My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Biography must be the most traditional, even rigid, of the prose genres, exceeding murder mysteries or romance novels. It marches from birth to death (or from family history to cultural legacy) at the stately pace of the old three-volume Victorian novel and with the regularity of the sonnet or the villanelle. While the genre does present its writers the chance to attain virtuosity within a pre-given form, it can be an odd fit when it takes as its subject an experimental novelist like James Joyce, who said when writing Finnegans Wake, “I might easily have written this story in the traditional manner. Every novelist knows the recipe.” It’s all the odder given that Joyce used his own life as his material from the beginning to the end of his career and so might be said to have already written his own biography in the cipher of his ingenious fictions. Doesn’t the biographer run the risk—to borrow from Kierkegaard—of turning wine into water?
Yet if Joyce was an autobiographical novelist, he was also an impersonal one, preferring to disappear behind his artifice “like the God of creation,” “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails,” as his alter ego Stephen Dedalus theorizes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He didn’t moralize in his works over their social or political implications, and in his life he didn’t correct or direct other people’s interpretations.
A student of Ibsen, Joyce preferred dramatization to didacticism; a student of Dante, he let structure, not sermons, do the work of significance. He did seek publicity more than one might infer from Dedalus’s proclamation of the artist as “priest of the eternal imagination”—he authorized and somewhat stage-managed his own first biography, by Herbert Gorman, published in 1939, and was chided by one of his Parisian patrons, the bookseller Adrienne Monnier, “you are…very concerned about success and money.” But despite his quest for publicity, he was broadly misunderstood until the American scholar Richard Ellmann’s mammoth, richly-documented James Joyce was published in 1959.
Critics previous to Ellmann had overhastily assimilated Joyce to his high modernist milieu. He was thought to be, like Eliot and Pound, a despairing conservative scourge of modern decadence, a scabrous satirizer of the 20th-century city as usurious bordello. Ellmann, by contrast, shows Joyce bemused at his cohort’s ideological frenzy: “the more I hear of the political, philosophical, ethical zeal and labours of the brilliant members of Pound’s big brass band the more I wonder why I was ever let into it ‘with my magic flute’…”
In youth, he was a socialist and cosmopolitan, rejecting all repressive authoritarian or identitarian structures, from the Catholic Church to the British Empire to Irish nationalism; in later years, he conceived of himself as a lower-middle-class family man with no grand ideals to propound. He regarded his later novels as pleasure-giving jokes (of Ulysses, he said, “there is not one single serious line in it”), jokes that, like all comedy, serve to put the distressful human condition in calming perspective. From beginning to end, he was an instinctive pacifist who elevated intellect over force, nowhere more, as Ellmann comments, than in Ulysses:
The relation of Bloom and Stephen confirms Joyce’s point of view in another way: Bloom’s common sense joins Stephen’s acute intelligence; Stephen Dedalus, the Greek-Christian-Irishman, joins Bloom Ulysses, the Greek-Jewish-Irishman; the cultures seem to unite against horsepower and brutality in favor of brainpower and decency. […] Casual kindness overcomes unconscionable power. […] In his art Joyce…expressed his only piety, a rejection, in humanity’s name and comedy’s method, of fear and cruelty.
James Joyce, then, is Ellmann’s attempt to make Joyce’s ideas and achievements clearer to an audience still skeptical of modernist formal experimentation’s basic human relevance, as opposed to the more decisively expressed values of the classics. Ellmann writes in his introduction:
Whether we know it or not, Joyce’s court is, like Dante’s or Tolstoy’s, always in session. […] Joyce’s discovery, so humanistic that he would have been embarrassed to disclose it out of context, was that the ordinary is the extraordinary.
Ellmann’s interpretations of Joyce’s fiction, offered in separate chapters on “The Dead,” A Portrait, and Ulysses at intervals throughout the book, may exaggerate the work’s humanism at the expense of its formalism, but without this concession to the common reader’s interest in being instructed and delighted by art, it’s possible that Joyce may have lapsed back into the chaos of modernist experiment, half-forgotten, rather than becoming a live classic that still drives Dublin tourism and ornaments U.S. Presidential campaigns.
Unlike the subject of Ellmann’s final biography, Oscar Wilde, Joyce had an often undramatic life. What drama there was he created for himself, to inspire his own art. The most obvious example is his emblematic flight from Ireland, just one episode in his lifelong identification with Lucifer and Christ, Daedalus and Dante—his sense of himself, not without self-satirizing exaggeration, as flaming rebel, betrayed messiah, airborne artificer, and exiled poet. He at times almost arranged his own betrayals, to give himself more material for his autobiographical art. Ellmann comments on his entanglements:
In the end Joyce throve on plots and counterplots, tensions and countertensions, which he was able to find or often to read into his native city. The intrigue was as complicated as that of some medieval principality of the fourteenth century, and well suited to the mind of Dedalus, maker of labyrinths.
