A Masterful Biography of A Masterful Talent: James Joyce by Richard Ellmann

James JoyceJames Joyce by Richard Ellmann

A detailed look at James Joyce’s life that doesn’t really try to hide some of his negative aspects, Richard Ellmann’s biography is a blast, a book that’s both drenched in detail and a compelling read. And it just may change your opinion on one of the best writers of the 20th century.

Most people know Joyce for writing a couple of really dense books, a handful of stories and a book that’s almost intentionally unreadable. But there was a lot more to him than such an easy description: he was a talented poet, a gifted writer and a hell of a smart guy: he was fluent in something like a half-dozen languages, for example. He pushed himself and his prose into new territory, taking literature in a place not on anyone’s map.

I especially enjoyed Ellmann breaking down Joyce’s major works and putting them into a context. It’s especially so with Finnegans Wake, which he almost always opens chapters with, but he touches on the other books and plays as well.

Ellmann isn’t blinded by Joyce. he wasn’t an especially nice person: he was pretty loose with other people’s money, was an arrogant young man and wasn’t always great to Nora. He burned through friendships by the time he died, he was only on casual terms with his brothers and sisters. He was irresponsible, left debts in his trail and for a long time, kept his family in dire poverty thanks to a reckless attitude and a drinking habit. One of his roommates almost shot him as a young man and Joyce, who never forgot a slight, turned it into a memorable scene in Ulysses. He was a gifted writer, but he could be petty, too.

It was interesting to compare it to Brian Boyd’s two-volume biography of Vladimir Nabokov, which I read back in December. The big problem I had with Boyd was how focused he was on Nabokov’s novels, constantly interrupting his story to spend a whole chapter focusing on each book in detail, breaking down the plot, language, allusions, etc. It slowed the narrative down to a crawl, making the biography hard to get through unless you’re more than familiar with every single thing VN wrote.

Here, Ellmann was able to keep himself from devoting page after page to dissecting each book, instead weaving the inspirations into it. Usually it’s something like pointing out how a chance remark was reflected in Wake, then quoting that passage as a footnote. I can only think of a couple of places where he stops everything to explain something (Ulysses, The Dead) and even then, he does it in a way that doesn’t feel it’s grinding the book to a halt. I like this approach.

One thing I didn’t like was Ellmann’s casual dismissal of Nora Joyce. While she’s often in the story, he never focuses on her. By book’s end, I almost felt like I knew Joyce’s son Giorgio and brother Stanislaus better than I knew the woman he spent most of his life living with. Maybe it’s because she was a private person but maybe it reflects Ellmann’s attitude to someone who never bothered reading any of Joyce’s novels. But I felt like he missed an important part of the picture; Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora may help to fill in these gaps (I’ll visit it in a future review).

Rating: 9/10. On the whole, it’s a blast of a biography. Recommended, especially if you’ve always thought of Joyce as one of those writers that’s too hard to get into to bother reading. I’m sure reading Wake is anything but a breeze, but damn, Ellmann makes it sound like a blast.

Related: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce




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