Unlucky Jim

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

James Joyce (1882–1941) had a feckless father, a long-suffering mother, and ten siblings. Stricken by failure, poverty, and premature deaths, his family was in precipitous decline throughout his lifetime. He was well educated at two prestigious Jesuit schools—Belvedere and Clongowes—and at University College, Dublin, the Catholic university founded by Cardinal Newman. As a young man Joyce rejected the church and became an atheist, but he remained riveted by religion and consumed by a sense of guilt. In Ulysses he said he had “the cursed Jesuit strain injected the wrong way.” He defiantly announced, “My mind rejects the whole present social order and Christianity—home, the recognized virtues, classes of life, and religious doctrines.” He wished to provoke, and famously declared that his weapons were “silence, exile and cunning.” In fact, his life was full of exile and cunning, but he was rarely silent.

In his new biography of Joyce, Gordon Bowker lists the themes of the stories in Dubliners as “fear of betrayal, unfulfilled marriage, sexual frustration, thwarted ambition, the smothering effects of religion, cruel and casual bigotry, the wretchedness of wasted lives.” For Joyce, these themes were all rooted in the place where he grew up. He once described Dublin as “a detestable city and the people most repulsive to me.” He left the capital in 1904, returning only twice—the second time to open (...

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About the Author

Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has published Hemingway: The Critical Heritage (1982), Hemingway: A Biography (1985), and Hemingway: Life and Art (2000), as well as Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010), and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011).