James Joyce: a Biography

James Joyce: a Biography
Gordon Bowker
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 640pp, £30

Gordon Bowker, in the preface to his biography of Joyce, announces that his intention with this latest entrant in a crowded field is to "go beyond the facts and tap into Joyce's elusive consciousness". Although Joyce experts will find few revelations here, for the general reader Bowker's biography is a useful augmentation of Richard Ellmann's magisterial James Joyce of 1959, being informed by many new biographical sources and discoveries.

For Bowker, for the most part, what it means to probe Joyce's consciousness is to allow for a sometimes fruitful, at other times awkward blurring between the works and the life, especially in relation to Joyce's youth and its semi-accurate representation in his first published novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Recounting the artist's early days at a somewhat posh school in County Kildare, he writes:

The son of a Dublin rate-collector attending the school on half-fees . . . must have felt socially somewhat insignificant . . . and probably engaged in a little creative self-gentrification, like Stephen, in how he had told the young gentry of Clongowes that he had a judge and an army general as uncles. If true of Joyce, it was probably his first attempt seriously to disguise his true identity.

The licence he takes in fading Stephen Deda­lus's actions into his author's is both inevitably appropriate and disappointingly obvious. Anyone with an interest in Joyce who has read Portrait has likely done the same, but the question remains what value - and accuracy - is added by taking an elliptical author at his fictional word.

When we get past the period covered by Portrait, much of Bowker's penetration of Joyce's inner life remains at the level of naughty epistolary findings (Joyce, to the delight of many an undergraduate, had an elaborate set of kinks, most of which are classifiable under the rubric of scatology) and under-analysed psycho-supposition. For instance, after mentioning that, due to their reduced means, Joyce's daughter, Lucia, at times shared a bedroom with him and her mother, Nora, he writes the following:

Nora's biographer Brenda Maddox suggests that these sleeping arrangements in Zurich plunged nine-year-old Lucia into the highly charged sexual atmosphere which then existed between her parents. Joyce did say later that among his writings the best source for understanding his daughter was Exiles.

This is intriguing stuff, but of not much use to the reader, beyond biographical titillation, without further exploration. Similarly, a reference to how Samuel Beckett, one of Joyce's protégés, was scared off romantic affiliation with Lucia by her "predilection for unprotected sex" is provocative, but seems obscure without further explanation - especially given that, several pages later, Bowker confusingly has her lose her virginity to another man.

That said, much of the book is taken up with the daily concerns of Joyce's life; in so doing, it provides a fascinatingly mundane portrait of the modernist as a working writer. If the art ostensibly begins as the raw fruit of a precocious genius grown in turn-of-the-century Dublin, it is transformed, in Bowker's descriptions, into a more intricate compote. Here was a son of the rising Irish Catholic semi-gentry whose family fell, through his father's exuberant incompetence, into a scraping sort of poverty. This confused class background combined with a strange aesthetic, erotic complexes and the felicitous material support of a series of mostly female benefactors to make Joyce capable of literary superstardom in his time and, it seems, for a long while to come.

A hypnotic patter of worries and obsessions gradually takes over the rhythm of Bowker's narrative as Joyce's stories and novels finally begin to appear in print. It comes to seem as though almost every page is preoccupied with one of the following concerns: Joyce's financial profligacy, which in turn leads to virtual penury, which again in turn leads to begging letters to one of his benefactors, most notably Harriet Shaw Weaver; the author's perpetually failing eyesight and the efforts of an army of oculists to repair it; his and his family's circumlocutions of Europe as they oscillate between Trieste, Zurich, Paris, London and points in between; and, finally, Joyce's frantic efforts to publish and monetise his works, despite obscenity laws, copyright constraints and the perfidy of publishers.

In the end, despite the telegraphically dirty bits, James Joyce: a Biography provides us with a usefully demystifying version of the life of one of the 20th century's most complicated literary artists. It is impossible to deny that, in the words of the first great Joyce scholar, Stuart Gilbert, "The Great Man [was] interested as usual in himself only," as we watch him drag himself and his family on a grand tour of material and psychological dramas. What we should make of the art in the light of that is perhaps beyond Bowker's brief - yet it is a question we cannot help but ask once we have surveyed the life he so vividly renders.

Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in the English department of University College London

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue