Gordon Bowker's biography of James Joyce is not Richard Ellman's, I was glad to see. The style and content of this biography shows a man more like the one portrayed in Carol Schloss' Lucia and Brenda Maddox's Nora. All Joyce's vanity, arrogance, disingenuity and self-indulgent foolishness is firmly to the fore. I was also happy to see this; we know Joyce was a (kind of) genius, so we need a bit more if we are to remain interested in him.
The Ellman biography, published in 1959, was for many years the last word on Joyce lore. It's a great book, and I was glad to refer to it a few times while reading the new biography. Maybe Ellman was a little too reverent at times, but that's for a different discussion. Bowker's book stands up very well against it, and, indeed Ellman is rarely mentioned in it, which is how it should be.
I also read a lot of Joyce's own work while reading the book; I caught up with a largely neglected (by me, I mean) collection of his essays, articles and reviews (mainly very curmudgeonly ones) of popular culture. I've never liked these very much - a pompous 21-year-old is always going to sound like a pompous 21-year-old, even if he's James Joyce... and probably more so - but it was still good to catch up with them and get a glimpse into his thinking at the time other than that set out by the biographer, a glimpse of Joyce in formation as an artist. I also re-read some of the stories in Dubliners, which I like a lot, and some of my favourite bits of Ulysses. As ever, I avoided Finnegans Wake.
My position (if I need one) is that I like Joyce's collection of short stories, Dubliners, very much, and am also a big fan of Ulysses. I'm not keen on his semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and have never been able to make head nor tail of Finnegans Wake. That's where I am (and have been, as far back as I can remember) with Joyce. I find I'm more interested in the man - and the people around him, the times, the travels - than the works themselves these days, so it's great to have a new biography.
The biography is thorough and rigorous. It is scholarly and, at times, funny. Does he mean the comedy, I sometimes wondered. Episodes like this one:
... a man brushed past Joyce and muttered something inaudible to [his companion Djuna Barnes]. Joyce turned pale and began trembling. `That man,' he said, `whom I have never seen before, said to me as he passed, in Latin, "You are an abominable writer!" That is a dreadful omen the day before the publication of my novel.'
Not ordinary paranoia, then, but pretentious paranoia. The incident is typical of Joyce's self-obsession; the man wasn't even talking to Joyce.
I enjoyed Bowker's rendition of the phases of Joyce's writing - he managed to make it interesting, to show Joyce's thinking at the time, and to portray the dreary day-to-day mechanics of knuckling down and writing in an entertaining way. The machinations behind getting the works published is a saga in itself, and, again, well examined in this book.
Is there anything new in it? Well, to me, yes, though after a while I began to recognise that there were many things I'd forgotten, after reading them elsewhere. Every capricious house move is detailed - by John Joyce, James' father, as he squandered his inheritance and kept one step ahead of bailiffs, and by James himself, often on a similar mission to escape landlords and other debt collectors. This seems obsessive, but actually helps to give a clear picture of their lives at the time. Every trip outside Paris, especially, made by Joyce whenever he got bored (which was frequent) is recounted too - by train, or bus, by sea. Every little illness Joyce experienced is there too. At times it reminded me of a book that could have been called `The Story of a Narcissistic Hypochondriac'. Joyce was undoubtedly one, but he was also a very sick man indeed for the last twenty years of his life; his eye problems were horrific, the number of operations he had performed on them doing their bit to save him, but also edge him a little nearer to total blindness, and Bowker's text leaves the reader in no doubt of the seriousness of his various conditions.
I sensed the absence of Nora from this book. Perhaps Bowker felt that he couldn't cover Nora in too much detail, with Brenda Maddox's biography of her such a recent success - and his book is, after all, about Joyce himself. There were many incidents, though, which made me wonder: what did Nora think of that? In the same way, Bowker has to go into the story of Joyce's daughter Lucia's madness, and the devastating effect it had on the family, but she tends to be sidelined - again, Carol Schloss' biography of Lucia is out there in any case.
One of the women in Joyce's life does not escape detailed scrutiny, and that is Harriet Shaw Weaver, who supported Joyce for much of his life, at first as an anonymous donor, only coming forward much later to reveal herself to him. She was an ardent supporter of the man who wrote Ulysses; her ardour cooled over the years when it became clear that Joyce was a money-spending machine - his letters to her for more became more and more demanding and graceless as the years went on - and was going on to be the man who was writing the `difficult' Finnegans Wake. I'm always glad to be reminded that I'm not alone in being unable to understand what there is to like about Finnegans Wake. The literati of the day, fans, friends, supporters, and even helpers on the book itself, were all puzzled by the turn in Joyce's thinking that led him to spend 17 years on his lengthy rendition of a dream. Harriet Shaw Weaver gets a rather bad write-up in Bowker's biography, I think. He makes her look a bit of a dupe, Joyce's hapless sugar-mommy, whereas I think the relationship was a little more complicated; like any friendship, it went through good and bad patches. The book points out that the money she passed on to Joyce, from her own inheritance, would count in the millions at today's rates. I feel that Bowker is a little hard on her, as Joyce was in his most petulant phases.
He was often petulant, treating family like his loyal, and more down-to-earth brother Stanislaus, and his sisters Eileen and Eva, as if they had been put on the planet only to serve his higher artistic purpose. While temporarily rolling in money - due to his profligate spending, Joyce's affluence was only ever temporary - he begrudged paying back loans to Stanislaus in particular, who took care of many of the house moves they made, and, inevitably, of debts too, out of his meagre salary as a teacher. Joyce wasn't afraid to make enemies, but he was less good at dealing with the enmity that arose, and nearly always found somebody, a relative, a supporter, a solicitor, to look after that side of things for him.
All in all, Bowker's biography stands up well against others - though it seems unfair, it will be judged in comparison to Ellman's forever. I liked Bowker's presentation of Joyce not only as an artist but as a rounded full-on individual, with all his weaknesses and drawbacks. Along with his works, Joyce was a hard man to know, and, I think a harder man to like.