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Book review: James Joyce: A Biography, By Gordon Bowker

By Declan Kiberd  /  The Guardian, London

James Joyce: A Biography, By Gordon Bowker.

No book on James Joyce goes half as far as this one in establishing connections between passages in the classic texts and incidents in the artist’s life. Even Joyce’s uneasy struggle to exclude unflattering details from the first biography of him, by Herbert Gorman, is used to explain a passing reference in Finnegans Wake to a “biografiend.” What Joyce wanted was someone who would allow him control over every element of his reputation: a biografriend. Gorman, although he accepted the main interdictions — on family privacies — was not happy with the arrangement or the outcome. He insulted Joyce by failing to send him a copy of the published volume.

Gordon Bowker demonstrates just how comprehensively the artist also sought to control the first extended works of literary analysis on Ulysses. Joyce was a gifted “autocritic,” and even today Frank Budgen’s 1934 memoir about the making of Ulysses sparkles, because it is filled with the Dubliner’s table-talk. Stuart Gilbert, author of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1930), was somewhat more resistant to manipulation, keeping his reservations out of his study of Homeric analogies in the masterpiece, but filling a sardonic diary with sarcasms about the Joyce circle. Bowker, whose respect for the greatness of Joyce’s texts never wanes, is shrewd enough to include a liberal amount of these balancing judgments.

The strictest injunction laid on Gorman was also the last: that Joyce’s motivation in leaving Ireland never be disclosed. All subsequent biographies have accepted that Joyce made himself modern by abandoning Ireland as a cultural backwater disfigured by clerical oppression and a general censoriousness. The truth is more mundane but sadly prophetic of the fate of thousands of Irish graduates in the decades after Joyce: he simply could not find a post in the country commensurate with his qualifications, abilities and ambitions. So the flight with Nora Barnacle had to be re-branded as a dissident exercise in “silence, exile and cunning.”

Only once did Joyce deviate from this line. He told the painter Arthur Power that in the Dublin of his youth the British retained all power, with the consequence that ordinary people felt no responsibility for anything and were free to do or say what they wanted. Only with independence in 1922 emerged a nation of apple-lickers: people who, if tempted in the Garden of Eden, would have licked rather than bitten the apple.

Like all honest biographers before him, Bowker knows that turn-of-the-century Dublin was filled with intrepid artists and unfettered intellectuals. Yet somehow he feels compelled to support the common contention that the great man made himself thoroughly modern by ceasing to be knowingly Irish. Not so. To be Irish, in those days, was to be modern anyway, whether one wanted to be or not. Good educational opportunities along with chronic under-capitalization produced the formula for a major experimental culture.

Perhaps because he doesn’t rate modernist Dublin too highly, Bowker sometimes slips up on details — he sets the Cyclops episode of Ulysses in Davy Byrne’s rather than Barney Kiernan’s pub; he seems unaware that the burning of Cork city was due mainly to the Black and Tans; and his etymologies of Gaelic names can be dubious. On the credit side, he has been careful not to accept as fact details that were fictionalized by Joyce. He records, accurately, that Oliver Gogarty (the false friend who lived with Joyce for a time in the Martello Tower in Sandycove) was the son of a surgeon, whereas Richard Ellmann (taking Ulysses at its word) depicted him as a “counterjumper’s son” — that

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