November 11, 2012

The facts of a life: Less is more

“James Joyce: A New Biography” by Gordon Bowker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 608 pages, $35)

“James Joyce: A New Biography” by Gordon Bowker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 608 pages, $35)

The times have never been better for a fresh look at James Joyce, the Dubliner who conquered the English at their own game – writing the most innovative, radical prose fiction of the 20th century in their language.

Many readers in Great Britain and America still consider “Ulysses,” Joyce’s 1922, massive masterpiece of a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom – loosely based on Homer’s “Odyssey”– to be the greatest novel ever written in English.

Recently that opinion was raked over the coals by a Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho, who said, “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’ ” The novel is “pure style,” he said. “There is nothing there.”

His remarks set off a firestorm in the U.K., which carried over to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer. One of the lecturers, Ali Smith, tackled Coelho head-on, showing that style and content are inseparable in all literature. To say otherwise is to substitute abstraction for the text itself.

Sadly, Gordon Bowker, author of “James Joyce” – the first biography in more than 50 years, after Richard Ellman’s 1959 magisterial literary analysis – doesn’t care much about abstraction or theory or criticism. Instead, having access to previously unread letters and other documents from Joyce’s life, he compiles a laundry list of facts about the writer, most of them highly unflattering, some veering toward irrelevancy.

Bowker’s concern instead in his “new biography” is to connect those facts to Joyce’s fiction, as so much autobiographical fodder. His favorite, overused term is “immortalize” – something Joyce apparently did a great deal to the people and places of his past. What “immortality” means for the reader who doesn’t care about the gossip on Ireland’s impoverished, alcoholic genius – this Bowker never gets around to saying.

But facts alone do not make a life of letters, and they certainly don’t help illuminate how Joyce turned the English-speaking novel on its head, making it a monument to modernism: something entirely new, forever changing the landscape and expectations of all fiction writers who followed him; forever “immortalizing” himself as the greatest novelist of the 20th century, perhaps in any language.

In “Ulysses,” he used stream-of-consciousness narrative, his characters’ interior monologues, and a type of Abstract Expressionist prose – fractured on the surface, but ultimately unified by a depth of emotion – to reinvent the novel, whose death notices are still comically premature.

That is what readers care about, even if they never finish “Ulysses,” but admire instead the shorter, subtler mastery of “Dubliners” or “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Facts just get in their way.

Besides, Joyce gave the best summary of his life in two brief statements, the first to the pioneering psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, peer of Sigmund Freud. To Jung, Joyce described himself as “A man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism.”

Then later, he said this about his masterpiece, which was temporarily banned in the United States on charges of obscenity, until the Supreme Court ruled that Joyce’s language – while crude, vulgar and in bad taste – was not lewd or lascivious:

“If ‘Ulysses’ isn’t fit to read, life isn’t fit to live.”

What others called obscene, Joyce would have labeled as the real, streetwise diction of turn-of-the-century Dublin, where no jobs awaited him, thus forcing him to flee to the Continent in 1904 to find work, and inventing the myth of “silence, exile and cunning,” motto of Stephen Daedalus, protagonist of “Portrait of the Artist.”

Bowker goes even further than the 1920s Puritans in the United States, however, finding Joyce’s letters to his lifelong love and mother of his one daughter (who died mentally ill), Nora Barnacle, to be “pornographic,” bordering on a scatological fetish.

Maybe the lesson to be learned here is that one should not read other people’s mail – especially to their lovers.

On top of this, Bowker’s book is rife with typos, factual errors and the aforesaid obsession with “immortalizing.”

“Finnegan’s Wake,” for instance, virtually impenetrable to any reader but a linguist, gets all of one paragraph of analysis from Bowker – even though Joyce spent 15 of the last years of his life refining the novel.

As far as the significance of “Ulysses” is concerned, Bowker defers to conventional wisdom, which in this case happens to be correct: the greatest work of prose fiction in the English language. QED.

After working eight years on that novel, and the 15 on “Finnegan,” it’s no wonder that Joyce wrote near the end of his life: “My eyes are tired. For over half a century, they have gazed into nullity where they have found a lovely nothing.”

For those still wanting the substance of Joyce’s life, the only alternative is to plow through Ellman’s magnum opus of a biography.

Better yet, skip the life altogether, and turn to “Portrait of the Artist,” then “Dubliners,” then “Ulysses,” to find the Joyce that mattered most: the literary genius, poor, lusting, drunk and blind, but still without peer in the English-speaking world.

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