Yet most of Joyce’s life—in Trieste (where he lived for about a decade after fleeing Dublin), in Zurich (where he spent the years of the Great War), and in Paris (where he enjoyed his post-Ulysses success and wrote Finnegans Wake)—was spent writing, giving English lessons to make money, wheedling with censorious publishers, and appeasing his gracious benefactors. His emotional life was devoted to his family (his companion Nora Barnacle, children Giorgio and Lucia, and brother Stanislaus) and a close if fractious circle of friends.
To the rest of his contemporaries, his work was shocking in content and baffling in form; it often couldn’t be published—printers, afraid of prosecution, refused even to set the type—and when published was hardly a bestseller. Joyce relied on on boosters like the modernist impresario Ezra Pound and patrons like the English activist Harriet Shaw Weaver.
Due to Joyce’s mostly undramatic life, Ellmann spends the middle of his book giving us the pleasure of being in such dazzling company as that of Joyce and his friends and correspondents. Quoting from primary sources (contemporaneous letters and diaries) and his own interviews with the still-living principals, Ellmann offers a banquet of table talk and obiter dicta, from Joyce’s elevation of Ibsen over Shakespeare to his preference for a white wine (resembling an archduchess’s pale gold urine) over red (which he called “beefsteak”). This recreation of Joyce’s living dialogue might be the chief recommendation and chief pleasure of this book for the non-scholarly reader, the reader seeking interest, not facts; Ellmann shows that more than half the art of biography is a genius for judicious quotation.
Only at the beginning and end of his book does Ellmann obviously assert the biographer’s quasi-novelistic right to give an interpretive shape to the life. Picking up Ulysses‘s theme of paternity, Ellmann frames Joyce’s context and childhood around the figure of his father, John Joyce. He treats John as a kind of non-literary first draft of James, or James as a more self-consciously and reflexively articulate later edition of his father: both were “characters,” in the neighborhood and Dickensian senses, hard-drinking spendthrifts with seductive senses of humor and fine singing voices, as well as a shared penchant for feuds and grudges.
Ellmann, perhaps conditioned by his 1950s context, tends to pass off John Joyce’s more abusive traits—he could be a terror, sometimes physical, to wife and children—as merely “Dostoevskian,” and he underemphasizes Joyce’s long-suffering but intelligent and sympathetic mother, May Joyce (who agreed with her son that Ibsen was not immoral), in pursuit of the patrimony motif. But Ellmann’s drive to interpret gradually disappears from the book as Joyce’s and his contemporaries’ words take greater priority.
Only in its last 200 or so pages does a sense of overweening structure return. Shaped rather more like The Magic Mountain than like Ulysses, James Joyce passes into climactic darkness—the darkness, first, of the dream-life and dream-language of Finnegans Wake, the project that obsessed Joyce for the last 16 years of his life.
Ellmann doesn’t devote a whole chapter to interpreting the Wake as he does with the earlier major works; he treats it more indirectly instead, mining it for chapter epigraphs throughout his book and focusing on Joyce’s contemporaries’ often harshly expressed failure to understand his most experimental novel.
Ellmann records complaints from family (Stanislaus: “I for one would not read more than a paragraph of it if I did not know you”; Nora: “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?”), colleagues (Pound: “nothing short of a divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization”), and patrons (Weaver: “It seems to me you are wasting your genius”). In these pages, the biography becomes almost a Platonic dialogue between competing voices on the nature and purpose of fiction, with commentary from H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, and more.
Meanwhile, as Europe drifts toward war, Lucia Joyce drifts further into schizophrenia, and her father, prematurely aged, drifts toward his death at 58 from a perforated ulcer. This biography of the 20th century’s most rigorously comic major author, which had itself been for most of its length a comic feast of anecdote and witticism, takes a tragic shape. Ellmann nevertheless offers a clever tribute to Joyce’s documentary obsessiveness as well as his commitment to writing the body when he includes in a footnote the entirety of Joyce’s autopsy (“Pancreas has a raglike consistency”) before giving us Nora’s fitting tribute to her husband, which may echo the attitude of Joyce’s readers (of whose number Nora was notably not a member): “Things are very dull now. There was always something doing when he was about.”
