Shining a new light on James Joyce.
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.
Carl Rollyson is the author of several biographies, including forthcoming lives of Dana Andrews and Sylvia Plath.