Biographies of artists inevitably struggle with blurrings of imagination and fact, and James Joyce presents particular problems on this front, having claimed more than once that he had no imagination at all. A new biography of so brilliant and original a writer—a writer in some cases more admired than loved—also faces the challenge of being compared to Richard Ellmann's first magisterial volume (1959, revised volume 1982). What is new [End Page 467] about Gordon Bowker's book is not any unexpected insight into the artist-hero. That essential narrative of James Joyce is the one we seem to be stuck with, partly because Joyce himself so compellingly created it.
He came from the margins.
He had a fine tenor voice and was known as a plausible poet in his hometown, a gray imperial backwater of some two hundred thousand souls at the mouth of a river. If there was shame in the decline of his family's fortunes, in the manner of his mother's death at forty-four, in the persistence of his father's drunkenness and the penury of his siblings (particularly his sisters), stranded at home or sent off to convents, there was also the arrogant willfulness of a young man sure of his vocation and confident of his genius. He had been to Paris and would live there again, and would forge something more in the smithy of his soul than a new version of Irishness. He would create a few books that deserve to be ranked as masterpieces of world literature. He would do this at some cost to himself and to others because he believed in heroic effort, but he also believed in the everyday heroism of men nobody noticed—in, for example, a middle-age cuckold—another marginal man—a Jewish advertising salesman who saw everything but was seen by no one. Secretive, open, generous, hurt, boyish, ardent, sensual Bloom, bodily Bloom, curious Bloom, grieving Bloom who had lost a son and whose daughter was out of the house. Here Joyce the father and fantasist could pour forth a fully human creation, and make perhaps the truest hero in modern literature.
And he could go further still, giving us Molly Bloom in her lovely, funny, wild descent into vivid, all-opening sleep. In his final book he infiltrated a world of sleep and dream, the night world, the language of the unconscious. It is hard to imagine a fuller celebration of word and thing, being and language, than one finds in James Joyce.
Joyce was exacting, and scholars of his work have honored that trait by their own obsession with detail. I used to teach in an Irish summer school, and I remember many a day spent in a pub listening to Joyce scholars debate the tiniest detail, down to the milk delivery at such and such an address, one of the eleven homes Joyce experienced in his growing up, as his profligate father squandered money and uprooted his growing brood to ever more squalid digs. ("The Irishman's house is his coffin," says Bloom, or the Ulysses narrator, or both.) With Yeats scholars you usually end up reciting verses in ever-more-slurred voices, but with Joyceans the facts are disputed, weighed, interpreted; and, if you happened to be in Dublin, you would inevitably be taken by the arm, marched up the street, and shown where the milk was delivered at the very hour of its delivery. Joyce had told his friend Frank Budgen: "I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of [End Page 468] my book." Joyceans have long taken that statement to heart, pointing out the irony that a city that coldly rejected Joyce, and that he himself rejected and never returned to after 1912, should completely embrace his legacy now.
Ellmann had the advantage of interviewing many people who had known Joyce well, but he also had a graceful literary sensibility of...