Ellmann later structured his Wilde biography around the idea that Wilde had syphilis—the spirochete rises as the gay martyr falls—when in fact Joyce’s Irish precursor likely didn’t have the disease at all. By contrast, Ellmann provides excruciating detail about Joyce’s health complaints, notably his near-blinding eye afflictions and his terminal gastrointestinal distress, without inquiring as to whether their underlying pathology might not have been contracted, as perhaps it was, in Nighttown.
Ellmann’s Joyce isn’t a hagiography, though, and doesn’t skimp on Joyce’s flaws: his paranoia and jealousy and persecution complex, his almost pathological financial profligacy, his sometimes cold absorption in self and work to the exclusion of friends and family. Ellmann particularly dwells on Joyce’s at times egregious treatment of his brother Stanislaus. By contrast, Ellmann registers Nora’s dissatisfactions without emphasizing them.
The biography does show that if Joyce’s ideas were more liberal than his immediate successors thought, they were a bit less liberal than we might think: Joyce said, “I hate intellectual women,” to excuse his avoidance of Gertrude Stein in Paris, and he derived many of his ideas about race and gender from Otto Weininger (“A pet theory…was that Jews are by nature womanly men”) rather than being as anti-essentialist as his later postmodern champions wished him to be. Other peccadilloes may annoy or—who knows—inspire sad identification, as with the spectacle Ellmann offers of so gifted a man still falling down drunk in the street well into middle age.
Ellmann also records Joyce’s generosity—recto to his financial carelessness’s verso; he was an almost irresponsibly large tipper—as well as the generosity of others toward Joyce, as when Pound provided him a pair of shoes or Yeats wrote letters on his behalf to enable his mobility through Europe during World War I. Joyce’s late devotion to Lucia, while maybe misguided from the point of view of psychological “science” then or now, is likewise affecting:
I am well aware that I am blamed by everybody for sacrificing that precious metal money to such an extent for such a purpose [as trying to get a cure for Lucia] when it could be done so cheaply and quietly by locking her up in an economic mental prison for the rest of her life. […] And I imagine that if you were where she is and felt as she must you would perhaps feel some hope if you felt that you were not abandoned or forgotten.
If Dr. Johnson is right that we should read biography with an eye toward its relevance to our own lives and choices—in short, with models in mind—what might we learn today from Ellmann’s big book?
I would first point to Joyce’s struggle with censorship—both state censorship and the even more insidious censorship of publishers and printers in their deference not just to law, which is understandable, but also to what they fancy is public taste.
The charges of obscenity that held up the publications of Dubliners, A Portrait, and Ulysses are well known, but we are no longer shocked by the use of “bloody” as a profanity, as was Irish publisher Grant Richards when he refused to accept Dubliners without cuts, or by the mere depiction of masturbation, defecation, or menstruation, as were many of Ulysses‘s early readers (if anything, the excremental vision is overdone in contemporary fiction, the shock having long ago faded to leave obscenity as shopworn today as any Victorian convention was by 1910).
What will strike a contemporary reader, though, is the implicit charge that Joyce’s short stories would, with their unsparing and “obscene” depiction of his society’s flaws, cause harm to Ireland in the midst of its independence struggle. Unlike scatology, this remains a hot issue, and some of the early responses to Dubliners anticipate today’s controversies over sensitivity readers and the woke Twitterati. Was Joyce not politically irresponsible in depicting Dubliners as culturally-stunted alcoholic provincials in the grip of stultifying ideologies? Joyce said he was not:
I fight to retain [some disputed passages] because I believe that in composing my chapter of moral history in exactly the way I have composed it I have taken the first step towards the spiritual liberation in my country.
Synthesizing Defoe’s realism with Blake’s romanticism (“While he took pride in grounding his art like Defoe in fact, he insisted also with Blake on the mind’s supremacy over all it surveyed,” summarizes Ellmann), Joyce held that the artist’s duty was to transfigure truth in the crucible of his imagination and produce a new world out of this one. This act, which both preserves the world and inspires us to change it, which saves the was and incites the will be, what Stephen Dedalus calls “the postcreation,” cannot be achieved on the basis of mollifying lies or blunted language.
I wish today’s writers and publishers would model themselves on Joyce’s courage in insisting, even amid decades of poverty and neglect, and in the name of verisimilitude, of art, and of the progress that can only come from truth, on the right to write freely in the face of all spurious charges of blasphemy and “harm.” To publishers in particular, Ellmann inspires me to say: if nothing else motivates you to resist the Twitterati, imagine yourself 50 years from now as a very minor character, a censorious laughingstock, in the biography of some genius you slighted just because a handful of digital inquisitors tapped out obnoxious, dictatorial missives about what people should and should not be allowed to read, write, or think.
