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Biography and Textual Genesis, or Does Joyce Now Have Nine Lives?

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 4, Summer 2011
pp. 759-767 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0090

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We are no strangers to Joyce’s life and to the lives of his immediate family. That is so because there are, depending on who is counting, eight substantial biographies pertaining to Joyce and his close relatives that, for seriously interested readers, are unavoidable, though not all equally worthy of attention or credence.1 With this new version, does Joyce now have a ninth life that cannot be ignored? Critics who believe that another biography of Joyce is superfluous (including Louis Menand in his brief dismissal of Bowker’s account2) would apparently prefer that we stop at eight. Considering how strange Joyce’s life and much of his writing are and the enigmatic relationship of the person to the work, new biographies will be attempted, especially as we learn more through previously unpublished letters and other documents. The virtues of Bowker’s narrative undoubtedly make it the ninth work that deserves our attention, though my unhesitating recommendation of it comes with a qualification. The qualification has to do with biography’s speculative, tendentious character as a genre and also the way that character manifests itself in this specific narrative.

There are compelling reasons to admire the new biography, despite the fact that it is primarily a work of synthesis, without a large amount of new or revealing information. Bowker does, however, provide something new and worthwhile based on research and on selective synthesis in a sustained presentation that is thorough, carefully and imaginatively arranged, and highly readable. His research concerning the incident that resulted in Joyce’s idea for the story that eventually led to Ulysses turns up information that enables a speculative genetic understanding of an important moment in Joyce’s creative process. No genetic critic, Bowker does not articulate the genetic understanding, but it is implicit in the details that he gives us. The book warrants the attention of scholars and advanced students, as well as that of readers interested in the life who are just coming to Joyce, though with a proviso concerning the treatment of Lucia Joyce. For full disclosure, I should mention that I have a strong interest in modernist life narratives of all kinds, as Bildungsroman, autobiography, and biography. But, having acquired the allergy to personality within the modernist tradition, I frequently react skeptically to biographical treatments of literary figures that spend time speculating on feelings and emotions, as Bowker’s does. Despite that aspect of the biography, my judgment about it is quite positive. It won me over, even though the treatment of Lucia is less than satisfying.

The biography is lengthy, but by my estimated word count only something over half the length of Ellmann’s 1982 mammoth second edition, which contains many more photographs and notes (both substantive footnotes and endnotes about sources) and a considerably more detailed index than Bowker’s. The new biography is long and robust enough to qualify as a full treatment of the life, unlike, for example, Edna O’Brien’s lively biographical monograph, James Joyce: A Life, which is rich in its insights and opinions but not in density of details (or notes, which it lacks).3 Rather than Ellmann lite or Ellmann simply pruned, Bowker’s narrative is distinctive in its organization and comparatively (some would say blessedly) unencumbered by its terse notes. Scholarly readers, but not less specialized ones, will wish for more citations and more information about sources. Two opening sections—”Epiphanies” and a “Preface”—and thirty-five chapters with titles and epigraphs present a narrative that is linear, in the sense that the chapters are chronologically sequential. But it is not as resolutely and dauntingly linear as Ellmann’s thirty-seven chapters, all but four of which, after the “Introduction,” are austerely labeled by the years that they concern.

The three epiphanies, presented without transitions or breaks between them, evoke transformative moments in Joyce’s adolescence, early adulthood, and later life, all involving women. Whether we know the incidents already or not, their juxtaposition at the start generates emphases, anticipations, and questions before the chronological sequence of chapters begins, by projecting us with torque triply into Joyce’s life in medias res. The chapter titles listed in the “Contents” constitute...

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