James Joyce Penguin Lives

James Joyce

Edna O'Brien
Penguin, 1999, ISBN 0-670-88230-5; Hardcover $19.95. 170 Pages. [
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Review by Allen B. Ruch

The latest installment of the "Penguin Lives" series, Edna O'Brien's James Joyce perfectly symbolizes the aims of the project as a whole, which matches a contemporary writer with an historical figure in an attempt to illuminate the subject's personality and influence on the modern world. Therefore James Joyce does not aspire to either the length or the detail of a complete biography; like the other works in the series, it is a small but attractively presented book of under 200 pages.
Edna O'Brien can certainly be said to have some affinity for her subject. An Irish novelist currently residing in London, where she had earlier eloped to escape her rigid family, she has long cited Joyce as an influence, and her fluid prose is often touched with experimental elements. She's also personally suffered the frustrations of writing frankly about Ireland, and seven of her books -- many of which take an unflinching look at Irish culture, women's sexuality, and abortion -- have been banned in her native country. In fact, she was even tapped to provide an introduction to the Signet Classic Dubliners, one of Ireland's most notorious "banned books."
But does all this make her a good choice to write a biography of James Joyce?
Well, the answer to that may be more complex than it seems. Richard Ellmann has already written the standard biography on Joyce, an epic work some find daunting in is very completeness. There has long been a need for a shorter, more accessible work; and furthermore, the Penguin Lives are intended for a popular audience. Nevertheless, Edna O'Brien is a novelist, and a long-time fan of Joyce; a pair of traits that make James Joyce an interesting and enjoyable read, but also detract from both its objectivity and reliability.

