James Joyce is a monumental figure in 20th century literature. The Irish writer’s work is boldly unconventional, demanding, technically dazzling, widely admired for its groundbreaking and arduous exploration of human consciousness. It was at first censored by printers, burned, prosecuted in the courts as obscene, then championed in academia and viewed as fundamental to the development of modernist fiction.
Joyce’s reputation centers around being difficult. But that is only true of his later work. His work evolved from the delicate collection of old-fashioned lyric poems, “Chamber Music” (1907), to the richly accessible and accomplished first book of stories, “Dubliners” (1914), to a short, strangely interior, challenging coming-of-age novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916), and a seldom-performed Ibsen-esque play “Exiles” (1918), followed by the huge, experimental, mythic novel “Ulysses” (1922), and finally “Finnegans Wake” (1939), a vast streaming dreamscape that Joyce called a “wordspiderweb” and intended to represent the unconscious mind in sleep.
In part because of the mystifying complexity and puzzle-like allusiveness of “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake,” Joyce seems to be more written about than read, more explained than savored. Books aimed at decoding “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake” are published regularly, and the University of Tulsa’s scholarly journal, James Joyce Quarterly, lists more than 100 volumes of Joyce criticism that it has available for assignment to would-be reviewers.
But for all the critical concentration, there has been much less attention to accounts of Joyce’s life, the outline of which is well known. Born in Dublin in 1882 to middle-class parents, Joyce lived most of his adult life in continental Europe until his 1941 death in Zurich after ulcer surgery. Recent decades have brought numerous biographies of his modernist counterparts — T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein — but it has been 53 years since Richard Ellmann’s exhaustive, authoritative biography of Joyce was published (and 30 years since it was reissued in revised form). Now the British biographer Gordon Bowker, who has published books on George Orwell, Malcolm Lowry, and Lawrence Durrell, gives us a massive, intricate, contemporary take on Joyce, making use of newly discovered materials, that will “attempt to go beyond the mere facts and tap into Joyce’s elusive consciousness.”
Such a claim may set off alarms. Speculating about anyone’s consciousness, even those closest to us, is a tricky, possibly doomed endeavor. It is difficult enough to understand our own, let alone another’s. Tapping into characters’ consciousness is what engaged Joyce for more than half his creative life and was his groundbreaking achievement. And that is what Bowker proposes to do — using Joyce’s fiction, letters, the testimony of others in his life — in regard to the sophisticated mind of one of the greatest writers of our time.
The alarms are likely to intensify when Bowker adds that his efforts are “informed by the belief that it is enlightening to view the work of a highly autobiographical writer like Joyce in the context of his life.” In other words, the key to accessing Joyce’s consciousness is Joyce’s fiction (which aimed to access made-up characters’ consciousness). As a result, seeking in connections between life and art the key to creative imagination, Bowker rather mechanically and routinely links specific events and places in the life to their appearances in the books, so that, for example, Joyce’s passion for British music-hall performance “would form the basis for the ‘Circe’ episode in ‘Ulysses’ and parts of ‘Finnegans Wake,’ ” or Joyce’s having read various books by Jonathan Swift in a library near St. Patrick’s Cathedral explains why “Swift lurks behind some of his stories, flits briefly into ‘Ulysses’ and stands centre-stage in ‘Finnegans Wake.’ ”
While his mission to thus reveal Joyce’s consciousness can be distracting, Bowker does create a sharp, memorable portrait of Joyce, particularly the youthful Joyce whose “merry comedic spirit,” along with “his brilliance, his wit and his amusing streak of contrariness” comes across vividly.
Much of the story Bowker tells is a litany of woe, of the challenges that beset Joyce as he dedicated himself to his art. Poverty, illness, family discord, depression, marked his adult life as he moved across Europe, seeking a place to work. So did the ongoing antagonism to the avant-garde erotic, linguistic, religious content of his writing. He seemed to do very little beyond write, struggle to write, defend his writing, promote his writing, and talk about his writing. Another part of the story is the astonishing generosity of others who sustained him financially and emotionally.
Bowker’s life of Joyce is a powerful reminder of the difficulties inherent in shaping a writing life. It is also a sometimes dull, sometimes fascinating, very detailed exploration of a writer we often revere but less often feel connected to. It may not achieve the goal of tapping into Joyce’s consciousness, but it does remind us of the enormous talent and dedication he possessed.