Gordon Bowker's new life of James Joyce (1882–1941), according to his publisher, is the first in more than 50 years. First published in Great Britain last year, it is based, we are told, "on new material that has recently come to light." Bowker says his book is an "exploration of the inner landscape" of that extraordinary life.
I'm not sure that this explanation is completely accurate. Perhaps a monograph of James Joyce written a dozen years ago by Edna O'Brien doesn't count. And of course there was the magisterial biography of Joyce written by Richard Ellmann in 1959 and revised in 1982.
After Ellmann's biography, I wondered why anyone would attempt to top his scholarship; it was so sure and careful. Well, scholarship is always a series of attempts to do better, but Bowker has not succeeded in besting Ellmann. Ellmann made clear Joyce's manifold disjunctions of body and soul. He reminded the reader of this division when he asked about the hero of "Portrait of An Artist": "What other hero in a novel has, like Stephen Daedalus, lice?" This epiphany of Ellmann's summarizes Joyce's state of mind when he intermixes hero and background in his various works, "Dublin is dear and dirty; so are the mind and body."
Gordon Bowker has succeeded in punctuating the impression of James Joyce as a proud, thoroughly disagreeable reprobate. An instance: Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle, to whom he was "irregularly married," that he hated and despised the "ordinary people" of Dublin – the "rabblement" as he called them.
A major obstruction to writing in detail about James Joyce had been the draconian use of copyright law by Joyce's grandson, Stephen Joyce, who forbade any use of quotation until the 70th anniversary of the author's death, Dec. 31, 2011. So – what "new material" has come to light encouraging Bowker to write?There are newer texts that give Bowker more details upon which to hang his basic contention, "that while autobiographical fiction must always be suspect biography, this cannot mean that it is of no value whatever to biographers, especially where their purpose is to explore the inner lives of their subjects … Biographies, too, require a creative effort if we are to get beyond the mere exteriority of a life."
Therefore, the question is, "Does Bowker get beyond ‘the mere exteriority' of Joyce's life?"
Bowker's method is an effort of imagination, tying elements of the author's life to his fiction. The reader will decide how effective it is. For me, Bowker's work doesn't seem to advance Joycean scholarship in any major way. His effort at tying Joyce's life to his works is admirable but it has limits — especially with a trickster like Joyce — who anticipated the enjoyment of fooling his critics.
Even so, Bowker's "James Joyce" is helpful to the reader who may be coming upon Joyce's work for the first time. He gives a helpful chronology that demonstrates young Joyce's "killing the 19th century" as T. S. Eliot put it. By this Eliot meant that Joyce embraced realism as developed by Ibsen, Zola and Maupassant. And Joyce did so by means of his poetic and comic genius, delving into details of sexual behavior that the Victorian Age viewed as repugnant.
Bowker's "Life" reminds us that James Joyce's works began with poems, "Chamber Music" (1907) and then "Dubliners" (1914), short stories about turn-of-the-20th century Ireland. These stories reflected Joyce's personal obsessions according to Bowker, "fear of betrayal, unfulfilled marriage, sexual frustration, thwarted ambition, the smothering effects of religion, cruel and casual bigotry, the wretchedness of wasted lives."
He followed this with the novel, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (1916), the story of Stephen Daedalus, a Catholic adolescent in Dublin, taught by the Jesuits and tempted by sins of the flesh.
What Bowker does very well is to link details from Joyce's life to elements that are ingrained in his literary work.
Bowker chronicles Joyce's voluntary exile from Ireland, his "irregular marriage" with Nora Barnacle and their living abroad in Trieste, Zurich, Paris and elsewhere, engendering two children, Georgio and Lucia, who were a trial to their parents and their parents to them.
We are reminded by Bowker that these early works, "Dubliners" and "Portrait" are easily read by today's audience. They show the influence of personal experience upon fiction in a way, perhaps, that has not been equaled. Because Joyce was a master masquerader, it is hard to know where life leaves off and fiction begins, which is as the writer wished it.
Joyce's later work, "Ulysses" and "Finnegan's Wake," are by common agreement more difficult to traverse. For example, Joyce famously said about "Ulysses," "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it'll keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant."
"Ulysses," Bowker relates, gives the reader a day and night journey as seen through an older Stephen and that now famous Jewish literary inhabitant of Dublin, Leopold Bloom, on June 16, 1904. An explanation of "Finnegan's Wake" went something like this, according to Bowker: "… While ‘Ulysses' deals with day and the conscious mind, ‘Finnegan's Wake' deals with night and the unconscious mind — the single night's sleep of a single if polymorphous character." Joyce's influence has been great, the author tells us, influencing so many writers who came after, such as Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, John Dos Passos, Eugene O'Neill, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and others.
An important "detail" that needs correction crops up in the Illustrations section at the beginning of the book, where the author notes that 15 of 51 illustrations come from the Poetry Collection, NYU at Buffalo. Can it be that Bowker is referring in his Illustrations references to the Poetry Collection of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York? Such a simple mistake raises questions about basic scholarship on his part.
Years ago Richard Ellmann reminded us that Joyce called the biographer a "biografiend." Well, Bowker is far from that; he's done his best. But bests differ. To this point, Bernard Malamud famously said, "One can't make pure clay from time's mud," and Gordon Bowker has proved him right.
Michael D. Langan is ?a former headmaster of ?Nardin Academy.
By Gordon Bowker
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
624 pages, $35