- Joyce and Blackmail
“James Joyce’s Many Lives” has by now become a biographical commonplace, superceding the unitary “life of Joyce” imposed on readers by Joyce himself and extended by his principal biographer, Richard Ellmann. Or so we would like to think. In contrast to the unified view of Joyce which links his life and work together—a process encouraged by Joyce through his manipulation of Herbert Gorman and Gorman’s 1939 biography and more thoroughly in Ellmann’s reading the life through Joyce’s fiction—another view has been proposed: the idea that there are many, even contradictory Joyces, what in the Wake he calls “my multiple Mes” (410.12). The effort to impose a harmony on what is clearly a multiple self is now understood as mistaken, just as the failure to acknowledge the harsher side of Joyce, what his brother Stanislaus called “your blackmailing attitude towards life . . . your raging, romping, prancing pride,” is to neglect an important component of his creativity. 1
Yet how does one write such a life? Brenda Maddox’s Nora (1988), Peter Costello’s James Joyce: The Years of Growth (1992), and Morris Beja’s James Joyce (1992), are three recent attempts to tell or retell the Joyce story; along with critical essays by Bernard McGinley and Ron Bush, they suggest conflicting but convincing visions and alternate readings of Joyce. Collectively, their versions of the life—rather than a life—set the stage for a new narrative: just as there are now many texts of Ulysses, there are many lives of Joyce. 2 The challenge, however, is to present these contradictory selves in a persuasive but documented biographical account. [End Page 215]
Hugh Kenner, in a harsh 1982 review of Ellmann’s revised life, was one of the first to propose that the seamlessness of Joyce’s life may not be so. Opposed to the idea of a life as a consistent fiction, Kenner introduced the notion of the “Irish Fact, definable as anything they tell you in Ireland” and suggested that Ellmann was its frequent victim. Arnold Goldman, in 1983, extended this critique, pointing out that Ellmann “does not probe discontinuity and extend discrepancy, either in the man or by virtue of the mixed sources from which our quasi-knowledge of him comes.” 3 This was what Kenner—and, before him, Ellsworth Mason— questioned: incomplete or unreliable sources. 4
An all-out attack by Denis Donoghue on Ellmann’s approach and its distortion of the life appeared in 1993 in an appropriately titled essay, “Joyce’s Many Lives.” Ellmann’s major flaw? Mistaking fiction for fact. If something happened in the fiction, then it must have happened in life, Donoghue writes. Giving Ellmann his due, however, Donoghue observes that he drew his methodology from Joyce himself, who has George Russell (the poet AE) say in Ulysses that “the supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring” (9.49–50). However, the relentless application of this approach has generated an endemic tendency to treat all historical material as literary. Factual references become metaphors as one looks everywhere for artistic parallels and echoes. Evidence becomes only another source for critical study. For Ellmann, the work is the key to the life. But maintaining this umbilical link sustains various false or over-eager claims between the texts and the life that are now being questioned, reworked, or rejected.
In a 1995 London lecture, subsequently published as a monograph, Bernard McGinley mounted a sustained attack on the complacent and unitary vision of Joyce. 5 Not only does McGinley document the many “unfacts” (Wake 57.16) that Joyce promoted about himself, but he points out the monumental unreliability and contradictions of memoirs, anecdotes, journal accounts, and other personal sources that concern Joyce. McGinley pays attention to the numerous and disparate obituaries of Joyce that appeared in 1941, ranging from Elizabeth Bowen’s in The Bell to Djuna Barnes’ in Town and Country to identify additional points of observation. He furthermore provides a two-page list of changes, continuing errors and omissions in the revised Ellmann. What fascinates McGinley is that Joyce, like Bloom, was...