Gordon Bowker

James Joyce: A New Biography

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James Joyce: A New Biography Summary

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Gordon Bowker’s James Joyce: A Biography (2011) offers a new account of the life of the great modernist author, building on the seminal biography published by Joyce scholar Richard Ellmann in 1959. Bowker includes new information drawn from correspondence and other texts to which Ellman did not have access, and corrects many small errors in Ellman’s account. More importantly, Bowker paints a portrait of Joyce which is less flattering than Ellman’s somewhat hagiographic biography. Bowker explores the author’s persistent self-mythologizing and his occasional disregard for the needs of friends and family. Bowker approaches Joyce’s work with as much reverence as Ellman, although unlike his predecessor, Bowker also draws on Joyce’s novels and stories for clues to his inner life.

Bowker’s biography proceeds in chronological order, beginning with Joyce’s birth in 1882 to John and Mary “May” Joyce, a middle-class Irish couple living in Dublin. Joyce was the eldest of ten siblings, two of whom died of typhoid. During Joyce’s childhood, his family was prosperous, but in 1893, John Joyce lost his job, and the family began a slide into poverty. Having begun his education at a Jesuit boarding school, Clongowes Wood College, Joyce was withdrawn, completing his schooling at Belvedere College in Dublin. Bowker draws freely on Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to illustrate Joyce’s experience of these years. He also cites correspondence and other sources to emphasize that the young Joyce was known for his wit and sense of fun. At the same time, Joyce’s intellect was recognized by his peers and his teachers alike. Many thought him destined for the Catholic priesthood.

Joyce studied English, French, and Italian at University College, Dublin, and began to publish literary reviews. Bowker focuses on Joyce’s first adult experiments in self-creation, his attempt to cultivate “the enigma of a manner.” Bowker also notes Joyce’s first experience of censorship, which would be a recurring theme in the writer’s life: his college paper refused to publish an article he had written about Irish theatre, causing a small uproar in Dublin literary circles.

Upon graduation, Joyce moved to Paris to study medicine, but he struggled there and returned to Dublin to be at his mother’s deathbed. May Joyce begged her son, by now an avowed atheist, to make confession and take Holy Communion, but he refused, an episode which haunted Joyce and forms a recurring element of his novel Ulysses. In 1904, Joyce met Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid from Galway. On 16 June that year, they had their first date: a walk to Ringsend, where Nora masturbated Joyce. Joyce would commemorate the date by setting the action of Ulysses on 16 June 1904. Bowker notes that in Nora, Joyce found a happy counterpart for his own passionate and physical sexuality. Throughout their life together, Joyce wrote erotic love letters to Nora that Bowker describes as “pornographic.”

After Joyce fell out with a friend (an episode which forms the basis for Ulysses), Joyce and Nora moved to Zurich and then Trieste. Bowker draws on John McCourt’s biography The Years of Bloom to trace the influence of the Trieste years on Joyce’s writing. A multicultural port city, Trieste reminded Joyce of his hometown while providing incidents and characters that fed his novels.

Joyce was perennially short of money, and Bowker details at length the difficulties involved in the couple’s many moves. Bowker stresses the generosity of Joyce’s brother Stanislaus. Joyce even brought Stanislaus to Trieste and got him a job, hoping to supplement his own earnings with his brother’s. Bowker notes that Joyce rarely returned his brother’s generosity in kind, repaying loans grudgingly if at all. The picture that emerges is not of greed or selfishness, but of single-minded devotion to art. Joyce seems to have believed that his brother was put on earth to serve his—Joyce’s—artistic vocation.

Harriet Weaver Shaw, a wealthy English woman who became the writer’s patron, rescued Joyce from his lack of financial sense. Bowker offers a more detailed portrait of Shaw than previous biographers, again noting that Joyce was difficult and demanding. He was also a spendthrift: Shaw gifted him what would be millions of dollars in today’s money. Shaw’s support enabled Joyce to finish his major achievement, Ulysses, published in 1922.

Another central theme of Bowker’s story emerges during this period of Joyce’s life. The writer, always sickly and a hypochondriac, began to struggle with a series of eye problems which would eventually cost him much of his eyesight. At around the same time, the Joyces’ daughter Lucia began to suffer from mental health issues (probably schizophrenia). Bowker details Joyce’s efforts to preserve his daughter from treatments that he worried would destroy her “genius” (which, naturally, she had inherited from him). Bowker concludes that this effort on Joyce’s part was somewhat self-absorbed but, nevertheless, motivated by his deep love for his daughter.

In Paris, where Joyce finished Ulysses, he found two more patrons, Maria and Eugene Jolas, and with their help, as well as Shaw’s, he began his next novel, the “difficult” Finnegan’s Wake. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, Joyce returned to Trieste, helping sixteen French Jews to escape with him.

Bowker paints Joyce’s last years as years of decline, drinking, and depression. Nevertheless, throughout this period, Joyce worked for as much as ten hours a day on his novel, which he completed in 1939. Joyce was demoralized by the novel’s poor reception. In 1941, Joyce died, at the age of 58, following surgery for a perforated ulcer.

James Joyce: A Biography was hailed as a “clear-eyed celebration” of the writer and his work by Publisher’s Weekly, and a valuable addition to the biographical literature on Joyce. At the same time, Bowker’s biography has been praised for its “seamless storytelling” (New York Times).