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Book Review: James Joyce: A Life by Edna O’Brien

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Biography is a tricky art, no less in need of writerly skills than novel writing. The subject is a character who needs to be fleshed out and developed, with conflict and resolution picked from the myriad trivia of day to day activity, into a plotline. What we end up with is not the sum of a life, but a perspective; as much fiction as fact. So it makes sense that the Penguin Lives series uses well-known novelists to create their short biographies. As with Jane Smiley’s Dickens: A Life, Edna O’Brien’s James Joyce: A Life presents a story. Her Joyce isn’t the same Joyce as Ellmann’s Joyce, or Gilbert’s Joyce, or the Joyce presented by Stanislaus, his brother—though O’Brien acknowledges her debt to those biographies. O’Brien’s Joyce is a unique character, earthy indeed and full of passion and hubris, with the story built against the development of Joyce’s work.

The writing is playful and referential, inspired by a close reading of both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. This book contains some of the most succinct and well managed summaries of both books I’ve come across anywhere:

“Bygmester Finnegan, gammer and gaffer, while working on a “skyerscape” one “thirstay mourning” slipped and fell. Mr. Finnegan, transmuting into the person of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, owns a public house in Chapelizod, has a wife Anna Livia, rival twins Shem and Shaun, and their sister Isabel, she with the split personality, an Iseult in search of her Tristan. Mr. and Mrs. Everyman with human hopes, human aspirations and all too human frailties dwarfed by nature or converted to mere lisps of speech.” (141)

Of course there’s much more to both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake than any summary, no matter how powerful, can do justice to, but O’Brien assumes reader interest and familiarity and makes a tender and well-informed connection between the events of Joyce’s life and the work that ensued.

The biography happens chronologically, beginning with Joyce’s school days, presenting the context of both Ireland at the time, and his relationship with his father and mother – pivotal, as any reader of Ulysses would know, to his characters. The biography moves quickly into Joyce’s adult life, his relationship with Nora Barnacle, and his move to Italy where he struggles with his appetite, his hunger for debauchery, and his paltry pocketbook. Later there are patronages, support and rebukes, censorship, failures of health, ventures, and eyesight, war, and a range of betrayals, some of which are paid back brilliantly in the pages of the work. Of course, Ireland is Joyce’s biggest betrayer, failing to publish or promote him, and leading him permanently into exile, a subject that O’Brien understands well and portrays perfectly. Above all, is the pleasure that O’Brien takes in the words that Joyce has left behind him – words that have become centre-stage in this succinct but powerful biography:

“Language is the hero and heroine, language in constant fluxion and with a dazzling virtuosity. All the given notion about story, character, plot, and human polarizings are capsized. By comparison, most other works of fiction are pusillanimous.”(96)

O’Brien is never critical of the man, even through the rather flippant abuse of the undying affection and support of Harriet Weaver. Readers will also sympathise with Nora, who is left to fend for herself with little financial support and two young children, while James paints the town red.  Nora is is so well-portrayed in this book, that the link between Molly Bloom and Nora becomes crystal clear. Others who are sacrificed on the alter of Joyce’s art include his brother Stanislaus, and his children, and although there’s little mention of young Giorgio, Lucia’s madness and Joyce’s influence on it, and the pain of it on him and on his work, are both chronicled.

About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.