Edna O'Brien: James Joyce

Edna O'Brien
James Joyce
Penguin Lives Series

THE PENGUIN LIVES Series finally catches fire with a pairing forged in the smithy of two souls. Edna O'Brien, perhaps the greatest living Irish prose writer along with William Trevor, tackles the man "whose shade haunts every great writer who has followed him." If this is the strongest mating of author and subject that Penguin has yet produced, it's likely because the author of Mother Ireland is haunted by the same demons as the author of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

"Of all the great Irish writers," says O'Brien, "Joyce's relationship with his country remains the most incensed and the most meditative...to call this man angry is too temperate a word, he was volcanic. No one who has not lived in such straitened and hideous circumstances can understand the battering of that upbringing." In other words, when it comes to understanding Joyce, no non-Irish need apply.

Shaw thought loyalty in a critic to be corruption, but he certainly would have excused passion. O'Brien's lack of subjectivity is to Joyce's advantage, as she works herself up to white-hot bursts of prose that illuminate dark corners of Joyce's life and work. She loathes the life, about which she has no illusions. James Joyce was a selfish, grasping freeloader: "He genuinely believed that he should be supported at the expense of the State because he was so capable of enjoying life."

Still, she can empathize if not sympathize with the life that shaped the work: "They [the Joyces] lived on credit loans and anything they could pawn. The family diet was tea, fried bread, and drippings, the humors between the men caustic, their arguments fired by hangover..." The artist's mind created in this atmosphere "was all fluxion, his head full of discordant ideas which crystallized into beautiful sentences of prose soaring from the mire to the summits of asceticism."

O'Brien can almost make us believe that to have written Joyce's books made it worth having lived Joyce's life. Artistic truth, she writes, "was sacred to him, that was his religion--the minutest perfection of style, diverse meters, musical notations and a ravishing lyrical pith."

In the end, what makes O'Brien's James Joyce so appealing is the author's own modesty. The writer, who is perhaps in the best position to understand Joyce, makes no ultimate claims to understanding him (which is just as well, since we are talking about the author of Finnegan's Wake). The Joyce people saw was "a fraction of the inner man," she writes. "No one knew Joyce, only himself, no one could." And O'Brien makes no attempt to match the pages of pop-psychological analysis that have been written about Joyce's marriage to "this peasant woman" Nora Barnacle, who never showed the slightest interest in her husband's artistic and intellectual pursuits. "It is beyond these letters," she writes, "it is beyond propriety, it remains inexplicable as the Eleusinian mysteries." On the subject of May, Joyce's mother, she is more definite: "Mother and son shared the same qualified view of the human race." ("Writers and their mothers," she goes on to sigh, "the uncharted deep.")

As a compilation of the known facts, O'Brien's slim volume isn't meant to replace Richard Ellmann's massive James Joyce, but as a skeleton key to the mind, art, and background of the century's most enigmatic writer, it is an instant classic, the first of the Penguin Lives to attain the status of literature.

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