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

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.

RATING 7 / 10