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 him is warm, almost matronly, in the skittish way of a mother who is half in love with her waywardly brilliant son. She lists indulgently the various modes in which he saw himself:

a jejune Jesuit spurning Christ’s terrene body, a lecher, a Christian brother in luxuriousness, a Joyce of all trades, a bullock-befriending bard, a peerless mummer, a priest-ified kinchite, a quill-frocked friar, a timoneer, a pool-beg flasher and a man with the gift of the Irish majuscule script.

This passage is from the opening page of the book, and though its Finnegansesque skirlings may strike a chill of foreboding into the heart of the reader, O’Brien soon settles down to a clear, unfussy, and admirably hard-headed assessment of this most protean of literary artists. The book is less a biography than a sort of biographical poem set out in brief, vivid sketches of Joyce as man and writer. However, Edna O’Brien is enough of an artist herself to understand that prose is always most poetic when it is most specific, and pays good heed to Molly Bloom’s famous apostrophe to her garrulous husband, “O rocks! Tell us in plain words.”

The facts of Joyce’s life are well-known by now, and O’Brien has nothing new to add to them. That was not her intention. No doubt the aim of the series in general is to attract a large number of readers by unexpected conjunctions of subject and author. As the publisher interestingly has it, “The Penguin Lives series pairs celebrated writers with famous individuals who have shaped our thinking,” a statement that requires a moment’s thought to unravel: after all, both Edna O’Brien and James Joyce are “celebrated writers” and “famous individuals.” While O’Brien’s book looks and feels like a skillfully potted biography that will easily fit the pocket or briefcase, it is also in its sly way a meditation on the splendors and miseries of the literary life, as she herself has known them. Like all great artists, Joyce had to make the Yeatsian choice between perfection of the life or of the art—not that perfection is really available in either—and he did not hesitate for a moment in deciding to pay the price that art would exact not only from him but from those around him. Toward the end of his life, when his daughter Lucia was tumbling headlong into madness, he blamed himself, her “cold mad feary father,” for bequeathing to her the brilliance of mind which in him was genius, in her, dementia.


O’Brien gives us the bare facts, though in places she is a little hazy. For instance, she first of all tells us that Joyce’s mother, the long-suffering May née Murray, bore sixteen children by her husband, John, that “noisy self-willed man,” as Bloom observed of Simon Dedalus, but some pages later the figure has mysteriously dropped to “ten children living, five dead.” In fact, as Ellmann attests, May Joyce had four boys and six girls, and suffered three miscarriages. There are other slips, and some absurdities: she claims that John Joyce, out walking one night with the young James and crossing Capel Street Bridge, “decided that the boy needed a formative experience and held him upside down in the Liffey for several minutes.” Besides the unlikelihood of a child surviving immersion for such a length of time head down in a river, especially one as filthy as the Liffey, there is the fact, which surely Edna O’Brien well knows, that Capel Street Bridge is some twenty feet above the water line even at high tide.

These are minor irritants, however, and one ceases to be bothered by them as the narrative gathers force—though surely an editor should have caught such solecisms as “inimicable” and “rife for beatitude,” meaning “ripe for beatification.” O’Brien sketches in the early years with skill and sympathetic understanding. As one might expect from a novelist who has wrung so much painful poetry from the travails of motherhood and marriage, she gives a strong portrait of May Joyce, pointing out that she was not the hapless wraith presented both by Ellmann and by Joyce in A Portrait and Ulysses. There was, O’Brien observes, “a tartness in her nature,” and certainly she was fierce in championing her son and defending him against the disapproval of others in the family, including the fearsome John Joyce. She died of cancer at the age of forty-four, when Joyce was twenty-one. He had been in Paris, whence he was summoned by a bleak telegram from his father: “Mother dying, come home.”

During those long last weeks John Joyce had behaved with his usual brutality; coming home drunk one night, he burst into her room and told her, “If you can’t get well, die. Die and be damned to you!” James himself gave her little comfort, refusing, like Stephen Dedalus, to kneel by her deathbed. When she was gone, he read her letters to his father “to see,” as O’Brien says, “if they were of any use for his future writings.” Deciding they were not, he burned them. That he had loved her there is no doubt—for the rest of his life he would be in some part of himself a motherless child—but O’Brien, curiously, has no doubt that he was also afraid of her, meaning, perhaps, that he would always be in awe of the eternal feminine. “Writers and their mothers,” O’Brien wryly observes, “—the uncharted deep.”

He lost no time in replacing her. Less than a year after that death he met the woman who was to be his life’s companion. A less likely mate could not have been imagined for this effete and high-strung young artist—“swoon” is one of the most overused words in his early writings—than the untutored, raucous Galway girl, Nora Barnacle. Her surname to him suggested both the softness of goose down and the ecstasy of flight, but his father, who strongly disapproved of the match, had a more prosaic interpretation, saying ruefully of her, according to legend, “Well, she’ll never leave him.” He was right. She stuck by her Jimmy through the worst times, of which there were many.

