James Joyce by Edna O’Brien

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Review by Rob Spence

Edna O’Brien’s position as one of the most significant modern Irish writers is undisputed, and here, in this reissue of her 1999 short biography, she tackles the life of the writer who, in the eyes of many, stands as the greatest Irish writer of them all. Her enthusiasm shines from every page, as she takes the reader on a breathless journey from the Dublin slums to the piazzas of Trieste, the boulevards of Paris and the final wartime dash to Zurich and death. This is very much a fan’s perspective, and the author makes few concessions to the reader who might not have read much of Joyce’s work. True, she gives a masterly capsule summary of Ulysses, and a less satisfactory one, unsurprisingly, of Finnegans Wake, but apart from those interludes, the reader is clearly expected to have the same level of knowledge that the author displays.

In short, punchy chapters, O’Brien outlines the development of Joyce from his precocious, arrogant adolescence to his early struggles in exile with Nora Barnacle, success and relative comfort under the patronage of Sylvia Beach and Harriet Shaw Weaver in Paris, and the seventeen years of struggle to finish Finnegans Wake  as his health and eyesight deteriorated.  Her approach is idiosyncratic: this is not an academic study, more a series of sometimes dazzling impressionistic sketches of Joyce’s life. O’Brien’s Joyce comes to life in evocative portraits of Dublin life at the end of the nineteenth century, as his family flit from one hovel to another, always on the run from landlords, with young Jim becoming increasingly estranged and independent. O’Brien does not pull her punches: the Joyce she presents here is difficult to like. He is egotistical, dishonest, a frequenter of brothels, a drunkard and generally disreputable. O’Brien does not name sources, beyond the occasional nod to Richard Ellmann’s standard life, and at times the narrative seems more like a novel than a biography, with some bold assertions about actions and motivations presented without evidence, and sometimes in a pastiche of Joyce’s style. Nonetheless, it rings true: O’Brien clearly knows her subject intimately, and unfolds the remarkable life in vignettes that fizz with colour and authentic detail. This is especially the case in her description of Joyce’s relationship with Nora Barnacle, the subject of a forthcoming book by her.

It’s said that there is more literary-critical writing on Joyce than there is on Shakespeare, which is remarkable considering Shakespeare’s prominence, and the fact that he had a 300-year advantage over his Irish rival. O’Brien is aware of this, and has some caustic things to say about Joyce’s critics.  For O’Brien, many Joyceans just don’t get it. Of his critics, O’Brien says “Anyone who touched Joyce seemed to get a bit carried away” and she cites one writer’s egregiously opaque description of Ulysses as a “misty nebula of erotic light taking on a purely copologic significance.” Or rather, she doesn’t cite this critic, and this is a problem with the book. That quotation is introduced by the phrase “some other scribe talks of…” so the reader is not told who, allegedly, made this comment.  I have tried to identify the source of this phrase, and have not succeeded.  It is very obscure, though I am sure Joyce’s shade would be amused to discover that “Copologic” is the name of some software used by American police forces. Elsewhere, some critics are named – Marliyn French is given short shrift, for instance – but even the most basic conventions of referencing are omitted: no footnotes, few attributions. There is a short book list, which is idiosyncratically organised in order of “author preference” and with no items published after 1999. It is a pity that the opportunity to update this book has not been taken. The page devoted to Bloomsday 1998 could easily have been omitted, and seems to be a relic of the first iteration of the book. It seems odd in 2020 for this particular example of an annual occasion to be singled out. There are other infelicities that might have been corrected by assiduous editing: for instance, we read that Freud and Joyce were namesakes – how?  At one point we read about the bizarre episode where Joyce directed Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich, but O’Brien gets details of that event wrong: Henry Carr, the British consular official against whom Joyce litigated was not “cast in a minor role” but actually the principal one.  In one of the moving passages about the anguished life of Lucia Joyce, we are told that Joyce “would grudgingly consent to have her see this doctor or that” and then a few lines later that “he grudgingly approved of this or that cure, took her to this or that doctor.” This kind of thing grates, but in the end, the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses.

Edna O’Brien presents Joyce very much warts and all, in an exhilarating romp through his life.  The account of his later life with Nora, and the agonies of being father to Lucia are particularly affecting, and are very suggestive in terms of his literary work at the time.  Anyone coming fresh to Joyce will find much to startle and inform them here. This little book would make an ideal companion to Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody, still the best short introduction to Joyce’s work.

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Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro

Edna O’Brien, James Joyce (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2019) 978-1-4746-1445-0, 182pp., paperback.

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