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James Joyce, by Edna O’Brien

Here is a review by Philip Harvey written in 1999 or soon after, probably for Tain magazine in Melbourne. I only just noticed this again while searching through some files. When I went to find the book, it is signed by herself, Edna O’Brien. My guess is I ordered the book through Kenny’s Bookshop of Galway.  

James Joyce, by Edna O’Brien. (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999) 0-297-84243-9

Anyone who writes a biography of James Joyce after Richard Ellman invites being called, at best, very brave and at worst, an epigone. In recent times mammoth biographies have emerged of Joyce’s wife and his father, making us wonder who will be next. His brother Stanislaus, perhaps, or their sister Margaret who became a nun and went to New Zealand? Hopefully not. This latest biographical burst only suggests how thoroughly the ground has been raked.

Edna O’Brien’s attempt is uncritically adulatory of the Master and must have been written to a word limit. Adulation can backfire. O’Brien’s repeated emphasis on Joyce’s drinking and neglect of his family seems unwarranted in such a short book, especially when we are not given much coverage or insight into such central questions as why Joyce wrote the books he did and why in the way he did. However, her biography is worth the time expended, especially if you are a beginner to Joyce or want some startling reminders of what made him something different.

Perhaps the most striking feature is O’Brien’s adopted style, an authoritative voice that piles up fact upon fact in breathless succession. It serves to remind us of Joyce’s drivenness, the excessive knowledge he commanded and how much he pushed boundaries. Hard though to find the Joyce who, in Zurich, showed a guest the river with the exclamation “That’s the Limmat!”

A newcomer will find the detail seductive; the seasoned Joycean ought to be entertained by its novelish arrangement. Interestingly, O’Brien’s only really original ideas concern that subject for which she is famously renowned: femininity. She defends her man against the malign attacks of Kate Millet and Marilyn French, reminding us of his great achievement in eroticising and making present the female (and the male) body. Also, his inspired choice of a secular Dublin Jew as the example of ‘the new feminine man’, with the psychological and ludic implications that go with such a character. The time is ripe for some revisions on Joyce and gender, and though O’Brien’s comments are hardly earthshattering they do point up the shortcomings of some feminist critics. Other types of critic are conspicuous by their absence.

Edna O’Brien identifies with Joyce the Dublin gadfly, the artist who exposed that city’s prejudices and power structures in comic ways that could not be contradicted. After all, she’s a Dublin gadfly herself, whose exile from Ireland has its own darker meanings. Ireland is still getting accustomed, slowly, to its greatest novelist, eighty years after Ulysses, and this biography can only help along with the healing process.


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