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Joyce’s Many Lives

James Joyce: The Years of Growth 1882–1915

by Peter Costello
Pantheon, 374 pp., $30.00

James Joyce: A Literary Life

by Morris Beja
Ohio State University Press, 150 pp., $12.50 (paper)

James Joyce’s Chamber Music: The Lost Song Settings

edited and with an introduction by Myra Teicher Russel
Indiana University Press, 116 pp., $19.95 (paper)

James Joyce’s Chamber Music: Musical Settings by G. Molyneux Palmer

sung by Robert White, accompanied by Samuel Sanders
Indiana University Press, $10.95 (cassette)

Picking Up Airs: Hearing the Music in Joyce’s Text

edited by Ruth H. Bauerle
University of Illinois Press, 220 pp., $34.95


by James Joyce, edited by Hans Walter Gabler, by Walter Hettche
Vintage, 455 pp., $10.00 (paper)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce, edited by Hans Walter Gabler, by Walter Hettche
Vintage, 359 pp., $9.00 (paper)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce, edited by R. B. Kershner
St. Martin’s Press/Bedford Books, 404 pp., $8.00 (paper)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

by James Joyce, edited by Seamus Deane
Penguin, 329 pp., $7.95 (paper)


by James Joyce, edited by Jeri Johnson
Oxford University Press, 980 pp., £6.99 (paper)

Reflections on James Joyce: Stuart Gilbert’s Paris Journal

edited by Thomas F. Staley, by Randolph Lewis
University of Texas Press, 103 pp., $24.95


James Joyce died on January 13, 1941. A few months later two books on him appeared, Herbert Gorman’s James Joyce: A Definitive Biography and Harry Levin’s James Joyce: A Critical Introduction. These books served different purposes. Gorman’s was written under Joyce’s supervision: it was the latest of several books in which Joyce’s disciples took up the duties he assigned to them, to explain the structure of his interests and procedures, to provide a context of expressive grandeur in which his work would be appreciated, and meanwhile to present a glowing image of Joyce himself. When Gorman’s book appeared, Stuart Gilbert complained in his journal that Joyce could not bring himself to give Gorman a free hand or let him show “the real Joyce.”

Gorman had been preceded in that advertising exercise by Gilbert, Samuel Beckett, Thomas McGreevy, John Rodker, Eugene Jolas, Robert McAlmon, William Carlos Williams, and other acolytes to the number of twelve who wrote An Exagmination round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929) to explain and recommend Joyce’s new style long before it culminated in Finnegans Wake. Gilbert’s James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1930) and Frank Budgen’s James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ (1934) were similar acts of piety toward a book many people had heard of but not read. The ban on the publication of Ulysses in the US was not lifted until December 6, 1933, but meanwhile Gilbert’s book kept people informed about it. Gilbert, Budgen, and Gorman were Joyce’s main cheerleaders.

Harry Levin’s book was a different matter, an entirely independent critical study of Joyce’s work. No master supervised it. Levin acted upon his own intelligence and learning, he did not take part in the making of a legend. His book released readers from the lore of Joyce’s salon and showed them how Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and (with luck) Finnegans Wake might be read with Aristotle, Aquinas, and modern European literature in mind. Levin brought the books from gossip to criticism. Many scholar-critics followed where he led. The phase of criticism he defined culminated in Hugh Kenner’s Dublin’s Joyce (1956), a work that might have set the course in the criticism of Joyce if it had been a little easier to read. The scholars found it hard going. Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce (1959; revised edition, 1982) soon made things much easier by inserting Joyce’s writings in a biographically ascertained life.

Ellmann’s book is commonly regarded as a triumph of biography and the book to read on Joyce if time allows but one. Ellmann had an unusually fluent style, gracious, rapid, a style made for ease of reference, quiet irony, and narrative flow. He knew Joyce’s work as well as anyone of his generation, and there were still enough survivors from Joyce’s Paris whom he could interview and, in Dublin, enough citizens to fill his mind with lore if not with truth. So he was well qualified to write a grand-scale biography. His book has been immensely influential.

But in one respect its influence has been unfortunate. Ellmann had a habit of citing fiction to establish a fact. He regularly quoted passages from Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as if they amounted to evidence of the experience of real people and their lives. Joyce’s father is described as if he were indistinguishable from Simon Dedalus, a character in Ulysses. Joseph Casey, one of Joyce’s acquaintances in Paris, is evoked on the evidence of Stephen Dedalus’s relation to Kevin Egan in Ulysses. Near the end of the biography Ellmann says that Stephen Hero, “like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is both autobiographical and fictional.” He adds, “While some details of Joyce’s life are stylized or otherwise changed, many are kept intact.” But those “some” and “many” could be distinguished only if there were independent evidence for them. That they turn up in works of fiction proves nothing.

I mention the point because Ellmann gave his authority to this bad habit. He made it respectable for lesser biographers to assume that Joyce had no power of invention; if something is in the novels, it must have happened, Joyce could only have transcribed it. Even when Ellmann didn’t cite fiction to make a fact, his successors acted upon his precedent and got over his occasional scruple. Take for instance an episode of some biographical importance which Ellmann treats with complete propriety, never going beyond the evidence, Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle, on June 16, 1904. Ellmann reports that they walked out to Ringsend, “and then arranged to meet again”:

On June 16, as he would afterwards realize, he entered into relation with the world around him and left behind him the loneliness he had felt since his mother’s death. He would tell her later, “You made me a man.”1

The quoted sentence comes from Joyce’s letter of August 7, 1909, to Nora Barnacle:

O, Nora! Nora! Nora! I am speaking now to the girl I loved, who had red-brown hair and sauntered over to me and took me so easily into her arms and made me a man.2