But the question of Ireland’s “spiritual liberation” and what it might mean for the present brings me to a final conundrum that Ellmann’s book helps to elucidate, if not to solve. Here I have no argument to make, just a difficulty to observe.
Despite the aforementioned attempt to blend Defoe and Blake, realism and idealism, these modes predominated at different moments of Joyce’s career. He justified his early work as mimesis: he wanted to save Ireland by giving the Irish “one good look at themselves in [his] nicely polished looking-glass.” This Aristotelian commitment to representation, whether of exteriors (as in Dubliners) or the inner life (as in A Portrait and the first third of Ulysses) accords with his politics of the period: an enlightened socialist nationalism that saw economic self-sufficiency and the formation of an independent civil society as necessary to Ireland’s liberation. The artist’s freedom to represent his country as it is would signify the freedom of the middle class to lead the nation as a whole to greater economic equality and a cosmopolitan relaxation of culture (as against the Irish Revival’s Romantic nationalist demand for more organic and exclusivist conceptions of Irish identity).
But there is an organic component to this political philosophy: it requires that customary unit of middle-class reproduction, the family, which Joyce held sacred in art as in life. For example, he opposed abortion, believing “that conception, once it has occurred, must be considered natural and fated,” Ellmann reports, and he further found sexual relations without reproduction incomprehensible: “I can’t understand households without children. I see some with dogs, gimcracks. Why are they alive?”
But as Joyce’s writing practice developed, his always latent anarchist tendency supervened upon his liberal nationalism: “As an artist I am against every state,” he wrote in 1918. “The state is concentric, man is eccentric.” His work leaves mimesis behind: from the second third of Ulysses on (“Aeolus” marks the shift with its parodic headlines), language becomes autonomous, severed from representation, until, in the composition of Finnegans Wake, he invents a super-language of his own.
Ironically, Ulysses takes its furthest step in this direction in “Oxen of the Sun,” a chapter meant to attack “the crime committed against fecundity by sterilizing the act of coition,” Joyce wrote in a letter, and to analogize the development of a fetus with the development of the English language. Yet the chapter’s language produces itself out of itself without the goad of the objects it represents and so floats totally free of nature and truth, while the central relationship of the entire novel, structured by myth, is the spiritual, not biological, kinship of Dedalus and Bloom. Fecundity here proceeds without coition or even bodies.
If “queer” is not a euphemism for the older term “homosexuality” but rather names the repudiation of all reproductive normativity, and a further rejection of such normativity’s cultural corollary in the mimetic artist’s fidelity to nature, then Joyce—picking up more than a few hints from Wilde’s literary theory—performed the ultimate queering of Anglophone literature, whose beneficiaries we autonomous artists remain.
Yet where does this leave the enlightened nation and its equality rooted in family economy and wealth? When Joyce describes the language he wished to create while writing Ulysses, the language that became the argot of Finnegans Wake—
I’d like a language which is above all languages, a language to which all will do service. I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition.
—does it not sound oddly like capital, untethered to any territory or tradition, largely hostile to the nation, free to flow where it likes and remake the world as it pleases, a universal and unhoused medium of exchange?
And can’t we hear a premonitory echo of present dilemmas in this political contest between socialism and anarchism, this literary stalemate between faithful representation and autonomous form? Does this not help us to understand political conflicts that today sometimes seem obscure or merely misguided, that are hard to talk about without giving offense, not least to ourselves, because so many of us want socialism and anarchism, the economic benefits of a settled national order and an absolute cultural emancipation from borders and bodies and identities?
This conflict in and over Joyce’s work gives it the true integrity of the classic. Dante could only represent bodiless lightborne eternity through the beloved if disavowed medium of the concretely real; Tolstoy championed humanity en masse only by creating unforgettable individuals. And Joyce is likewise riven by his double desire to mimic this world and to make a new world in words.
The function of the classic is to give us for contemplation an object as divided between competing goods as we ourselves are; to help us refine our unappeasable, incompatible thoughts and feelings; perhaps even, by demonstrating the unity of opposites in the extremes between which the work stretches, to caution us against making absolute any one value or desire. By demonstrating this division in the soul of his subject, Ellmann shows us that we are, on this Bloomsday well into the troubled 21st century, still, as the biography’s famous opening sentence proposes, “learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries.”