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 (unsuccessfully) the first cinema in Ireland—but he wrote about Dublin obsessively for the rest of his life.
Joyce was a Job-like artist. He worked at many menial tasks—language teacher, bank clerk, low-level journalist. He suffered humiliation and neglect, censorship and endless rejections, lawsuits and trials for obscenity, the public condemnation of critics (along with the private condemnation of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence), poverty and frequent moves, fourteen eye operations resulting in near blindness, the extraction of all his teeth, and two nervous breakdowns—all compounded by his daughter’s incurable mental illness. He was terrified of dogs and thunderstorms. On his walks, he took along a companion as a “lightning conductor.”
Joyce’s wife, Nora, a hotel chambermaid, rashly agreed to run off with him before they were married. She, too, suffered severe hardships in their early years. She was cut off from her family in Galway, did not marry Joyce until 1931 (and then only to protect his literary rights), and could not baptize her children, Giorgio and Lucia. Isolated abroad and with no knowledge of foreign languages, she was shabbily clothed, poorly housed, and frequently dunned by her husband’s creditors. As Joyce moved his family from place to place—Dublin, Zurich, Pola, Trieste, Rome, Paris—his children struggled to adapt. In their “polyglot household,” Bowker writes, “Joyce and Nora conversed in English, spoke Italian to their children, who spoke to one another in Zurich-Deutsch.”
Nora, Joyce’s anchor and muse, thought his devotion to writing was a waste of time: “I guess the man’s a genius, but what a dirty mind he has, surely!” Joyce complained that “she cares nothing for my art.” Still, Nora sacrificed herself for him, if not for his art, tolerating his absolute self-absorption. She also inspired one of his greatest creations: Molly Bloom in Ulysses. He told her, “I see you in a hundred poses, grotesque, shameful, virginal, languorous.” He encouraged her seductive flirtations with his friends, which both devastated him and excited his imagination. (She once addressed him in a letter as “Dear Cuckold.”) She complained that he interfered with her sleep: “I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing.”
Joyce nourished the conviction that the only thing that mattered, apart from his immediate family (and sometimes not even them), was his writing. He met both Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, but since he talked only about his own work, their conversations soon fizzled out. Joyce selfishly exploited everyone he knew and justified his behavior in the name of high art. He fell deeply into debt and was wildly extravagant in luxurious hotels and restaurants; he felt he deserved the very best while suffering for literature. Stanislaus Joyce was as devoted to his brother as Theo Van Gogh was to Vincent. But Joyce ruthlessly used “Stannie.” He pocketed his brother’s salary when they both taught at the Berlitz school in Trieste. When Joyce went to Dublin, Stannie taught his classes, sent him money, and looked after his wife and children. “Particularly galling to Stannie,” Bowker notes, “were Jim’s constant demands for money to fund a prodigal lifestyle while his own clothes grew threadbare and he often went hungry.” Stannie was interned by the Austrians for the duration of World War I, but Joyce resumed his depredations as soon as his brother was released.
Ezra Pound, a great admirer, acted energetically as Joyce’s unpaid agent and publicist, putting him in touch with influential editors and arranging the publication of his contentious work. When Joyce moved to France in 1920, he told Harriet Weaver, editor of the Egoist, that “all he had achieved in Paris so far was due to Pound.” Bowker strangely neglects Joyce’s lively friendship with Hemingway in Paris. The timid, weak-eyed genius, on a typical drunken binge, would pick a fight with a stranger he could scarcely see and, as his antagonist approached, would tell his huge companion: “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!” Impressed by Hemingway’s exotic travels and personal courage, Nora suggested that “Jim could do with a spot of lion hunting.”
Joyce wrote for as many as twelve hours a day in a state of energetic prostration while sprawled across two beds and surrounded by a mass of chaotic notes. He said the words came out “like drops of blood” and lamented that the Circe episode in Ulysses “had been rewritten nine times over seven years of hard labor through eight illnesses and nineteen changes of address, across Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France.” But he thought his near-blindness gave him “that particular sharpness of inner vision” that enabled him to penetrate more deeply into the lives of his characters.
Joyce’s principal works were his poems Chamber Music (1907); the stories collected in Dubliners (1914); A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), which took fourteen years to complete and get into print; Ulysses (1922), which took eight years to write and was not published in unexpurgated editions in America and England until 1937, and Finnegans Wake (1939), which took sixteen years to complete. Ulysses is a famously difficult novel (“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it’ll keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant”), but Finnegans Wake is even more opaque. It includes words in more than forty languages (including Samoyed) and the names of 152 rivers. Joyce spent 1,200 hours slaving over only seventeen pages of it. Most of his literary friends felt he’d wasted the last two decades of his life on a misconceived disaster, unreadable and unread.
Bowker tries too hard to connect every incident in Joyce’s life to its fictional equivalent, as if there were no imaginative transformation of the raw material of experience. He carries this to an absurd extreme by claiming that Stephen Dedalus’s baby talk in Portrait of the Artist (where a cow is a “moocow”) is based exactly on Joyce’s infantile babble, “if the imaginative memory of his alter ego Stephen can be trusted.” The biography is filled with trivial details about Joyce’s frequent moves and compulsive borrowing, often related month by month, but Bowker can be very inaccurate. “Counterparts” in Dubliners is not about “a browbeaten clerk [who] in turn browbeats his own son”: the clerk brutally beats his son. “The Dead” is not a “Christmas occasion of good cheer”; it takes place on the feast of the Epiphany (January 6), and its festivities are disturbed by a current of social, religious, and political hostility. Richard Ellmann’s superb 1959 life of Joyce (revised in 1982), with its elegant style and incisive criticism, is one of the best biographies of the twentieth century. Difficult to equal and impossible to surpass, it remains the standard biography.
Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.