James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann
1959, revised 1982, 887 pp.
While reading Peter Gay’s mammoth biography of Sigmund Freud last month, I frequently remarked to colleagues and comrades that the author seemed to know more about Freud’s life and works than anyone could possibly know about anything. It appears I must retract that statement, having grossly underestimated. Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce is inclusive and comprehensive in a way no book I have ever read could possibly equal, displaying a mastery of knowledge so complete that it borders on the infuriating. The back cover of the book features a blurb from Anthony Burgess, himself a formidable Joyce scholar, calling it “The greatest literary biography of the century.” I am forced to wonder what literary biographies from other centuries could meet, let alone surpass Professor Ellmann’s harrowingly perfect performance here. I suspect there are none, and until I hear of one, I am willing to truncate Mr. Burgess’ pronouncement, and simply call James Joyce the greatest literary biography. Full stop.
Part of what sets Professor Ellmann’s book well ahead of even Professor Gay’s work on Freud is that Ellmann wrote the original work in the late 1950’s, and therefore was able to personally interview many people who knew James Joyce, including his brother Stanislaus. Professor Ellmann seems to have tracked down everyone who ever spoke to or about Joyce: the first page includes a footnote to a personal conversation Ellmann had at dinner with T.S. Eliot, and a chapter later a footnote informed me that Joyce’s childhood next-door neighbor Eileen now teaches on an Indian reservation in Saskatoon. The dauntless Professor Ellmann seems to have trekked through the wilds of Saskatchewan to speak with her, and returned with the knowledge that blackberry was Joyce’s favorite flavor of jam. That is the kind of biography we are discussing. It is not just that Professor Ellmann has read and understood everything Joyce ever wrote, from the most incidental limerick (of which Joyce produced an astonishing number) to Finnegans Wake, the most complicated, difficult book ever written. It is not just that Professor Ellmann has read all his letters (and edited volumes of them for publication), spoken to all of Joyce’s friends, acquaintances, enemies, and family members, nor is it that Ellmann has taken the trouble to track down the factual origin of every minor character who appears in all 250,000 words of Ulysses: no, the really remarkable thing is that he includes every last iota of that information in this book, in a clear, clever, and organized fashion. It is an achievement which leaves the reader with a vague desire to dig up Professor Ellmann and throw stones at him.
Amid this fearsome wealth of factual information (Joyce liked Bellini better than Wagner, and Green Calville was his favorite kind of apple), Ellmann addresses at length the two points which are essential to anyone curious about tackling the daunting oeuvre of the world’s most complex writer: first, does Joyce tell us anything of importance, and second, if all he wrote about was Dublin and people he knew, is he anything more than a very clever male narcissist?
Ellmann’s answer to the first comes early on, and he spares no praise in making it. Joyce, he says, began writing with the briefest, simplest verse, proceeded through short stories into novels, invented a new way of portraying consciousness, and ended with an immense polyglot encyclopedia, surveying all of human life and experience on the way. In Ellmann’s forceful and infinitely detailed argument, Joyce accomplished nothing less than the most honest and accurate depiction of the human condition ever created, first from a naturalist, external perspective, then from a subjective internal one, then using an entirely new language expressing cognitive leaps and connections never before imagined to more accurately perceive the universal and democratizing experience of dreams. In Ellmann’s view, Joyce not only tells us important things about ourselves, but invented a new way of doing so such that he tells us things no one else ever had before, and that no one else ever can again without simply echoing his words.
Furthermore, Ellmann argues, using copious quotations from Joyce’s work, and entire chapters dedicated to the making of Ulysses and Joyce’s great short story “The Dead,” that the thematic premise of Joyce’s work is a sort of secular humanism, a “justification of the commonplace.” Joyce was “the first to endow an urban man of no importance with heroic consequence,” and by ennobling that which is common he also made common that which is noble. Joyce was something of a socialist, and a lower-middle class man of cities, and his work can (almost) be understood as relating to socialist realism the way that Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major relates to someone whistling. Given the social, political, and literary context of Joyce’s time, this was something downright revolutionary: asserting the presence of the sublime and universal in every profane and pointless action of an unimportant individual.
This is not a book in which punches are pulled.
The answer to the second question is the animating force behind most of Ellmann’s structure of the book. The very first sentences of the introduction read as follows: “We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter. This book enters Joyce’s life to reflect his complex, incessant joining of event and composition.” While it is certainly true that all of Joyce’s work is firmly anchored in Dublin and in Irish culture and in his own life experiences, and while it cannot be denied that Stephen Dedalus is Joyce surrogate seen with the keen, dissecting eye of a more mature artist, it must also be acknowledged that Joyce’s art ended with universality. Ulysses elevated all that which is common and average to the position of being sacred and beautiful, and proved that in each individual human being lies something noble and heroic. Finnegans Wake took the principle a step farther: in it, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker is not just an everyman, but all possible everymen, and also all possible father figures, just as Anna Livia Plurabelle is all mother figures and all rivers and the origin of all life, and Shem and Shaun are all brothers and all allies and all rivals from all of human history. Every word of Finnegans Wake is a multilingual pun (for instance, the title: fin as in the French word for "end," plus the sound of "again," meaning "recurrence," plus "wake" both as in "to stop sleeping" and as in "funeral" and the lack of apostrophe indicates both the awakening of all possible Finnegans as well as the funeral of one in particular) and therefore draws cognitive connections which transcend political boundaries, the burgeoning nationalisms of Joyce's time, and any degree of cultural exceptionalism. Joyce invented a language which proved the universal equality of all people.
Those questions settled, the only matter of interest that remains is what the book is like to read. I trust I have made clear its density of information (Joyce was afraid of dogs and thunderstorms, and a fellow named Sinigaglia delivered his first child) but I assure the terrified reader that it is also frequently amusing and pleasant to read. Admitteldy, at times Professor Ellmann's mania for drawing connections grows a bit thin, as when he suggests a link between Joyce's 1902 desire to rent a cottage and Leopold Bloom's one-line mention of the same idea. For the first three hundred pages, Joyce is occasionally annoying, since he lived his entire life with the utmost financial responsibility and demanded exorbitant sacrifices from the people around him, in service to his yet-unproved genius. This is more than made up for by his hilarious antics of the latter half, when he achieves some measure of fame and notoriety. At times Ellmann's knowledge and rarefied vocabulary gets the better of him, as in this gem of a sentence from the very first page: “Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce, owned a framed engraving of the coat of arms of the Galway Joyces, and he used to carry it along, grandly and quixotically, on his frequent enforced déménagements, atoning for squandering his family’s fortune by parading its putative escutcheon.”
I assure the reader that I intend to parade my putative escutcheon as soon as I've finished this review.
In sum, the book is a flat-out masterpiece. At the very least, the chapter on the making of Ulysses is required for anyone attempting to tackle that mountain of literature, but the book as a whole is a rewarding, absorbing, utterly unique achievement. It must be the best and most detailed biography ever written, and considering the vast difficulty of its subject, its creation is an unparalleled feat. It cannot be too strongly recommended.