Joyce and Company

Tim Parks

  • James Joyce: A Biography by Gordon Bowker
    Phoenix, 608 pp, £14.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 7538 2860 1

What options are available to you if you yearn to belong to your place of origin, indeed to be one of its leading figures, yet simultaneously feel threatened and diminished by it? One answer might be to move far away while constantly reminding those back home of your existence, your ambitions, your still being one of them. How might you do that?

Perhaps you could write about the place critically, portraying it as a zone of suffocating limitation, spiritual death even, somewhere any sensitive intellectual would have to abandon, but write with an insistence, a passionate attention to detail, a capacity to transform the squalid into the lyrical such as to create an atmosphere of intense attachment and nostalgia. You might also portray all the people you knew there in an absolutely recognisable and for the most part negative fashion so that old friends and enemies remain constantly and anxiously attentive to what you write.

You might also take into what you will call exile, since the word suggests grievance and unfinished business, a loyal companion to represent all that is most accommodating and attractive in the place you abandoned; this will perpetuate a sense of belonging in absence without being threatening; it may even allow you to become the centre of a small community of your own; suitable candidates for this role would be an admiring younger brother, or a young and loving wife whose humble social background and limited education guarantee that she will always be beholden to you, however you behave.

Conscious or unconscious, such was James Joyce’s strategy with regard to Dublin, to Ireland. From the age of 22 until his death at 58 he lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, Switzerland and France, but his creative attention remained focused on the Dublin he grew up in. Though he spoke the languages of his adopted homes, he did not become part of those countries, or write about them, or tie his destiny to them. In times of political upheaval he fled, though never back home. What mattered was belonging and not belonging to Ireland.

Two questions arise: why did the young Joyce develop these conflicting needs and what part did the consequent tension play in his achievement as a writer? Gordon Bowker never frames these questions or discusses his intentions as a literary biographer. His account proceeds in linear fashion, most chapters covering a period of one or two years. Detail overwhelms reflection throughout, while the connection between life and work is reduced to a catalogue of correspondences: we are told which real person gave which fictional character this or that physical attribute, or name, or occupation, or address. Readers familiar with Richard Ellmann’s biography of 1959 will be disappointed.

Born in 1882, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was the first surviving child of John and May Joyce, whose recent marriage had been fiercely opposed by both sets of parents. Their first baby, named after his father, had died at barely two months. The first healthy son was crucial affirmation for the marriage and, although 13 further births would produce nine more surviving children, James was always his father’s favourite and always encouraged to believe he was destined for greatness. When, at the age of nine, he wrote a poem about the betrayal and downfall of Parnell, John Joyce, an avid supporter of republicanism and Parnell in particular, had dozens of copies made to circulate among friends.

To be singled out for glory will mean different things depending on the character of the person doing the singling out. By far the most important formative influence on James’s life, John Joyce can best be described as a spectacular failure, a man whose descent into alcoholism and poverty during James’s adolescence could not but command the appalled attention of everyone around him. A talented singer and raconteur, hard-drinking and gregarious, John spent countless hours in Dublin pubs drinking away a considerable inheritance (the family had owned a number of properties in Cork) and neglecting his duties in the various government departments that hired and invariably fired him. He was well known, well loved and beyond help. The impression one gets of him from biographies and from Joyce’s descriptions of Simon Dedalus, the character based on his father in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is of a patriarch who is such a dominating, magnetic and boastful presence that it is hard to imagine any son finding space beside him. It was never clear what being a success in the vicinity of John Joyce and for John Joyce might entail.

James’s childhood was spent in two sharply contrasting environments: rigidly organised, hierarchical Catholic boarding schools and a turbulent family that was more and more frequently obliged to move house as John took pride in cheating landlords by decamping without paying the rent. With ten children this must have been complicated. While the second son, Stanislaus, would eventually condemn his father and have nothing more to do with him, James never did, if only because he came to share many of John Joyce’s habits: the overspending, drinking and partying, the frequent moves at the expense of landlords and, more generally, the wilful denial of what most of us see as the ordinary terms of reality. When John died in 1931, James would say that, though always loyal to him, he was also ‘the silliest man I ever knew’.

Written and rewritten throughout his twenties and early thirties, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shows the author’s alter ego forming around predicaments of positioning: where does he stand in relation to everything else? He is centre stage in the story his father tells him in the opening lines of the book but then hides under the table as his mother and aunt demand apologies and conformity. Frightened at school, he lingers on ‘the fringe of his line’ on the rugby field, keeps his head down in lessons, feigning participation to avoid punishment. A constant sense of vulnerability as a result of physical frailty and weak eyesight leads him to cultivate a mental space where he focuses on the language his companions use, at once feeding on them and keeping himself detached. But weakness and withdrawal invite enemies: a boy pushes him into a ditch, he catches a cold. Finally we find the one place at school where Stephen is happy: the sick bay. Here he dreams about his own death, the remorse of the enemies who hurt him, the regret of his parents. Now language embellishes and consoles: ‘How beautiful and sad that was! How beautiful the words were …’ Later he compares his own imagined death with Parnell’s: he has been treacherously used and isolated, as was Parnell; like Parnell, he will die and this will place him at the centre of everybody’s attention. Whether A Portrait is fact or fiction, a pattern of behaviour is established that finds ample confirmation in the biography: vulnerability prompts detachment through a focus on the mechanics rather than the content of language, then a poetic manipulation of language brings consolation and a sense of belonging at a distance.

At school in his teens, Joyce found an easy way of belonging: religious devotion. It was also a way of distinguishing himself: he pushed devotion to the limit, writing religious verse and toying with thoughts of the priesthood, something his mother would have liked. Much is made of the adolescent Joyce’s swings between extremes of religious and profane behaviour, moving from brothels and drunkenness to marathon sessions with the rosary; but there is nothing to suggest a deeply felt religious dilemma or profound sense of guilt. ‘Agenbite of inwit’ for Joyce seems to have involved no more than an anxiety that his sins might prevent him being thought well of, or thinking well of himself. It is rather that he became part of different social groups and mastered their language, pushing his behaviour to the limit to gain distinction before moving on. After rejecting religion in his late teens and refusing in 1903 to obey his dying mother and take communion, he nevertheless continued to go to church, making himself conspicuous now precisely by not taking communion.

The trick of being simultaneously inside and outside the group is most evident with Joyce’s singing. Sharing his father’s talent, Joyce loved to perform, preferably alone, and always thought of singing, and indeed writing, as competitive. Immersed in the music he was as Irish as can be, but in a way that required neither interaction nor submission. Here, in the words of the diarist Joseph Holloway, is the 22-year-old Joyce taking centre stage to sing, before withdrawing to his own special space:

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