Gordon Bowker, in James Joyce: A New Biography, refers endlessly to the writer as “Dublin’s Dante,” though it’s for human rather than divine comedy that Joyce’s writing is beloved. In the author’s depiction (in "Ulysses" above all, the book Pound called the “whole boil of the mind”) of something essential in humanity’s profane inner life, Bowker believes he can glimpse the mind of Joyce himself. His biography is an attempt to “go beyond the mere facts and tap into Joyce’s elusive consciousness,” making the conjecture that “much of [Joyce’s] writing afforded glimpses of his own hidden life.”
Joyce would have history believe that he lived by the Dedalian attributes of “silence, exile, and cunning.” In fact, his life story seems to have been more often than not a string of reluctant perambulations, urgent requests for money, and episodes of ill heath alternating with drunken revelry. While Bowker doesn’t accept Joyce’s self-edits as other biographers have done in the past, his early passages describe how “little Jim (if the imaginative memory of his alter ego Stephen can be trusted) was a ‘nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.’” Whether or not Stephen, Bloom, Earwicker and the rest are indeed to be trusted where Joyce himself was not is the point on which Bowker’s effort can be seen to founder.
There are obvious autobiographical resonances throughout "Ulysses" and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and Bowker is helpful in drawing these out. An apostatical Joyce’s guilt at refusing to pray for his dying mother, for instance, makes its way into "Ulysses" through the taunts of the “stately” Buck Mulligan, a character based on Joyce’s friend Oliver Gogarty. Bowker carefully unpicks these characters, settings, and events from Joyce’s work, both annotating the life fictionally and allowing biography to “foreshadow the work.” Of "Ulysses," he writes that it drew to itself, “magnet-like,” fragments of Joyce’s life – a much better formulation than the heavy-handed cliché that, by agreeing to step out with Joyce on June 16, “Nora Barnacle had made a date with history.”
Bowker also borrows descriptives from his subject, noting for instance Sylvia Beach’s surprise at “how bad [Joyce’s] eyes (his ‘gropesearching eyes’) were.” The quotation is from "Finnegan’s Wake," and the fact that Bowker can draw biographical resonance – connecting Joyce’s struggle to control his legacy, for instance, to a passing reference to “biografiend” – from a book where sense is as much to be found in sound as in words themselves is astonishing. Bowker calls "Finnegan's Wake" Joyce’s “most obscure but revealing” work, and deduces from it not only Joyce’s instant sexual attraction to Nora Barnacle and quasi-incestuous fascination with their daughter Lucia, but the gossipy nature of the Joyce household too.
Bowker, as he does with all of Joyce’s controversies, takes an uncritical attitudte toward "Finnegan's Wake," though he clearly sees "Ulysses" as Joyce’s masterpiece. Instead, he uses Joyce’s final novel as a key to the author’s mindset during years beset by eye trouble: “Inside his private world, which blindness could not dim, his mind was now perfectly tuned to the coining of words…. He was turning his weakening eyesight into a creative strength.” Whether or not this is strictly true of course is impossible to know: Bowker is more successful in persuading us to see "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" as a roman à clef than in performing the same trick on "Finnegan’s Wake."
Certainly, the ability to draw from "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" enlivens biography somewhat. Describing Joyce’s death in 1940, Bowker writes that “his condition deteriorated and he lost consciousness, waking only to ask that Nora’s bed be placed next to his as his had been close to hers in the hospital once. (‘He might die before his mother came,’ thought young Stephen Dedalus.)” Flights of biographical fancy like this one – where the writing serves as a direct substitute for the writer’s thought – have a beautiful, mirror-like quality despite the reflection’s being necessarily illusive. It’s too bad that such moments are overshadowed by the long slog of the book’s later part – an endless recital of Joyce’s demands for money, repeated eye surgeries, and constant moving of house.
In the end, little of Joyce’s consciousness shows through this thicket of superficial details, despite Bowker’s attempt to read backwards from the author’s work to his state of mind. Doubtless, this continued obfuscation is what Joyce himself would have wanted. As he told his portraitist Patrick Tuohy: “Never mind my soul, Tuohy. Just make sure you get my tie right.”
Bowker might have managed to conjure sparks at times, but the full bonfire of the soul remains the purview of Joyce’s prose. The fire does not catch so easily on the drier tinder of his life.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.