II. James Joyce, the fawning biographer, and the cult of the writer

Having had a few weeks of downtime from Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, and having re-read James Joyce by Edna O’Brien, my attitude towards Lewis’ book has softened. This is despite the fact that I still don’t like it. It doesn’t work as a biography, Lewis’ commitment to providing the story of Burgess’ life and work is minimal and a very distant second to the priority of attacking his subject. As I wrote in my last post, it is messy, unreadable in many places, and by the end the attacks on Burgess are unrelenting and bizarre.

Lewis’ book did, however, make an attempt to humanise its subject and deconstruct the aura of self-mythology that Burgess made a habit of building around himself through romanticisation and fabrication of aspects of his life and work. Cutting through the myth, de-romanticising, noting the fabrications, converting a godlike figure to a fallible human being is all part of writing a critical biography, and this is where Lewis momentarily succeeds. It gives us a clearer view of the subject’s works. The problem was that, given the savageness of his attacks on Burgess, Lewis’ efforts were self-defeating. The figure of Burgess is bought down from his heavenly pedestal to Earth, only the deconstruction is so personal and merciless, that Burgess passes through the zero-point of the earthly human, and is flung down into Hell under the weight of personal attack, unsubstantiated insinuation, and bile. We are left with a Burgess who consists of nothing but negative traits who, having been humanised momentarily, has now been mythologised again at the other end of the spectrum as inhuman. We start with Burgess as God, by his own mythologising, and are left at the end with Burgess as Satan, by Lewis’, and both are as unreachable as the other. But as made as Lewis seems, his book is a refreshing break from the kind of adoring adulation displayed to her subject by Edna O’Brien.

James Joyce is one of the most mythologised writers of the modern age, although, as opposed to Burgess, this can more easily be ascribed to those who write about him than the man himself, although Joyce was by no means a modest man. Confident of his abilities from a young age, he seemed, through years of poverty living in Trieste and Zurich, slowly building the book that was to become Ulysses, to know that one day he would be regarded as one of the greats. O’Brien goes through the motions of describing Joyce’s well-known early life in Dublin, through to his realisation so thoroughly documented in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he must live a life committed to art. The description of Joyce’s formative years veers between either paint-by-numbers biographical writing, and being sucked into and repeating the mythology of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man itself. What is repeated could easily be a rehashed version of the novel, told through Edna O’Brien’s words.

We have Joyce drinking himself silly in pubs, taking walks along Sandymout, and cavorting with prostitutes in the grubby back streets of Dublin. All acts that were later to find a place in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses, and O’Brien’s descriptions of Joyce’s encounters with prostitutes bear significant resemblance to Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom’s hallucinagenic experience in Bella Cohen’s brothel in Ulysses.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is obviously autobiographical to one degree or another, but the danger here is in letting Joyce’s own works form his biography. Joyce did visit prostitutes in Dublin, and of course drank himself silly in pubs, but O’Brien’s retelling of these stories are told in the same romanticised manner as the books themselves. She is merely playing along with the image of the mythologised artist. She repeatedly describes Joyce as a ‘genius’, something which may not be in doubt, but which always sits uneasily in a work a biography. It shows that there is little critical distance being maintained between writer and subject.

O’Brien’s habit of describing Joyce as a genius may not be so bad in itself, but it gets worse. She quotes Richard Ellman from his biography on Joyce, ‘Joyce had read everything by the time he was twenty’. Obviously not a claim to be taken too literally, Ellman merely means that Joyce was well-read. O’Brien then supplements this with,

‘Who can blame him if in that spate of high-hearted youth and virtuosity he likened himself to Parnell, Hamlet, Dante, Byron, Lucifer, and Jesus Christ? Gravity and despair were for much later on. The Golden Fleece was his. He had snatched it unbeknownst to his literary friends and he himself would be the dragon to guard it against all predators’.

