce's estimation: "My wife's personality is absolutely proof against any influence of mine." The later years, as with many figures once they reach their prime, seem less intriguing.

Accounts of eye surgeries, drinking bouts, financial tiffs, ornery despairs unsurprisingly precipitated by physical torments and mental anguish accumulate at the household of Nora, Lucia, Giorgio and his wife, and the hangers-on and the hanging-on that an often impecunious Joyce depended upon. Yet they all receded in his mind, compared to his compulsion, which drove him -- despite near-blindness -- to work 11 hours a day on what became the dream state of Finnegans Wake. He told his devoted patron Harriet Weaver: "From time to time I lie back and listen to my hair growing white."

Nobody can blame a biographer for attending to such detail over Joyce's final 20 years. Bowker's work is a necessary contribution to the study of Joyce, and should be welcomed by any serious student or scholar. This observation of Joyce's diminishing personal and familial joy makes for sobering instruction. The biography ends wearily if poignantly; what emerges is the tale of a man whose books often brim with the mingled anguish and hopes of his fellow Dubliners and the milieu which paralyzed them first, and then their maker. None formed in that Irish time and place, perhaps, could free themselves from the net cast over them by that city and that culture that Joyce evoked so powerfully.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image