- Citizen Joyce, or My Quest for Rosebud
Serious writing about biography in our time most often appears in apologies by practitioners.Park Honan, Authors’ Lives1
I write this personal essay as one who has, it must be acknowledged at the outset, committed biography—a descent into sin that has made me what Finnegans Wake calls a “biografiend.” 2 Any biographer who feels it desirable to keep up with critical and theoretical trends might at first worry about the way in which, after all, as Malcolm Bradbury reflects in his pseudo-biography My Strange Quest for Mensonge, “what with the Death of the Author and the Disappearance of the Subject,” any “biography is bound to be a problem these days.” 3 True, the reading public seems unaware of the awkwardness of the biographer’s situation. Memoirs and biographies (even literary biographies, though mine excluded, unfortunately) often turn up on or in fact dominate best-seller lists, and A&E’s cable program Biography, broadcast six days a week, has even spun off a popular magazine. Justin Kaplan has gone so far as to claim that ours has become “a culture of biography.” 4 In a Postmodernist climate, readers longing for a traditional story line, with a beginning, middle, and (when the subject is dead) end, take for granted that they can find such qualities in biographies, and almost invariably their assumption is correct. 5 But any thoughtful biographer who shares the sense that biographies tell straightforward stories from an authoritative perspective is bound to confront harsher realities early on. I would like to share some reflections based on my own experiences. [End Page 205]
My James Joyce: A Literary Life appeared in 1992, commissioned by Macmillan (England), as part of the series “Literary Lives.” 6 Each volume in the series is a short one, intended for the general, non-specialist reader, with an emphasis on the writer’s professional career. At first I assumed that I might tend to disregard that last proviso, but in fact my original concern about its limitations vanished as I went along. James Joyce was nothing if not a writer, and some of the topics centering on his “career” are among the most fascinating for his biographer: the obstacles he faced in publishing his early work, notably Dubliners; the censorship problems he had with that work—problems that seem incredible now, since they involved the use of words like “bloody,” or the fact that he named real firms in his stories (the publishers were afraid the firms would sue, while a major irony is that nowadays any Dublin firm mentioned in Joyce’s work is sure to advertise that fact, especially for tourists); above all there were the censorship problems with Ulysses, which when it was finally permitted to be published in the United States made American legal history; and there was his fierce dedication to his vision for Finnegans Wake despite the confusion, annoyance, and—worse—indifference it aroused even in many of the most avid supporters of his earlier art.
Among still others of Joyce’s difficulties were those he had in making a living from his writing: when he could not get it published, when it was published but sold poorly, when it was published in a successful but limited edition by a little-known Paris bookshop, and even when it sold extremely well but not well enough to support a man of his spendthrift habits and, probably more important, someone whose family expenses were greatly increased by the mental illness of his daughter, Lucia. No less fascinating in terms of Joyce’s professional career are the relationships he had with publishers who were more like patrons than “publishers,” and who indeed became publishers either totally or in large part in order to make available the work of James Joyce, and who gave him money well beyond the royalties authors ordinarily receive.
My publishers and I agreed from the start that my book would be a short one. A thousand-page volume clearly tells us more “about” its subject than one that is, say, a couple of hundred pages. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that it thereby presents...