In Joyce’s world all flesh became word

New biography of James Joyce shows he was ready to sacrifice everything for his art, down to the last supportive woman, writes Thomas McCarthy

James Joyce: A Biography

Gordon Bowker

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30

NOT so squarish as Stendhal, certainly not so varnished as Flaubert — is what Ezra Pound wrote of James, author of the twin pillars of literary Modernism, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce, our literary hero, was born in Dublin and educated by the Jesuits at Clongowes and Belvedere.

His Fermoy and Cork grandfather, a lime-kiln owner, salt maker and property speculator, was extremely wealthy, but his father, it is said, drank a house in Sunday’s Well for every one of the 10 children he fathered. Out of this feckless, charming, rollicking Parnellite father and pious, silent mother, an Ibsen of Ireland was created. In a literary sense, the Reliques of Father Prout finally broke though into world literature in all their Jesuit glory: the year 1904 marked not only the first Bloomsday but the centenary of Cork’s own Father Prout, former Director of Rhetoric at Clongowes. The Clongownian that Joyce carried into exile celebrated the wild and rejected Cork priest’s centenary.

Gordon Bowker in this new biography of Joyce, shrewdly places his book between the Catholic past as a Jesuit world and the present as a Joycean world that was ignited by a night-time seductress on the banks of a Dublin canal. Joyce turned all moral learning upside down; in his art — long before Lady Gaga — all flesh became word.

Great literary lives tend to be colonised and owned by a small elite of über-biographers; thus we have Yeats cornered by Joseph Hone and Joyce wrapped up by Richard Ellmann. Now, following Roy Foster’s great renewal of Yeats for our new generation, we have Bowker’s very fine renewal of Joyce, a grasping of the subject-matter away from the arms of Ellmann.

Bowker has already written brilliantly on Malcolm Lowry and George Orwell and this new book extends the record — and not only the record, but the entire epistemology of the Joycean discourse. Taking previous biographies and published records as a series of knowing but politicised texts, Bowker has restored Joyce to his contradictory, ambivalent humanity. Digging deeper into personal archives, Bowker explores the complex family background, the album of characters who preceded Joyce, the siblings who competed with him, alternately idolising and hating him as they struggled for personal oxygen in their own lives.

His brother, Stanislaus, and daughter, Lucia, were the main personal victims: having a blood relationship seemed to make it more dangerous to fly too close to the sun. Nora Joyce, on the other hand, was well able for her husband. She had made an early life contract with a strange man, was his equal in every way, and probably only regretted that he hadn’t stuck with a singing career.

The more we understand Joyce the more he becomes his father; and every woman in his life became a suffering mother. Like many male writers before him, Joyce was ready to sacrifice everything for his art, right down to the last supportive woman left standing. Joyce was blessed in his women, from Nora Barnacle, his imaginative lightning-rod, to Sylvia Beach who shepherded Ulysses into being, to Harriet Weaver who settled enormous sums of money upon his brilliant head.

Yeats may have been pleased with his £7,500 from the Nobel Prize committee in 1924 but Miss Weaver had transferred £12,000 to Joyce (€600,000 in today’s money). The hapless John Quinn who had given money to Joyce for his manuscripts was ostracised after he sold on the papers to a book dealer.

Joyce seems to have fathered two kinds of Irish narrative and these are visible in this biography. The Joyce career and technique are inter-twined, so that exile in his life seemed, also, to be a breach with the linear, political forms of Irish remembrance. His exile was a form of rejection, a leave-taking of Ireland, of the sow that eats her farrow; a rapacious land that crushes the private life of its citizens and constrains all personal language.

Gordon Bowker gives us a blow-by-blow, and sometimes year-by-year, account of this exultant exile. Yet, while Joyce’s exile might seem to be a rupture of everything conventional and Catholic, it was exile that preserved Ireland within. His work is the greatest imaginative photograph of an Edwardian bourgeoisie ever written down.

There is a pitiable refinement in every piece of fiction that he wrote. At the most profound level he was incapable of vulgarity, yet his work outraged public sensibilities and was an offence to common good manners.

His fictional method has created many technical followers, from John McGahern to Joseph O’Connor and Colm Tóibín; followers who perceive Ireland as a single moral question. In such a ballad-loving, story-telling family neighbourhood how can youthful imagination escape to create its own inner lonely narrative? This is the question that every Irish writer must answer.

Joyce answered it by the very act of writing; and in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he gives us the young Stephen Dedalus as the first maker or Ibsen-like re-maker, of ordinary life — “From force of habit he had written at the top of the first page the initial letters of the Jesuit motto: A. M. D. G. On the first line of the page appeared the title of the verses he was trying to write: To E- C-. He knew it was right to begin so for he had seen similar titles in the collected poems of Lord Byron. When he had written this title and drawn an ornamental line underneath he fell into a daydream and began to draw diagrams on the cover of the book. He saw himself sitting at his table in Bray the morning after the discussion at the Christmas breakfast table, trying to write a poem about Parnell on the back of one of his father’s second moiety notices. But his brain had then refused to grapple with the theme ...”

In these pages Joyce presents us with the problems of Ireland as technical literary problems, with literature as the antithesis of day-dreaming, with literature as an effort of will and cognition. Like Yeats, Joyce understood that passive suffering was not enough. In art a conscious effort is required. Art is useful to suffering only when it rises beyond our suffering.

But there is that second strand, the fitful, halting strand of Irish modernism, a bare technique, picked up by Beckett and carried through by writers such the vastly underestimated Aidan Higgins, the minimalist poet, Trevor Joyce, or the young neo-Classicist poet, Fergal Gaynor. Joyce would have recognised these contemporary writers instantly, knowing that their modernist efforts to escape from the story-teller material of Ireland should lead to new forms of narrative; the digital poem or the pen as camera. The questions asked by Joyce continue to this day; and they are well-rehearsed here in Gordon Bowker’s shrewd and highly readable biography.

- Thomas McCarthy is a Waterford poet who has lived in Cork for many years. His latest book is The Last Geraldine Officer, Anvil Press Poetry.

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