Nov/Dec 1999 Book Reviews

James Joyce

Edna O'Brien
Weidenfeld & Nicolson / Dent (September 1999) 182pp
ISBN: 0 297 84243 9

reviewed by Ann Skea

"My poor Jim, he was such a great man"
--Nora (Barnacle) Joyce

Poor Nora! She must have been a great woman, too. "Writers are a scourge to those they cohabit with", writes Edna O'Brien. And judging from this biography, Joyce was a tyrannical, selfish, obsessed, unhealthy, mad but brilliant monster. Yet he was devoted to Nora, and she to him, and no matter how often she determined to leave him she never quite managed to see it through.

O'Brien makes no bones about Joyce's failings but she writes with such verve and passion, and her own language is so touched by Joyce's brilliant inventiveness, that you understand Nora's dilemma.

This book covers Joyce's birth and his childhood of poverty and "flitting"; his enthusiastic fall from sinlessness and celibacy; his meeting, love-play and elopement to Paris with Nora; their passionate and salacious letters to each other when parted; their lives together as Joyce wrote, begged and harangued friends and relatives for money, and found patronage and success; his preoccupation with the health of his daughter, Lucia; and his eventual death in Switzerland in 1940 from a perforated duodenal ulcer. He died, writes O'Brien, "on the thirteenth day [of January] a date he had always regarded as being unsuitable for travel".

Such a full life in such a compact book. Yet there is still time to introduce us to some members of Joyce's family, and even time to give potted outlines of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. This is no small feat, and O'Brien does it with remarkable panache. Ulysses may have taken seven years to write, many problematic months to publish and (for some people) forever to read, but O'Brien canters through it joyfully in about four pages. Longer, more detailed descriptions of two substantial chapters, 'Sirens' and 'Nausicaa', take a mere seven pages more. And Finnegans Wake, that "jetsam of litterage" which Joyce made "out of nothing at all, with thunderbolts in it", and which he wrote whilst in almost intolerable pain from his eyes, is also summarised in a little under four pages. But then, Joyce himself apparently managed to do it in two lines: "The real heroes were time, the river, and the mountains; man and woman, birth, childhood, night sleep, marriage, prayer and death".

As a brief, lively background picture of a complex and amazing man, this book is entertaining and enjoyable. There is no suggestion that it is a scholarly work, even the Bibliography is a brief idiosyncratic list of titles placed "in order of author preference". It is honestly partisan, and the language is so distinctly Joycean that what appear to be occasional proof-reading mistakes (such as the word 'wrankled' for 'rankled' on page 9, and 'he punishment' instead of 'his' on page 19) could almost be deliberate.

O'Brien, like Nora, clearly thinks Joyce was a great man, whatever his human failings. "Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create?", she asks at one point. And answers: "I believe they do". She delights in borrowing his words to help shape this story of his life and her account is opinionated, honest, critical and playful by turns. In fact, her enthusiasm for Joyce's work is so contagious that I might finish Finnegans Wake yet.


Previous Piece Next Piece