The greatest living Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s (b 1930) brief (179 page) biography of James Joyce was aimed at people like me who are curious about Joyce’s life, but not curious enough to undertake Richard Ellman’s definitive but massive biography. O’Brien venerates Joyce’s writing, but recognizes the high cost to most everyone who had any contact with Joyce. As a vainglorious, insanely jealous, epically condescending, boozing spendthrift he does not strike me as a very good husband, but he was a worse son and father and brother, ruthlessly exploiting anyone he could, including various younger writers (the most notable of whom was Samuel Beckett) he enlisted as publicists and treated like serfs, and a series of patrons (one of whom, Miss Weaver, over time gave him what would be more than a million dollars in today’s currency) whom he hated for helping him but exercised cunning flattery to keep funds flowing his way.
There is certainly a sense in which the increasingly blind expatriate Irish writer was a martyr to his art. But weighing the price of his achievements against the human costs involves the hurt and misery he inflicted on others. Perhaps because she values the achievements more highly than I do (indeed, as “immeasurable”), she is more willing than I am to suggest that the result was worth the suffering inflected on others. In his treatment of his mother O’Brien justly calls him “monstrously indifferent” and I would extend that label to many of his other relationships, particularly with his son.
O’Brien does not attempt to defend Joyce from being viewed as a monster; instead, she answers her question “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do.” (I doubt that she is such a monster, though no doubt pilfering in the privacy of those she knows to stockpile material for her fictions.)
She does challenge the view that Joyce was misogynist. This despite noting that the young man chose as his confirmation name Aloysius, a Catholic saint who (like Mohammed Attah) feared any contact with women. O’Brien argues that “in all the stories [in Dubliners] the women, despite being victims attain a moral superiority,” and that after carrying off Nora Barnacle the women in his writings are “temptresses and sorceresses.” The idolization of primitive life force in those he considered s-l-u-t-s and idealization of asexual, indulgent patronesses seems to me a very familiar, very Catholic Madonna/w-h-o-r-e dichotomy with an unoriginal delight in pulling the madonnas down into the “filth” that is sex in this worldview. (I am not sure what O’Brien means in writing that “if he depicted women as sexually primitive he was more prescient than anyone before or since. It probably says more about her than about Joyce, but the “pre-” may be a cunning annulment of the seeming praise.)
After the celebration among the cognoscenti of Ulysses and letting Finnegan’s Wake loose on the world, the world was swallowed up by war (WWII). Joyce got out of occupied France and died in Switzerland. A problem of biography, even one so novelistic as O’Brien’s, is that the endings are often anti-climactic. In this instance, the climax was also smudged between the triumph of Ulysse and the dragged out excesses of Finnegan’s Wak. For me Ulysse pushes the boundaries of readability (I greatly doubt I could reread it and am not even sure I could read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a third time) and Finnegan’s Wakis far into gibberish.
O’Brien makes some sense out of Finnegan’s Wake and provides interesting responses to Joyce. Hard-core Joyceans will already have processed Ellman’s biography—regarded by some as the best biography of any writer ever written. The somewhat curious have a fine guide in O’Brien. She sometimes indulges in Joycean wordplay and some of her sentences lack verbs, but her book is generally readable, and I am inclined to trust her sense (as a novelist, as an Irish novelist) of what in Joyce’s fiction is autobiographical. (Very little is invented, but much amalgamates experiences and characteristics of multiple models).
The volume is an excellent match of biographer and subject, like Edmund White’s Marcel Proust that began the series of Penguin Brief Lives, a welcome antidote to the mountains of details that make so many biographies exhausting or too daunting to undertake.
©2002, 2018, Stephen O. Murray