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  • The New Joyce Biography:A Review Essay
  • Margot Norris
Gordon Bowker . James Joyce: A New Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. xii + 608 pp. $35.00

Who is the targeted reader of Gordon Bowker's "new" biography of James Joyce? The question matters because it bears on the judgment of the work's value and usefulness. Biographies that are aimed at a nonacademic audience, at intelligent readers interested in the life of the artist and the artistic process, should be informative, readable, and entertaining as well as reliable with respect to the authenticity and fidelity of their representation. Biographical works designed for professional students, scholars, and critics of Joyce's work will be judged much more on original research and documented sources that can be used as the foundation for analysis and interpretation of the literary output. The difference between these missions makes the task of evaluating Bowker's biography of Joyce curiously challenging. Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce, first published in 1959 and then in a new and revised edition in 1982, is widely recognized as the academic classic that informed Joyce scholarship and criticism for decades.1 And it has functioned as the basis of the many excellent biographies that have followed. This includes Bowker's new book, whose jacket blurb readily concedes that it "reconsiders" the early biographies of Herbert Gorman and Richard Ellmann, while inflecting his portrait with new material. Indeed, when checking statements and facts in Bowker's book against Ellmann's, the latter is generally the source—although newer works, such as Brenda Maddox's Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce (1989) and Carol Loeb Shloss's Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (2005), add considerable additional detail. But the question remains: is the Bowker biography a new academic classic or a high-brow popular work designed for the common reader? The first category leaves Bowker's work vulnerable [End Page 104] to certain criticism; the second lets us judge it a marvelous success.

This is my conclusion, at any rate: I would highly recommend this new work to motivated general readers looking for a detailed, informative, well-written life of James Joyce—provided they are willing to commit to over 500 pages of reading. Ellmann's book is over 700 pages long, partly the result of much more detailed literary analysis, more cited sources, and many more notes. The reader looking for a quick fix on Joyce's life will need a third alternative to these tomes, and this can fortunately be found in Morris Beja's excellent 1992 James Joyce: A Literary Life—a much slimmer volume at only 125 pages. Beja's book is just as readable as Bowker's, but still offers highly professional documentation even as its account of Joyce's professional and personal life is considerably more compact. But what about graduate students, scholars, and critics who need to consult a Joyce biography for background to anchor their research and critical writing? They remain best served by the revised 1982 Ellmann biography, with its full and highly respected archive of notes and sources.

What makes the Bowker biography more readable than Ellmann's? Curiously, part of its appeal has to be credited to the publisher. Looking at Bowker and Ellmann side by side, I was at Bowker and Ellmann side by side, I was struck by how much visual formatting affects readability. The layout and even the color of the pages, the more generous margins and space between the typset lines (or leading), the absence of notes at the foot of the page, all make the Bowker text appear far less crowded and dense than the jammed-up pages of Ellmann's work. The Bowker biography is, quite simply, much easier on the eyes. Even the title-page is engaging. But in addition, Bowker is a professional biographer, with the lives of Malcolm Lowry, George Orwell, and Lawrence Durrell to his credit. As a result he is a smooth and elegant story-teller, who knows how to make characters, settings, and situations come vividly to life by relating his account in coherent chronological order and by evoking the rich historical context in which the...


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