Reviewed: James Joyce, by Edna O’Brien

joyceThis little biography is no encyclopedia entry on James Joyce, no dry recitation of the vital statistics, listing facts and just getting the job done.  Irish writer Edna O’Brien loves James Joyce, may well be in love with him, and that worshipful adoration shines on every page of her story of his life. 

O’Brien frequently quotes critics of Joyce’s, then skewers their interpretations with the defensiveness of a mother bear protecting her cub.  This emotionally invested element is part of what makes James Joyce such a refreshing work. 

The other major factor in its success is O’Brien’s writing: she’s no mere dispassionate acolyte, but a full-blown disciple.  Her style is fiercely tempered in the crucible of her master.  O’Brien’s prose is a gorgeous, flowing fountain of wordplay, a worthy tribute to Joyce and the only truly appropriate vehicle for telling his story.  Though she rarely quotes him directly, she alludes to his language often, weaving it into the fabric of her own tapestry. 

Consider this bit of O’Brien, waxing poetic about Joyce’s composition:

to grind up words in order to extract their substance, or to graft one on to another to  create crossbreeds and unknown variations, to marry sounds which were not usually joined; assembling and dissembling, forever.

More direct commentary on Joyce’s work itself, though, would have been an improvement.  Ulysses gets the lion’s share of coverage, as does Finnegans Wake (with which O’Brien is clearly smitten, as she alludes to it the most and used it as her book’s epigraph), but Dubliners only gets a few random paragraphs thrown in when unavoidable, and–if you can believe it–A Portrait of the Artist hardly gets mentioned at all.  Practically nothing of its composition or content is covered.  That would seem to be a fairly major oversight.

What we do get is a preoccupation with Joyce’s poverty, which O’Brien desperately wants the reader to believe was a significant formative influence on Joyce’s work (and fair enough, as Joyce appears to have been of the same mind), but which is fairly uninteresting and not terribly impressive at all (they had to eat pasta for Christmas…the horror!)–hardly the stuff of Dickens or Steinbeck. 

Even more of a turn-off for this reader was O’Brien’s emphasis on Joyce’s intense sexuality.  Yes, that’s a very valid avenue to discuss as it’s undeniably a critical aspect of Joyce’s work, but I wish the material could have been a little more circumspect, a little more tactful.  Joyce wrote the sexual parts of his works with hints, nods, and winks.  O’Brien describes them with raunchy, vulgar abandon.  The entire “Buckets” chapter could have been left out. 

So the majority of what’s in James Joyce is good–great, often–but with flaws and omissions.  Still, this brief biography is never meant to be comprehensive (O’Brien implicitly and explicitly refers us to Ellmann’s classic, exhaustive biography for that), but as an introduction to the world of James Joyce, this fine wee book comes to us as more than serviceable. 

How good you are in explosition! How farflung is your fokloire and how velktingeling your volupkabulary!          –Finnegans Wake, 419:11-12

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