James Joyce

June 23, 2008

06/22 Alex gave 5 stars to: James Joyce (Oxford Lives) by Richard Ellmann
recommended for: people with an interest in Joyce or modernist literature
status: Read in June, 2008

It’s hard to imagine, for me at least, a person who read <i>Ulysses</i> or the <i>Wake</i> and was not initially baffled. Even after staying the coarse, reading and re-reading, to get one’s head around it (two years!), one must have to say in his or her head: What could have been going on this man’s mind? I personally was compelled to learn more about the man who penned <i>Ulysses</i> one of the most offensive, blasphemous, and uncomfortable reads in its day. Along comes our friend Richard Ellmann from Oxford, preparing one of the most ambitious and delightful biographies to grace the shelves.

Weighing in at 900 pages, this volume is overwhelming with detail and insight. Extracts from letters, memoirs, and journals provide a window into the mind and personality of the Irish writer. Anecdotes of Joyce’s antics pepper every chapter, which is also littered with hundreds of notes each.

Joyce was poor, lazy, spoiled, conceited, coarse, and rude. Seriously, he was bastardly of Hemingway proportions. “The only parts that weren’t boring were of myself,” James wrote of his brother’s diary. But the chronicles of his romps through Dublin and Europe are complemented with Ellmann’s writings of the resonating brilliance that was his literary genius. Some chapters could easily function as a critical essay of Joyce’s works, and a few were published by themselves as so.

Yet, this story is not just about Joyce. The narrative seems to account the entire literary scene in the early 20th century. It’s an intellectual pleasure to watch the literary movements unfold, and plenty of other writers will get some screen-time.

The work has garnered some criticism, the one that I know of comes from John Barner. He claims that there are a few factual errors, but also that Ellmann often takes up a disdainful tone when elaborating on Joyce’s social foibles. Personally, I found this to be amusing and compelling, and a strength to the work.

This was a good read. Just about mandatory for any Joyce enthusiast, if they all haven’t read this already, but anyone with an intrigue on writing fiction, reading fiction, or into Modernist literature might want to try it on.

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