The Motherless Child

James Joyce

by Edna O'Brien
Lipper/Viking, 179 pp., $19.95

James Joyce was a tireless promoter of his own work and reputation. The silence that was one of the three principles of his stated artistic game plan—the other two were exile and cunning—was not so much Olympian impassivity as the twitching stony-facedness of the ventriloquist. He granted no interviews, did no literary hackwork, and ignored the achievements of his peers—though he did give an encomium to Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—but never relaxed in the covert business of making his various supporters advertise, praise, and explain to a baffled public his increasingly difficult writings.

At the start, of course, as a penniless wordsmith prowling the streets of Edwardian Dublin, the young Joyce had no rich or influential friends whom he could bully into hawking his wares for him. There were one or two figures in the city whose good opinions he might profitably have husbanded with an eye to the future, but he was too arrogant for that; he told Yeats, who was seventeen years his senior, that unfortunately he was too old to be influenced by him, and made a lifetime enemy of Oliver St. John Gogarty, who was well-to-do and wielded a poison-tipped pen, by turning him in Ulysses into the gross and talentless Malachi Mulligan. But during the years of composition of that book, when kingmakers such as Eliot and Pound began to take him up, and the nearly two decades that he spent writing Finnegans Wake, he fixed upon a series of acolytes, explicators, and fund-raisers that included the ex-civil servant Stuart Gilbert, who wrote a commentary on Ulysses practically at Joyce’s dictation, the English spinster Harriet Shaw Weaver, who as his patron over a period of some thirty years gave him what at present-day values would amount to a million pounds, and the young Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who ran errands for him, and who would one day rival him as the century’s greatest master of English prose.

Joyce also commanded, during his life and after it, the best and most sympathetic of “biografiends,” as he dubbed them, from the autodidact and former sailor Frank Budgen to Richard Ellmann, whose James Joyce (1959) ranks as one of the greatest literary biographies of the century, along with Edel’s Henry James and Painter’s Proust. Now he is the subject, the unlikely subject, some might say, of the Irish novelist and fellow exile Edna O’Brien, who has contributed a short study of what Ellmann called “this bizarre and wonderful creature” to the Penguin Lives series, which has announced such striking pairings as Karen Armstrong on the Buddha and Bobbie Ann Mason on Elvis Presley. O’Brien’s Joyce is not the overweening genius before whose monumental image his puny successors must cower and cringe, but “poor joist, a funnominal man,” a great artist, certainly, but one who was never more or less than human, a lover of women drunk on words and wine, “a man of profligate tastes and blatant inconsistencies” who is yet among the immortals. Her attitude to…

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