- Reviewed by
James Joyce: A Literary Life competes with Richard Ellmann's acclaimed biography of Joyce by the simple expedient of not attempting to compete with it. That is, Morris Beja makes no effort at an encyclopedic account of the author's life, avoids the controversies left behind by Ellmann (ranging from early complaints by Dublin, Trieste, and Zurich sources about his accuracy to more recent—and widespread—criticism of his method), and instead offers an alternative approach. Beja's much shorter, much more accessible work will appeal both to a general audience interested in the century's most influential novelist and to specialists; both will appreciate his skill at narrative (which rivals Ellmann's), as well as his assured and easy familiarity with the life and oeuvre of Joyce; and Joyceans will note with admiration the full sense of the man and his art that emerges from this brief book. They will also note the depth of knowledge which underlies this effort and makes James Joyce: A Literary Life appear so easy and assured.
Not every detail, of course, of Joyce's complex life and not every significant facet or interpretation of his rich and complex art is covered here. There is much that we still do not know about both, to begin with, and there are other texts available to the academic expert and the interested layperson. (There are more lay readers of Joyce than many might imagine; some of his most respected critics, from the beginnings of Joyce studies, have come from outside academia.) Ellmann's James Joyce, for all its flaws, lies out there still, and despite the passage of time and sources and the current obstructionism of the author's Estate, there will surely some day be another encyclopedic biography, notable in all likelihood for its own discoveries and defects. But that future biographer can also learn from Beja—especially from his judicious use of detail and from his avoidance of what seems to me Ellmann's most glaring defect: his tendency to read the life as sourcework for the fiction, as If Joyce's life were of interest only as a repository of données for the stories, novels, drama—as if the fictions themselves (its dangerous corollary) were little more than a reworking of the life. This is an error that Beja never makes.
He warns us early: "few artists have drawn so heavily—so clearly and in so much detail—on the fabric of their own lives in weaving their fictions. Fiction must not be confused with reality, autobiographical fiction with biographical 'truth'; yet the more we have come to learn about the smallest details of Joyce's life, the more we have come to see correspondences between that life and his art." Beja at times points out such connections, but whatever the potential autobiographical origins, it is the art, he knows, that activates us and that we are interested in the life precisely because it produced such art.
Skillfully, eloquently, Beja reveals Joyce in his various contexts. The broad outlines of the life are here, the telling details, the sense of the artist who lived so fully for his art that he was willing to use any event, any person in its behalf, who was able to scavenge his own life and character and the lives even of those whom he loved, to sacrifice even his children's lives for his art. We see here the artist who used them and because of whom we remember them, and also the [End Page 959] father who suffered for them: the paradigm of the modern artist.