The biographer of Orwell, Lowry and Durrell returns with a massively detailed narrative of the life of the author of Ulysses.
Bowker (Inside George Orwell, 2003, etc.) begins with several of the myriad epiphanies Joyce valued—the first, a moment when he was 16 and lost both his virginity and the Virgin (he decided that was fun, and no Jesuit priesthood for me). The author then announces his intentions—to show the complexities and contradictions of the man—and proceeds to do so in detail that is so impressive as to be overwhelming at times. Joyce (1882–1941) emerges as a mess of a man in these pages. The author charts the grim history of his eye problems (nearly a dozen eye operations, some involving leeches), his struggle to survive in the early days of his adulthood and marriage, the sad madness of his daughter, his enormous talents (he learned languages quickly, read everything) and his difficulty finding publishers for Dubliners and the more controversial works that followed. It took a famous Supreme Court ruling to decriminalize Ulysses in the United States. Joyce found a generous patron, though—Harriet Shaw Weaver—whose substantial gifts encouraged the spendthrift genius to live beyond his means, traveling throughout Europe, staying in first-class hotels, no longer the starving artist. Bowker’s labor to keep track of the plethora of places the Joyces lived is Herculean by itself. We see Joyce, too, as a prodigious worker who labored for endless hours, completing not just the shelf- and mind-bending novels Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake but a play, stories and essays. Bowker goes light on the literary criticism. We see Joyce at work and read about technique and intent, but there are few journeys into exegesis.
The narrative path is sometimes obscured by a lush undergrowth of detail, but our guide is wise and the journey is wondrous.