No lover is on oath in such an avowal. Joyce probably didn’t tell Nora that he had already been with prostitutes, so her making him a man may refer to a loftier achievement than masturbation. However, scholars have usually taken the sentence to mean that at Ringsend on June 16 Nora Barnacle masturbated Joyce. In The Consciousness of Joyce Ellmann merely says that they “touched each other’s bodies,” a mild conjecture.3 But in Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom Brenda Maddox pretends that she was at Ringsend that night and witnessed the following:

To Joyce’s grateful astonishment, she unbuttoned his trousers, slipped in her hand, pushed his shirt aside, and, acting with some skill (according to his later letter) made him a man.4

As if that were not enough, Maddox claims to disclose “their own private feelings that first night at Ringsend” by quoting from the third chapter of Ulysses the passage in which Stephen Dedalus on Sandymount Strand recalls “the virgin at Hodges Figgis’ window on Monday” and says to himself:

Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.5

All this to eke out the sole fragment of evidence, five words, “You made me a man.”

And now we have Peter Costello’s version of the evening at Ringsend:

Nora made the first approach and he was left in little doubt about her feelings for him. There was no intercourse—that would have been unthinkable—but Nora was knowledgeable enough to manipulate her partner to a climax.

Like so many of Joyce’s experiences, this event also made its way into Ulysses transferred to the memory of Molly Bloom: …how did we finish it off yes O yes I pulled him off into my handkerchief pretending not to be excited but I opened my legs and I wouldn’t let him touch me inside my petticoat I had a skirt opening up the side I tortured the life out of him first tickling him…he was shy all the same I liked him like that morning he I made him blush a little when I got over him that way when I unbuttoned him and took his out and drew back the skin…

So Nora Barnacle is supposed to have performed for Joyce at Ringsend the service here quoted, inaccurately too, from Molly Bloom’s account of an episode with Lt. Harry Mulvey in Gibraltar. Costello doesn’t know how to stop. He has more innuendo to offer. Incest is a strong motif in Finnegans Wake. Joyce can’t have invented it. So Joyce’s father must have committed incest with his daughters:

Those who have detected a theme of incest in Finnegans Wake need look no further than the household of John Stanislaus Joyce in the winter of 1903.

There is not a word of evidence for this slur, it is pure and impure speculation.

Perhaps I should mention Costello’s earlier dealings with Joyce. In 1980 he wrote a short book for beginners. In 1981 he published Leopold Bloom: A Biography, a piece of whimsy in which he extends the lives of the Blooms beyond June 16, 1904. For what it’s worth, Costello’s book has Molly Bloom die of cancer on April 24, 1910. On June 1, 1911, her daughter Milly marries Jeremiah McCarthy. Leopold lives through the Civil War, makes a trip to Gibraltar in 1927, and is killed in a car accident in 1937. These fancies are conveyed for no visible reason, unless Costello thinks that readers of Joyce might find them contiguous to Ulysses and therefore intriguing. The likelihood need not be pursued. In the new book Costello takes a different line. He maintains that we can understand Joyce only by studying his remote genetic origins. To support this notion, he quotes Dr. Halliday Sutherland:

Biologically an individual has no parents, but four grandparents and sixteen great-great-grandparents. This means that a child inherits through its parents the qualities of its grandparents, and through its great-grandparents the qualities of its great-great-grandparents.

Costello apparently found this stimulating enough to send him delving into family records of the O’Connells and the Murrays to a count of six generations. His interim report is not buoyant:

James Joyce thus inherited his genetic characteristics from James A. Joyce (fecklessness); Ellen O’Connell (nervous disposition); John Murray (drink/sexuality); Margaret Flynn (musical taste). From an earlier generation came his will and determination, characteristic of George Joyce, Charles O’Connell, and Patrick Flynn. But with eight great-great-grandparents unknown, the full picture is not clear. The double input of genes from the McCann family (clearly connected with each other and with his godfather Philip McCann) also require further investigation.

Costello intends to pursue the lost great-great-grandparents and to write a book called Joyce’s Families.

James Joyce: The Years of Growth is an account of Joyce and his family, predicated upon ostensibly genetic axioms, up to June 30, 1915, when Joyce, Nora Barnacle, and their children Giorgio and Lucia arrived in Zurich from Trieste. Technically, the book is such a mess that I must assume no editor’s or proofreader’s eyes lingered upon its pages. One bizarre instance from a large supply: Stephen’s “Thought is the thought of thought” in the second chapter of Ulysses where he is brooding on Aristotle’s Metaphysics comes out as “Thought is the thought of port.” The merit of the book is that Costello has added a few family details to Ellmann’s account of the Joyces and their slide from comfort to indigence, a condition reached in 1893. The most interesting chapter is one in which Costello, acting upon a note by one of Joyce’s student friends, Constantine P. Curran, makes a good argument that the model for Emma Clery in Stephen Hero and “E—C—“ in the Portrait was not Mary Sheehy, as Joyce’s brother Stanislaus thought, but Mary Elizabeth Cleary. Not that it matters much. Costello acknowledges that Emma Clery is a composite of several girls, including Eileen Vance and “one of the daughters of Mat Dillon.” I wish he would go an inch further and concede that Joyce did not need to do such mosaic-work and was capable of inventing “E—C—.”

  1. 1

    Richard Ellmann, James Joyce: New and Revised Edition (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 156.

  2. 2

    Letters of James Joyce: Volume II, edited by Richard Ellmann (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 233.

  3. 3

    Richard Ellmann, The Consciousness of Joyce (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 23.

  4. 4

    Brenda Maddox, Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom (Houghton Mifflin, 1988), p. 27.

  5. 5

    James Joyce, Ulysses, edited by Hans Walter Gabler (Random House, 1986), p. 41.

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