Nora Joyce was a highly unusual woman for her time, or indeed for any time. One of the most remarkable aspects of Joyce’s life, as a man and as a writer, was the profound changes that he underwent in his twenties and early thirties. It is hard to think that the author of A Portrait is the same man who wrote Ulysses. The languishing, slightly rancid spirit of the 1890s breathes through the former, while the latter is as riotous as Rabelais and as violently revolutionary as Picasso or Stravinsky. What happened to Joyce in those Wanderjahre as he and Nora traipsed about Europe in search of a place to live and the means to pay for it? Of course, the two first decades of the century saw the birth of modernism out of the ferment of war and revolution, but Joyce had little contact with other artists until the publication of Ulysses had brought him fame, if not fortune. How was the precious young man who had set out to “forge the conscience of my race” enabled to find within himself that tremendous humanistic and comic gift—he was, as he said of himself late in life, a great joker at the world’s expense—which informs every page of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake?


Nowhere does Edna O’Brien say so explicitly, but part of the answer surely is: Nora. She gave him that combination of carnal love and unquestioning spiritual devotion that was exactly what he required. On their first date she opened his trousers and put her hand on him, and although he had already, in the arms of prostitutes, known far more physical passion than probably Nora could have imagined, it was that moment of fondling that, as he said, “made me a man.” She was all in all for him, as he covertly declares here in O’Brien’s apt quote from Ulysses: “God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain.”

Joyce and Nora left Ireland in October 1904. Their departure into exile—no Irish writer has ever merely emigrated—had none of the heroic flying by the nets that Stephen Dedalus imagined for himself. Joyce had kept secret the fact that Nora was coming with him, and she had to embark separately so as not to be spotted by the family members who had gathered on the dock to bid him farewell. No doubt she knew that there would be difficulties, but she cannot have foreseen the rackety, hand-to-mouth existence that she was entering into. In the early years they lived in Pola, Rome, Trieste, where Joyce earned a fitful living by working as a clerk, or giving English lessons, supplemented by skillful borrowings from anyone foolish enough to lend him money, including his long-suffering brother Stanislaus.

Despite his exalted declarations of undying love, Joyce more than once in these early days contemplated leaving Nora. However, he was as firmly attached to her as she was to him. He seems never to have been unfaithful to her. In later years he indulged in a couple of mild dalliances, first with a young doctor, Gertrude Kaempffer, and later with the faintly aristocratic and Joyceanly named Marthe Fleischmann. Nothing much happened in these liaisons, apart from an exchange of letters and the odd stolen kiss. The Fleischmann episode, as Ellmann remarks, “though couched in sentimental idiom, was set in the comic mode.”

As for poor Dr. Kaempffer, Joyce seems to have been a total mystery to her. Thinking to arouse her, he told her how one day when he was a child he was walking through the fields with his nanny when the young woman told him to turn aside while she relieved herself. Listening to this passage of chamber music, the young Joyce became very excited and, as he told Kaempffer, he “jiggled furiously.” The baffled doctor, whose English was imperfect, mistook the the word “jiggled” for “jigged,” and could not understand why the sound of a woman urinating should make the boy break into a dance. The comic mode, indeed.

In those early days abroad Joyce often contemplated returning to Ireland. “It must have been an agony for Joyce to be separated from the city he loved so,” O’Brien surmises, but surely she is wrong. The city that Joyce loved was the one he carried with him in his imagination wherever he went. Only in exile from it could he write about Dublin with such passion and immediacy; to have come back would have been to lose his grip on the imagined reality of the place. For all his self-proclaimed love of Ireland and all things Irish, he was at heart a cosmopolitan; as he wrote of Shem the Penman, “he would far sooner muddle through the hash of lentils in Europe than meddle with Irrland’s split little pea.” It was a lonely life that he led, wandering across the face of the continent, ailing, half blind, prematurely aged, but he would have been lonelier still in the familiar confines of his native land.

As his sight dimmed, so also the world’s day darkened. He had always been apolitical—O’Brien remarks that his claim to be a socialist was based in his conviction that the state owed him a living—but now politics pushed in upon him irresistibly, though resist he did, declaring in 1940: “Let us leave the Czechs in peace and occupy ourselves with Finnegans Wake.” O’Brien’s account of his last years is moving. In December 1940 he and Nora and their son Giorgio fled Paris for Switzerland, leaving the demented Lucia behind in a nursing home in Brittany. The following month Joyce collapsed with stomach pains, and was diagnosed as suffering from a duodenal ulcer. He was operated on, but two days later went into a coma, and died, “on the thirteenth day,” as O’Brien observes, “a date he had always regarded as being unsuitable for travel.” There were tributes, of course, from strangers and the great ones he had known alike, but none would have pleased him more than the judgment delivered on him by the French eye surgeon Dr. Victor Morax: “A strange fellow, but [in English] a big boss just the same.”

This Issue

December 16, 1999