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Edna O'Brien's James Joyce

By Steven Robert Allen

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  It's hard to know whether to canonize him or spit on him. In his defense, James Joyce did compose Ulysses, one of the greatest novels ever written (some might even say the greatest novel ever written). He also wrote at least one short story, "The Dead," that is a certifiable work of genius. His first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man -- which tells the troubled tale of Joyce's alter ego, Stephen Dedalus -- is certainly nothing to sneeze at. In this country, Joyce's work also played a pivotal role in broadening the First Amendment, the inevitable result of the Ulysses obscenity trials. Greatest of all, though, Joyce managed to fundamentally alter the way we think of the novel, of all literature, and indeed, of the world itself. He's the literary hero whose name is most frequently mentioned when discussion turns to the great moments of 20th-century literature.

On the flip side of this shiny copper coin, Joyce has motivated countless hacks, myself included, to descend into the nauseating, word-drunk depths of literary depravity. After Joyce, writers thought they could do pretty much whatever they wanted, get away with it, and against all evidence to the contrary, declare their ramblings brilliant writing. This sin, even when weighed against all of Joyce's many accomplishments, seems almost unforgivable.

Almost, that is.

Edna O'Brien, an accomplished Irish novelist in her own right, has pulled a biography out of her arse that can only be called Joycean. This biography is poetic, playful, rhythmic. O'Brien's book offers the kind of comprehensive insight into Joyce's immaculately complicated life that you wouldn't think could be crammed into a mere 200 pages. In the end, it's a fairly decent alternative to Richard Ellman's more in-depth, demanding work on Joyce. The one jarring flaw is that the book doesn't have an index. (A biography without an index is very much like a baby without a head -- unpleasant, to say the least.) But this is my only complaint.

James Joyce was born in 1882 in Dublin into an enormous Catholic family who became progressively more impoverished as years passed. The boisterous father drank his wages. The tender mother died young. James became everyone's favorite -- a literary saint in the midst of their overwhelming squalor and misery. They all seemed to know from the very start that he would become a celebrated man of words.

Educated sporadically by Jesuits, James abandoned the Catholic church at a young age. When he wasn't reading like an obsessive maniac, he began spending much of his time in the arms of whores. After meeting the love of his life, Nora, an uneducated peasant who only managed to plod her way through a few brief pages of Ulysses, the couple eloped to continental Europe. From then on, with only a few exceptions, Joyce maintained his exile from the country he immortalized in his fiction. From a distance, he grew to both love and hate his native land, yet his absence from Ireland made his perception of his country and his people that much deeper.

Life as a writer is never particularly easy. For Joyce, it was particularly daunting. Leaving Ireland behind did not mean escaping poverty. It took him 10 years to find a publisher for his short story collection, Dubliners. It took him another seven years to compose Ulysses, a novel hailed as the pinnacle of 20th-century literature by some, and an obscene, boring monstrosity by others. Despite the mixed reactions that it evokes to this day, Ulysses gave Joyce fame during his lifetime, and more importantly, a little fortune, enough to subdue some of his anxieties about supporting himself and his family. He spent most of the next 20 years slaving over his Work in Progress, eventually published as Finnegans Wake -- a fat, incomprehensible, dark tome that almost everyone hates and pretty much no one reads.

From start to finish, his life was words. As an individual, Joyce was selfish, conceited and superstitious. He sponged shamelessly off admirers, then ditched them after sniffing out more lucrative acolytes. To the end, he was a fascinating man who must have been intolerable company.

Edna O'Brien writes with overwhelming adoration for Joyce's work and a steady skepticism regarding his character. Her biography is a chilling plunge into the pool of sorrow, weirdness and beauty that is the life and work of this great writer. (Viking, hardcover, $19.95)

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