Ulysses is fit to read and life is fit to live…
James Joyce, 1939
From The New Yorker:
Joyce had a lot of bad luck in the literary marketplace. Four publishers turned down his first book, a volume of poems called “Chamber Music.” He spent nine years getting his story collection, “Dubliners,” into print. It was rejected by eight publishers. At least thirteen printers refused to set his first novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” in full. His play, “Exiles,” after being turned down by theatre companies in Ireland and En-gland, opened in Munich, was poorly received, and closed almost immediately. It took Joyce two years to obtain an injunction against a pirated American version of “Ulysses.” And, throughout his career, he had chronic censorship afflictions, even with “Finnegans Wake,” a book that people said was unreadable—which ought to have made the question of obscenity moot. But he was lucky in his biographer.
Richard Ellmann started his biography of Joyce in 1947. He was therefore able to interview people who had known his subject. The medical student who reported on Joyce’s ménage on the Rue de l’Université, for example, was a discovery of Ellmann’s. Ellmann was an energetic researcher, an eloquent writer, and a scholar whose specialty was Irish literature. (His first book was a critical biography of William Butler Yeats.) He understood the man—“this bizarre and wonderful creature who turned literature and language on end,” he called him—and he understood the work. Not every literary biography has all those things going for it.
Ellmann’s “James Joyce” came out in 1959. The English novelist Anthony Burgess, another dedicated Joycean, judged it “the greatest literary biography of the century,” and many people have filed concurrences. Ellmann didn’t start working on the book steadily until 1952. Considering the quantity of information it holds, he wrote it in an amazingly short amount of time, and a reader can feel how fully he was possessed by his project, and how much fun he found the job to be. That, too, is not an impression left by most eight-hundred-page biographies. The book was reprinted twice, with corrections and additions, and a revised edition was published in 1982. (Ellmann suffered from A.L.S.—Lou Gehrig’s disease—but he was able to finish a second major biography, of Oscar Wilde, which appeared in 1987, the year of his death.)
So the first question that a writer contemplating a biography of Joyce has to ask is whether we really need another one. It’s true that more is known about Joyce and his world. Since 1982, biographies of John Joyce (by John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello), of Nora (by Brenda Maddox), and of Lucia (by Carol Loeb Shloss) have come out, and there has been fresh biographical work on Joyce himself. Gordon Bowker’s “James Joyce: A New Biography” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a kind of synthesis of this research—along with some material, now in Ellmann’s papers, that Ellmann elected not to use. Bowker is a clear and prudent writer, and his labors count as a service to scholarship. But he never indicates where he thinks earlier accounts got things wrong; his biography is an update, not a revision. It doesn’t affect our understanding of Joyce or of what Joyce wrote.
“It is enlightening to view the work of a highly autobiographical writer like Joyce in the context of his life,” Bowker says. Well, yes—that’s exactly what Ellmann demonstrated more than fifty years ago. And Joyce himself could hardly have been more explicit. The invitation to understand his fiction as fashioned from the facts of his own experience is one of the few things in Joyce’s work not to be taken ironically.