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James Joyce: a new biography by Gordon…

James Joyce: a new biography (2012)

by Gordon Bowker

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James Joyce called biographers "biografiends." And yet his work is so autobiographical, and he was so meticulous about documenting the real world of Ireland, that he might as well have set up a business licensing biographers. Wary of the curse Joyce had cast upon biographers, Richard Ellmann, the colossus of Joyce biography, proceeded with caution when approaching Joyce's friends and contemporaries, assuring them that his interest arose from a desire to show how Joyce's life gave birth to such great literature. The result, first published in 1959, was not merely a highly regarded biography of Joyce, but a virtual gold standard by which other contemporary literary biographies have been measured.

Gordon Bowker acknowledges Ellmann and other Joyce biographers and scholars, expressing his debt to them, but he is silent on what his biography adds to Ellmann's -- other than to note that he draws on a good deal of new material, which, his publisher adds, has "only recently come to light." Well, a good deal of it has been sitting for some years in Ellmann's archive at the University of Tulsa. As you can tell only from reading Bowker's "Notes" section, he makes good use of Ellmann's papers, including correspondence. Indeed, we get a less refined version of what Ellmann was told, without the pacifying prose of his published biography. In short, Gordon Bowker has at last set Richard Ellmann free. It is understandable why Bowker would not want to put matters that way, but there it is.

In the main, Bowker's methods are not much different from Ellmann's, which means the biographer traces the scenes and characters of Joyce's fiction to their sources in extraliterary Ireland. Bowker is no literalist -- that is, he does not posit a one-to-one correlation between fictional characters and real people. Instead, he does something more insidious in sentences like this one describing the perambulations of Joyce's father: "And John's habit of regular long walks around Dublin and environs, caught by his children, foreshadows the wandering narrative line which snakes through most of his son's fiction." Really? Seriously? This kind of factitious connectifying is what gives some readers of biographies the willies.

No matter. When Bowker is not succumbing to such stretchers, he provides nuanced readings of Joyce's fiction and -- because most of Joyce's relatives and friends are dead and can no longer carp -- more revealing glimpses of Joyce's life than we have seen before. If Ellmann remains a touchstone because he was able to make contact with Joyce's contemporaries and immediate heirs and render their memories with fidelity, Bowker is equally indispensable, owing to his willingness to rip away that deftly applied layer of protective gauze Ellmann used to bandage his biography and show what those memories concealed. ( )
1 vote carl.rollyson | Oct 5, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374178720, Hardcover)

A revealing new biography—the first in more than fifty years—of one of the twentieth-century’s towering literary figures

James Joyce is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, his novels and stories foundational in the history of literary modernism. Yet Joyce’s genius was by no means immediately recognized, nor was his success easily won. At twenty-two he chose a life of exile; he battled poverty and financial dependency for much of his adult life; his out-of-wedlock relationship with Nora Barnacle was scandalous for the time; and the attitudes he held towards the Irish and Ireland, England, sexuality, politics, Catholicism, popular culture—to name a few—were complex, contradictory, and controversial.

            Gordon Bowker draws on material recently come to light and reconsiders the two signal works produced about Joyce’s life—Herbert Gorman’s authorized biography of 1939 and Richard Ellman’s magisterial tome of 1959—and, most importantly by binding together more intimately than has ever before been attempted the life and work of this singular artist, Gordon Bowker here gives us a masterful, fresh, eminently readable contribution to our understanding, both of Joyce’s personality and of the monumental opus he created.  

            Bowker goes further than his predecessors in exploring Joyce’s inner depths—his ambivalent relationships to England, to his native Ireland, and to Judaism—uncovering revealing evidence. He draws convincing correspondences between the iconic fictional characters Joyce created and their real-life models and inspirations. And he paints a nuanced portrait of a man of enormous complexity, the clearest picture yet of an extraordinary writer who continues to influence and fascinate over a century after his birth. Widely acclaimed on publication in Britain last year, perhaps the highest compliment paid was by Chris Proctor, of London’s Tribune: “Bowker’s success is to lead you back to the texts, perhaps understanding them better for this rich account of the maddening insane genius who wrote them.”

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:32 -0400)

A revealing new biography--the first in more than fifty years--of one of the twentieth-century's towering literary figures -- James Joyce, author of "Ulysses."

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