From the very first sentence we know we're in a different kind of biography: "Once upon a time there was a man coming down a road in Dublin and he gave himself the name of Dedalus the sorcerer, constructor of labyrinths and maker of wings for Icarus who flew so close to the sun that he fell, as the apostolic Dubliner James Joyce would fall into a world of words -- from the "epiphanies" of youth to the epistomadologies of later years." After that, it's all a bubbling world of words itself, charting the inner life of James Joyce from infancy to sad death.
As might be expected, the prose is unusually vivid for a work of non-fiction. O'Brien allows her own poetic voice to flow down through the pages of Joyce's work, and like a stream being shaped by its channel, the narrative assumes aspects of Joyce's style as it moves through his career, from the Portrait-like beginning to the later wordplay of Finnegans Wake. Like much else in this book, this has a mixed effect. For the most part, the narrative hums nicely along, but there are a few rough spots and a couple of jarring choices, and we are never sure if a coinage is from Joyce or O'Brien herself. In fact, much of the book is comprised of quotes, some of which are unmarked, leaving the reader with the question of whether O'Brien is using poetic license to assume the thoughts of Joyce, or whether she is lifting phrases from his novels and letters. A few spot checks lead me to believe that the latter is more likely; but since some phrases are placed in quotes, and some are free, a certain degree of ambiguity remains. Also, a few quoted phrases about Joyce are left unattributed, so for instance we know that Finnegans Wake was considered "linguistic sodomy," but not by whom.
A more significant mixed blessing is O'Brien's enthusiasm itself. It would be impossible to write any book about Joyce without being enthusiastic about him or his work; but O'Brien comes close to canonizing him. While his genius may be beyond question, one gets tired of O'Briens' constant apologies and special dispensations. Though she has no qualms about presenting Joyce's "bad side" -- his self-pity, his aloofness, his self-centered view of relationships -- she rarely lets them stand on their own as the negative qualities of a complex human being. Instead, we are frequently treated to categorical apologia about the nature of genius, especially when possessed by writers. According to O'Brien, all great writers have to be monsters. While Harriet Shaw Weaver -- who sacrificed so much for Joyce, and often thanklessly -- may be "rife for beatitude," there is never any real sympathy for her or any of the other people Joyce used or mistreated; even some irony or wry humor would be welcome rather than broad statements about the necessities of art. It is a constant reminder that another novelist is behind the work; one who has had family problems herself, now lives alone, and openly admits in interviews that she believes all great writers must have solitude and distance. It is a unique and clearly sympathetic perspective from which to write upon Joyce, but hardly an unbiased one.
O'Brien's use of broad statements is another aspect of James Joyce which may cause some readers consternation. Occasionally opinions are boldly presented as facts; for instance, we learn that Anna Livia Plurabelle "is the most accessible and indeed beloved character ever conceived by Joyce," a statement that borders on error rather than opinion. And there are actual mistakes as well as puzzling omissions. (The first English edition contained even more errata; most of which have been corrected for this US release.) Henry Carr is said to have played a minor part in The Importance of Being Earnest, when in fact he was Algernon -- a role that lead to a dispute which sparked an incident in Ulysses. An early encounter with Yeats' father is only half-told, making Joyce's rebuttal seem more arrogant than amusing. And more importantly, whole aspects of Joyce's life are only referred to as fait accompoli later in the book: we never know when Portrait is published or when he is finally married to Nora, and their children enter and leave the narrative with little continuity. Finally, a fiction writer at heart, O'Brien has the tendency to overindulge in her descriptions. Joyce was not merely angry, he was "volcanic," visiting brothels that were "seedy dungeons," and Bloom is characterized as a "lecher." Although it makes for exciting reading, it also adds a luridness that seems a bit suspect, and one can't help thinking that O'Brien is placing a subtle spin on events through her colorful choice of words.
On the positive side, the book is very engaging. O'Brien takes a tangible delight in discussing his work, and her enthusiasm for his wordplay and literary invention shines forth from every page. She shows a great sensitivity to his emotional life, particularly regarding his family and his relationship with Nora. Indeed, Nora emerges as a character equally as interesting as Joyce, a woman who loathed Ireland even more than her husband, and was never afraid of her own sexuality. The chapter on their sex life makes quite an interesting and colorful read; though reprinting words and phrases from Joyce's notoriously smutty letters to Nora will certainly keep James Joyce off most high school reading lists! (Which is a shame, as this would make a wonderful resource for a student studying Joyce.) One does wish, however, that O'Brien would just present their long-distance relationship without the additional commentary -- her apologetic explanations of his pornographic language are almost laughable: "Joyce's chaos is our chaos, his barbaric desires are ours, too, and his genius is that he made such breathless transcendations out of torrid stuff, that from the mire he managed to 'bestir the hearts of men and angels.'" Uh-huh. Would we all be granted such an epitaph if our private letters were found!
In the end, this uneven but often charming book still manages to please more than it disappoints, though it's less a biography than a tribute to a thorny but much beloved literary grandfather. For those lacking the time or inclination to tackle the Ellmann biography, James Joyce may serve as an enjoyable summary of Joyce's life, focusing more on the development of his genius than on the density of biographical detail. All in all, it's a sympathetic portrait of the artist, and how his work has forever illuminated the beauty of language and its infinite possibilities.

--Allen B. Ruch
28 December 1999

Additional Reviews

Weekender Australian Review --November 27-28, 1999. Mary Rose Liverani presents a fair description of O'Brien's book.

Ireland's Homer -- December 1-7, 1999. Rodney Welch's review from the Columbia Free Times. Mostly positive, this review also serves as an outline for the book.

A Slim, Savory Volume -- San Francisco Chronicle, December 9, 1999. David Kipen takes a frustratingly unfocused look at James Joyce, and the Penguin series in general.

The Motherless Child -- New York Review of Books, December 16, 1999. Irish author John Banville evenly critiques O'Brien's book, and adds some intelligent commentary on Joyce's life as well.

LA Times Review -- A short but positive review; though I would certainly recommend a different set of guides to reading Ulysses!

London Times Review -- Online at the "Joyce Luck Club," this is a scathing review of the original British edition

Oh Joist, Poor Joist -- New York Times, January 6, 2000. Robert Sullivan lauds the book, and though it's a humorous review with a few good insights, I find it annoyingly patronizing and a bit too forgiving. (Who cares about facts and objectivity if it's a good read?)

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