In The Observer, Anthony Burgess called Ellmann’s 1959 biography of James Joyce “the greatest literary biography of the century.” However, those who have managed their way through the 800+ page behemoth are inclined to disagree with the novelist; Ellmann’s work is in this reviewer’s opinion, the greatest biography that has ever been written.
As concerns subject matter, Joyce remains an untouchable epoch of literature, and one that has only grown with intensity as the years have elapsed. The Irish writer who gave birth to not only the greatest novel of the 20th century, but also the most avant-garde piece of fiction ever contrived is a daunting figure to approach by any means.
Ellmann succeeds tremendously in bringing Joyce to a human level. Within his pages the reader will find plenty about his tumultuous relationships with his muse and wife Nora, his grudging yet dogmatic literary accomplice and brother Stanislaus, and his broken alcoholic, laugh-out-loud witty father, John Joyce.
As concerns Joyce the man, Ellmann provides a multitude of delightful anecdotes that befit every aspect of Joyce: the reader is privy to the portraits of the artist as a precocious extrovert, a vain young man, and a rather impertinent literary sensation.
One of my favourite episodes occurs when Joyce meets for the first time the aging poet William Butler Yeats. Following their extended dialogue, Joyce proceeds to rise and then asks unexpectantly Yeats’s age. Startled, the eminent poet gives the number (a year younger than the truth) at which point Joyce says with a sigh “I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old for me to help you” (103). Other highlights include the drama in the relationship between Joyce and Oliver Gogarty (later immortalized as the incorrigible Buck Mulligan) and the advice he once gave to his brother Stanislaus when the latter was first leaving Dublin: “grow a mustache, pretend to know everything, and dress magnificently” (194).
Accommodating any reader of Joyce, Ellmann breaks down the most imposing walls surrounding Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with firm introspections, while simultaneously showing how Joyce’s ‘grocer’s assistant’s mind’ catalogued every one of his acquaintances and used them later as molds for his characters.
For serious readers, there is a bevy of interesting quips about such artistic notables as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Shaw, and Synge. There is also ample room devoted towards turbulent Irish politics (Parnell is referenced at length), although (thankfully) little concerning the world wars.
Many writers have made the mistake of drawing the man Joyce from his pastiche of characters, however Ellmann makes clear that, no matter how much we want him to be, Joyce is neither brooding Dedalus nor banal Bloom. The life of the artist was not a stroll through Dublin, but a rollicking and chaotic journey. Action, heartache, adventure, quality words, memorable characters, and scenic locations infest the pages. Why has this magnificent life never met the big screen, or the extended BBC special? the reader is more than once tempted to ask.
In its last hundred pages the biography’s action flags and the new relationships can be hard to sift through, but this is entirely appropriate given Joyce’s increasingly introverted temperament and the strain that Finnegans Wake and publishing controversies exacted upon his mind.
Joyce was only a man after all, and men get tired. However the most poignant accomplishment in Ellmann’s book (and there are dozens) is that it manages to show us a man while giving us God.