James Joyce Penguin Lives

Weekend Australian Review

Review by Mary Rose Liverani
Weekend Australian
November 27-28, 1999.

Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? When Edna O'Brien puts this question in Fame, one of the longer chapters in her James Joyce study, she's acknowledging that her most beloved among writers eschewed the role of house-trained lover, husband, friend, neighbour or compatriot; and that she is acknowledging that she has portrayed him as such a monster. He must be a cause to lesser mortals, limitless as Community Aid Abroad but not tax-deductible.
"I am always friends with a person for a purpose," he said candidly. And when the purpose expired, so did the 'friendship'. Though he was never the answer to a feminist's prayer, women, most notably his mother May, wife Nora Barnacle, and benefactors Sylvia Beach and Harriet Weaver, all given careful and sympathetic treatment by O'Brien, served his genius more willingly than men -- and suffered soundly for their devotion.
Nonetheless, O'Brien rebuts Marilyn French's criticism, "it seems certain Joyce had a contempt for women," and Kate Millett's, "he engaged in the naive participation in the cult of the primitive woman." She seeks to show instead that Joyce empathized more with women than men. In Dubliners, she says, he drew for models on the women around him, victims one and all, but nobler than and morally superior to the men who dominate them. A quick re-reading of "Eveline" and "The Dead," certainly confirms the "eerie tenderness" O'Brien finds "suffuses" Dubliners. These stories may be ideologically unsound but they're heart-rending.
Once Joyce meets and elopes with Barnacle, the semi-literate Galway girl who initiates the "scalding marathon" of love letters they exchange when apart, (samples of which will certainly fire reader's cheeks), his female characters become the "masters of cunning and charm" portrayed in Ulysses. There was nothing naive about the creator of Molly Bloom says O'Brien, and that "marvel of licentiousness, noddle and non-guilt" can hardly be viewed as unidimensional primitive woman. Molly's breathlessly unpunctuated monologue, incidentally, O'Brien traces -- with examples -- to May Joyce's letters to her son.
Still, as a great artist, Joyce was bound to be a monster. "While wrestling with language to capture the human condition, they [writers] become more callous and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict," Says O'Brien, yet she loves "Sunny Jim," loves his long-suffering mother, "a cracked vessel for child-bearing," pities his drunken, abusive, tyrannical father who should certainly have had a few AVO's taken out against him, admires his wife, marvels at his mad daughter Lucia who fumed admirably at her father's burial: "What is he doing under the ground, that idiot? When will he decide to come out?" and has a special fondness for Harriet Weaver, the selfless little English spinster from whom Joyce extracted the equivalent of a million pounds and threatened with the cold shoulder when she committed some minor lapse.
O'Brien is just a little bit chilly, however, towards the people who envied Joyce his genius and tried to undermine his stature, such as his brother Stanislaus and the loathsome surgeon, Oliver (Buck Mulligan) Gogarty.
This short biography is not meant to supplant Richard Ellmann's famous work, which O'Brien cites on occasion and defers to. As the author of 18 books, however, and with a substantial popular following, she was an ideal choice for a story meant to bring Joyce to a new public enthused by the likes of Angela's Ashes and The Snapper, for in terms of sickening poverty, misery, shame, drunkenness, family violence, social ostracism and persecution, the Joyce story is nothing lacking. And by page 12 you know you're also reading about genius: someone hilarious, outrageous, arrogant, risk-taking, prodigiously learned, volcanic with anger, pitiless, living in a country that ground down the body and suffocated the spirit and who, though he vowed "non serviam," served art and his country to his last tortured breath.
The narrative is seamless and supple, briskly paced, effortlessly blending the events of Joyce's life and his career, summaries of and commentaries on his work including an excellent introduction to Ulysses and (a very minor matter) O'Brien's less alluring imitations of the master's style.
Readers might wonder if they're reading about Soviet dissenters when they follow the saga of censorship associated with publication of Joyce's works -- Ulysses was approved for publication in the US only in the year Prohibition was repealed.
In cinematic terms, O'Brien's focus is invariably narrow and close-up. Though she notes Joyce's flitting between Italy and Switzerland, there's almost no drawing back to look at the landscape or the social context, little relief from tension or gloom. Superficially, the story might seem picaresque but this isn't Tom Jones: the sheer chaos of Joyce's life, the high pitch of intensity at which he lived and worked, his physical decline, sans sight, sans teeth, sans everything when his artistic drive remained undiminished, are the stuff of tragedy.
O'Brien might just as easily have put the question, "Do great writers have to be such martyrs to create?"

©1999 Weekend Australian

(Special thanks to Charles Cave)