So, from being merely well-read in the eyes of Ellman, to O’Brien he is now (in her words, not Joyce’s) comparable to Jesus Christ. And apparently this is fine. The reference to the ‘Golden Fleece’ is an interesting one, what better way to mythologise the author than through tales of antiquity that are tied with concepts of divine mission and singular greatness.

Joyce leaves Dublin for Zurich in 1904, and after having grappled with a family holding him back, he now must contend with his demanding wife. While not as abusive as Lewis’ descriptions of Burgess’ first wife, Lynne, O’Brien treats Nora Barnacle with just as much animosity, displaying what at times seems like an odd jealousy. When they first leave Ireland, Nora is criticised for being homesick, mopey, inept at learning new languages, and a permanent whinger. All unexceptional emotions for somebody who has left their home country for the first time. Joyce belittles her, and at times treats her rather badly, but this is apparently ‘his way of asking forgiveness’. When she becomes pregnant with their first child, Joyce makes plans to leave her, which are justified on the next page by her irritability and mopiness ‘sapping his natural cheerfulness’. Later it gets more personal,

‘Many have been baffled that a man of Joyce’s daunting intellect chose and remained constant to this peasant woman. It is beyond these letters, it is beyond propriety, in remains inexplicable as the Eleusian mysteries’.

Joyce’s marriage is then ‘beyond propriety’. O’Brien seems to think it offensive to her sensibility that the ‘genius’ of Joyce could have been wasted on a woman that she clearly designates as inferior. This is sucking up to the subject on a different plain, and reading these words you start to long for Roger Lewis to burst onto the page and issue expletive laden insults at Joyce, if only for a bit of variety. It begins to seem like O’Brien is positing herself into the book, as the only person, from a father who didn’t understand him to a stupid wife or a jealous brother, who is capable of understanding his troubled genius.

Of course, O’Brien it not alone in mythologising Joyce. He has a legion of adulators and hangers-on unrivalled compared to the memorialisation of other writers of his time, from the popularity of ‘Bloomsday’ celebrations in Dublin to books positing Lucia Joyce, his troubled daughter who spent most of her life in mental institutions, as an unrecognised genius of modern dance, (see Lucia Joyce: Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Schloss). Joyce’s family has also been instrumental in keeping the mythology of Joyce alive, notably through the bizarre actions of his grandson and literary executor Stephen Joyce, who refuses academics the right to quote from Joyce’s work and vigorously pursues those who do through the courts. Even more shockingly, he apparently burned thousands of Joyce’s letters upon receiving them after the death of Lucia. An excellent essay by DT Max in the New Yorker a few years ago  details Stephen Joyce’s bizarre resistance to Joyce scholars.

Given this, it is not surprising that Joyce has been mythologised to the extent that he has. But James Joyce takes this to a different level, not only is it uncritical, it often seems bordering on adulation. It also makes yet another contribution to the tiresome habit of some writers to mythologise their own work or life. For a recent offender, we can look at the most tediously inept self-mythologising example of James Frey, a man apparently unaware that in an age where privacy is on the wane, if you write a purportedly autobiographical book detailing years of harrowing drug addiction, which is in reality based on being arrested once for drug possession and spending one night in the cells, the truth will come out, you will look stupid, and you will be forced to make a cringing appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show to apologise for it.

O’Brien plays along with this attitude, adulating the profession of writing to that of a superior race, for whom we can excuse everything. She writes, ‘Do writers have to be monsters in order to create? I believe they do’. No, of course they don’t. And as mad as his book is, Roger Lewis’ attitude towards Burgess is at least a break, albeit a disturbing one, from the sycophant biographer, and the boring dynamic of the myth of the writer. And in the same way that it is worth putting up with the existence of the films of Alex Cox to maintain the tradition of a director having control of his films away from the hands of studio executives, maybe it is worth suffering a biography that goes too far, like Anthony Burgess, to maintain a wider critical perspective in biography writing.


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