Silence, Exile and Cunning
a Biography by Gordon Bowker
By Colm Toibin
August 17, 2012
If you walk in Dublin along Nassau Street and continue straight into South Leinster Street and then look up at the gable end of the red-brick building on the left, you can see the old sign that says “Finn’s Hotel.” The hotel is long gone, but an event that took place nearby in June 1904 gave an emotional context, a strange nourishing power, to James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” and the name of the hotel became one of the words he played with in the title of his novel “Finnegans Wake.”
|James Joyce, left, and Ezra Pound, circa 1925|
Nora Barnacle, the woman with whom he would share his life, worked in the hotel. On June 10, 1904, Joyce, age 22, saw her on the street and spoke to her. She was 20 years old. They made a date for four days later, and when she failed to appear, they changed the date to June 16, when they went for a walk together. This date became Bloomsday, the day on which “Ulysses” takes place. Four months later the couple left Ireland together; they spent their exile first in Trieste and later in Paris and finally in Zurich, where Joyce died in 1941 and Nora 10 years later.
A specter haunts anyone embarking on a new biography of Joyce. It is the specter of Richard Ellmann, whose biography appeared in 1959. Ellmann had the advantage of being able to interview many people who had known Joyce, but he was also a formidable literary critic with a fine prose style. His book seemed to be the definitive biography. Since Ellmann’s book appeared, however, more letters have come to light (his own revised edition, published in 1982, made use of some of them), and other biographers have set to work on the figures around Joyce, most notably Brenda Maddox in “Nora” and Carol Loeb Shloss in her biography of Joyce’s troubled daughter, Lucia. Also, in his book “The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-1920,” John McCourt succeeded in reinterpreting that intriguing city, where many languages were spoken and many races mixed, and what it meant for a young Irishman in the early years of the 20th century.
There was also the feeling that while Ellmann admired the work and the dedication of the artist, he was less happy with the way Joyce handled money and dealt with his family. In a new biography, “James Joyce,” Gordon Bowker also charts his subject’s spendthrift habits and financial fecklessness, but with greater understanding. He disapproves of something else, however: Joyce’s sexual openness. He finds Joyce’s letters to Nora, written from Dublin in 1909, “pornographic.” Joyce, he writes, “had acquired a taste for extreme forms of sexual debauchery, including excremental fetishes and sadomasochistic practices, acted out with a running commentary of obscene cries and whispers,” and he notes Nora’s “toleration of his four-letter excesses and overt lechery, and eagerness to share in his more deviant sexual fantasies.”
It may be the Irish Catholic in me, but I interpret these letters as signs of a great love between Joyce and Nora, proof of a wonderful sexual freedom in their relationship that made its way into the very core of “Ulysses” and appeared in more mysterious ways in “Finnegans Wake.”
Bowker, who has written biographies of Malcolm Lowry and George Orwell, concentrates on seamless storytelling rather than constant displays of literary judgments or summaries of plots. The story is one of a constant battle against publishers and censors and Joyce’s fierce belief in his art as his eyesight failed, as family problems became more intense and as he continued working on his last book, “Finnegans Wake.” While Joyce himself emerges from these pages as oddly heroic in his seriousness and perseverance, he is also presented as an egotistical genius causing damage to those around him almost by necessity.
Those who came to his rescue, who understood his importance and tolerated his single-mindedness, seem more deserving of our sympathy. Certainly, Harriet Shaw Weaver, the Englishwoman who bankrolled him and read work in progress and dealt with his myriad problems between 1914 and his death, emerges here as a woman of intelligence, patience and immense generosity. Also, in the few years when Joyce most needed his support, Ezra Pound recognized his talent and did everything he could to make him known to the world, as did Sylvia Beach, who first published “Ulysses.”
It took more than eight years for “Dubliners,” Joyce’s collection of stories, to find a publisher willing to take the risk of bringing out a book with images and phrases that could have led to prosecution. So, too, it took more than a decade for “Ulysses,” after its initial publication in Paris, to become freely available in the English-speaking world. The enemies were not only the censors, but snobbish elements in the literary community itself, including Prof. John Pentland Mahaffy of Trinity College Dublin, who said, “James Joyce is a living argument in defense of my contention that it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aborigines of this island — for the corner boys who spit into the Liffey.” Or Virginia Woolf, who noted in her diary that she found “Ulysses” an “illiterate, underbred book . . . the book of a self-taught working man.” Or Edmund Gosse: “He is of course not entirely without talent, but he is a literary charlatan of the extremest order.”
The problem Bowker has in dealing with Joyce’s life between the publication of “Ulysses” in 1922 and “Finnegans Wake” 17 years later is that so much that happened is so well documented. This includes the battles over “Ulysses,” the slow decline of Joyce’s daughter into mental illness, the large number of eye operations that Joyce underwent, the holidays, the spending sprees, the many dinners and singing parties, and the work on “Finnegans Wake.”
It is easy to see why Bowker, who uses lines from “Finnegans Wake” to throw light on the life in a useful but sporadic way throughout the book, wishes to dwell on personal rather than artistic questions in the later chapters. To attempt to interweave the dream life and the imaginative energy, not to speak of the sheer difficulty, of “Finnegans Wake” into the daily life of the author would be very difficult indeed. It should be said that Ellmann did not much attempt this either.
Thus we get the later Joyce, the artist working in the 1920s and ’30s, as a broken, sad, drunken egotist rather than someone trying to reinvent the whole idea of narrative fiction. We get Bowker’s suggestion of “a strangely vampiric presence . . . at the heart of a family” rather than a portrait of a great creator, an exemplary imaginative spirit. It is perhaps a problem at the very root of the method of any biographer that we can learn that in 1924 Joyce “was working nonstop from 8 a.m. to 12:30 and from 2 to 8 p.m.” on his novel, but we can never know what was happening during those hours unless we look at the actual drafts of the work, or indeed the finished book. The distance between Joyce the man suffering and Joyce magisterial at his desk seems large and mysterious. The story of his life, told here with verve and pace, nonetheless remains a fascinating version of making it new under the most severe pressures.