Friday, November 25, 2011

Richard Ellmann — James Joyce

Richard Ellmann's James Joyce is, quite simply, the best artistic biography I've ever read. Like the work of David McCullough, Ellmann's book is not only meticulously researched (nearly 100 pages are devoted to endnotes) but so lyrically written as to be almost novelistic. At first I did not understand the need for a biography of Joyce, given how autobiographical his work is, but Ellmann beautifully ties even the most minor incidents and acquaintances of Joyce's life into his flowing corpus. In fact, James Joyce could serve as well as a set of notes for Dubliners, Exiles, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManUlysses, and Finnegans Wake as it does a biography.

Progressing in chronological order, Ellmann sidesteps this predictable, typically tedious structure by making clear how much of Joyce's growth as an artist was specifically related to his constant change. Where others might devote chapters to the subjects that influenced and inspired the artist, Ellmann makes it clear that, more than anything else, time was the great preoccupation of Joyce. Joyce never stopped dealing with the forces that shaped him, he just added countless new observations and studies until he built from microcosmic fragments of Dublin life to a dream language of the universal man. Amazingly, Ellmann captures every nuance of this constant evolution without ever losing sight of the man. Then again, for Joyce, life and literature were one and the same.

Sparing any saintly view of the artist, Ellmann lays out the hardships of Joyce's adolescence and adult life—money was almost always a concern, and when it wasn't, John (and, later, James) made sure to get rid of any comfortable surplus quickly—but never shies away from the negative aspects of Joyce's personality. The same memory that allowed Joyce to reconstruct all of Dublin from European exile also made possible the holding of lifelong grudges, few of which were ever ameliorated. Ellmann even notes Joyce's excitement over the drowning of an ex-friend who attempted to drive a wedge between Joyce and his partner Nora, an excitement arising from Joyce having "predicted" the suicide via Cosgrave's avatar in Ulysses but also perhaps a sense of victory over a sexual rival.

But that's the wonderful messiness of Joyce: everything that made him unpleasant and even withdrawn also made him the great humanist writer of the modern era, perhaps ever. Ellmann focuses so intently on the minutiae of Joyce's life because they inform his entire position, which in and of itself was a radical shift from most novelistic grounding. His worlds were not those of aristocrats or the aspirant middle class but of pétit bourgeois citizens with mundane concerns, and even as Joyce was taking the English language to hyper-intellectual new heights, he concentrated on the simple thoughts of ordinary people. Then he proved that doing so was more daring and difficult than the most lofty and poetic pronouncements.

Part of what makes Ellmann's biography so indispensable is the manner in which he shows Joyce honoring even the people he mocks when putting them down in prose. Ellmann's descriptions of John Joyce, a man of fierce but constantly undulating temperament and extravagant spending far beyond his means, paint a traditional literary portrait of a less volatile Fyodor Karamazov. But as Stephen Dedalus' father, John's stand-in Simon is a small-scale tragic hero, a working class version of a dying king surveying his splintered kingdom. As much revulsion as Joyce shows of the man's weaknesses, he rounds out any simplistic reading of Simon with sympathy and even admiration. For all the symbolism and allusion of his writing, he really wanted to capture people as they are (which is why his work was so often censored or withheld from publication over fears of litigation; he wrote about everything, down to farts and menstruation.)

The portrait Ellmann sketches is rarely flattering. As a lad, Joyce's early intellectualism distanced himself from his peers before he had the literary faculty to prove his mettle. Ellmann routinely quotes verses Joyce composed in his correspondence with people, and a number of them come from the artist's earliest days of writing. Their stylish but empty rhymes certainly do not justify the arrogance of the young Joyce, who would quibble with anyone, even the great Irish poet Yeats, who nevertheless couldn't help but like the boy. As an adult, Joyce was even worse, having moved beyond what few literary heroes he allowed as an adolescent to criticize them ostentatiously. For a man who had practically nothing published by the time he was 30, Joyce could so easily puncture the balloons of others. Even when not discussing art, Joyce's volatile temper could explode without warning, and Ellmann recounts several cases where Joyce pursued litigation for the most petty of squabbles despite even his lawyers saying it would be a waste of time and money. Humble as he could be, Joyce's vanity sometimes demanded a scapegoat.

And yet, he was not an intellectual in the sense of other expatriates of the early 20th century. While living in Paris during the '20s, he did not typically fraternize with the Lost Generation writers and largely avoided conversations with literary types. Ellmann presents fascinating anecdotes of Joyce delighting in the blunt (but strangely spot-on) comments of ordinary people, and the authors with whom he generally spoke were those who could convincingly capturing their provincial voices, not the ones aiming for the cosmos. For example, while living in Trieste, he discovered Aron Schmitz, a businessman who happened to have written two novels at the turn of the century and since hidden them away after an apathetic reception. But Joyce read them and loved how well they captured Trieste's lingual melting pot and wound up resuscitating the man's literary career at the end of his life. Elsewhere, he would entrust the tricky prospect of translating his novel to friends instead of looking for the most educated mind in each country.

These strange quirks are so clearly evident in Joyce's work that Ellmann doesn't even need his routine quotation from the author's books to demonstrate how the man's life informed his writing. The duality of his intellectualism and disdain for those obsessed with the highbrow make him an unwieldy subject, and I was always interested to read not only Joyce's progression through the years but the changing opinions of his admirers. Ezra Pound, Harriet Weaver, Yeats, even Joyce's brother Stanislaus all oscillate between admiration and repulsion, cautious disapproval with gradual respect. That's how difficult the man's work was; even those who admitted its singularity could hardly stand to read it—Ellmann takes an obvious pleasure in pointing out that neither Yeats, who loved Ulysses, nor George Bernard Shaw, who hated its content for what it revealed of Irish life, read the thing from cover to cover. And even when they would come around to one thing, the next would send them reeling. Weaver, perhaps Joyce's most generous patron, exchanged letters with Joyce over sections of Finnegans Wake that show her trying desperately to conceal just how much she clearly hates this new book, even referring to its style as raiding the "Wholesale Safety Pun Factory."

But Joyce never let anyone get to him. Stanislaus, who put up with so much of his brother's profligate spending and erratic emotions out of a childhood sense of hero worship, finally rebelled over parts of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and Joyce simply stopped asking the one family member who understood him for his opinion. Pound asked for changes to Ulysses, and Joyce routinely ignored them. He even acknowledged how alienating his work could be, but he couldn't bring himself to change it. By the same token, Ellmann includes a number of quotes, especially in relation to Finnegans Wake, that suggest Joyce cared far more about pleasing people with his writing than delivering any kind of statement. In conversation, he mentioned using all those river names in the ALP chapter so that someone in the farthest reaches of the globe might one day read his novel and smile at seeing his or her home river mentioned.

Capturing the complexities of Joyce's warmth and aloofness, Ellmann makes a suitably contradictory, dense, yet utterly readable account of the greatest literary mind of the century. Though he does not offer significant diversions for the close relatives in Joyce's life, Ellmann also manages to delve beyond mere summary for such vital figures as Stanislaus, John and, of course, Nora. But everyone who came in even indirect contact with Joyce made it into his work, and by recreating the webs of reading and interaction that shaped Joyce's life, Richard Ellmann did the invaluable service of clarifying the most ambitious literature of any era and any language. I would recommend it to anyone even cursorily interested in Joyce, not as a supplement but a skeleton key.

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