Protean, contradictory genius: James Joyce with Sylvia Beach, an ex-pat and bookshop owner in Paris
In observance of Bloomsday, June 16, links to reviews of the new biography of Joyce by Gordown Bowker, as well as an excerpt, are below the cut.
James Joyce: A Biography, By Gordon Bowker
Reviewed by John Walsh
Friday, 10 June 2011
Making the acquaintance of James Augustine Joyce could be a trial. "The first spectre of the new generation has appeared," George Russell wrote to Yeats in 1902. "His name is Joyce. I have suffered from him and I would like you to suffer." Yeats met him outside the National Library in Kildare Street. The nation's most distinguished poet and the young pretender, aged 21, retired to a restaurant, where Joyce proceeded to be rude to his noble companion.
Yeats asked him to read some of his poems. Joyce said, "I do since you ask me, but I attach no more importance to your opinion than to anybody one meets in the street." He said Yeats was "deteriorating" and spoke in generalisations. His parting shot was "We have met too late. You are too old for me to have any effect on you." Nobly resisting the urge to tell the callow youth to feck off, Yeats went home and wrote him a fan letter, but quoted Dr Johnson's warning about a forgotten versifier: "Let us wait until we find out if he is a fountain or cistern."
He was, it turned out, a fountain of brilliant language. Joyce would become the arch-modernist of 20th century prose, turning his prosaic youth into epic myth, subverting the English novel through parody in Ulysses and pushing words into new forms and meanings in Finnegans Wake. But something of the cistern – certainly of the lavatory – hung around him from first to last. His first sexual experience was at 14 when he was out walking with a nursemaid, who retired behind a hedge to urinate, and the sound moved him to orgasm. After an encounter with a prostitute on a canal bank, he haunted "the Monto," Dublin's brothel district around Montgomery Street, and revelled in the girls' grubby knickers.
His pornographic letters to Nora in 1909, when he was in Dublin and she in Trieste, reveal an obsession with scatology and buggery. His sexual fascination for Martha Fleishmann began when he spied on her using the lavatory. He was decidedly weird about underwear: he used to carry a miniature pair of women's pants (from a doll) in his pocket. As Gordon Bowker's admirable new biography reveals, Joyce's imagination was fired just as much by scatology and soiled bloomers as it was by Ibsen, Homer and Skeat's Etymological Dictionary.
More from Walsh’s review here:
*) John Walsh: James Joyce: A Biography, By Gordon Bowker
More reviews below:
*) Review: Biography: James Joyce: A Biography by Gordon Bowker
*) James Joyce's remarkable story, readably told ...
*) Radio review: Book of the Week: James Joyce – a Biography