Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce

Richard Ellmann's James JoyceI first picked up James Joyce’s Ulysses when I was seventeen years old. I had read a New York Times article that divided the world into two camps, serious readers and non-serious readers, with membership into the former category granted only upon successful completion of Joyce’s mock epic, and like any good “serious reader” I went to the nearest bookstore forthwith. I spent roughly an entire summer on Ulysses, reading in spurts that began in enthusiasm and ended in inevitable frustration. After three months, dejection set in: I had read every word, many of them multiple times, but could give only the barest outline of the plot. This, as it turns out, is a common experience. Instead of cursing Joyce’s name and dousing his book in lighter fluid, I resigned myself to the label of “non-serious reader” and hid my copy of Ulysses in the back of my bookcase, the mere sight of it a shameful reminder of my failure.

In the intervening years, I managed two more read-throughs, both times with the aid of a guidebook (two, actually) and once in a classroom setting, and while I can still not claim to grasp the full extent of Joyce’s design, I can trudge through his Dublin with some competency, enough to appreciate much of the book’s humor and find sympathy for its characters. My dread, and the locus of my inferiority complex, has shifted to Joyce’s final work, Finnegans Wake, a book so difficult that to this day many still view it as a practical joke played on anyone foolish enough to attempt it (incidentally, here is Michael Chabon’s excellent piece on his struggles with the Wake). Non-serious readers – henceforth perhaps better known as the sane and well-adjusted – might reasonably ask what benefit offsets the huge expense of time and self-esteem that Joyce demands of his readers. It was just last year that Paulo Coelho, bestselling peddler of mysticism dressed as writing, asserted his superiority to Joyce on the grounds that he, Coelho, is “universal” and Joyce is not, an argument based on Coelho’s ability to reach a wider audience and verified by his obscene sales numbers. And while I don’t wish to spend too much time dwelling on Coelho’s stupidity – Pope’s “who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” comes instantly to mind – his remarks have unintentionally lit upon an important difference between the Joyces and the Coelhos of the world, one that goes a long way towards explaining why a century from now Joyce will still be read and studied and secretly adored while Coelho will be forgotten, and that might just convince an aspiring “serious reader” to accept Joyce’s challenge.

Coelho achieves the universal by eschewing the personal, dressing up fortune cookie wisdom with paper-thin plots and transparent, everyman characters whose sole purpose is to spout platitudes or embody cliches of the this-character-gave-up-on-his-dreams variety. Consider, for example, the Goodreads quotations page for his mega-bestseller, The Alchemist, where you can discover such howlers as “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” or “The secret of life is to fall seven times and get up eight.” Coelho offers us only bromides in the form of fiction, and like any good egoist he has mistaken the success of his books as a reflection of his worth as a writer rather than as a commentary on the sad state of the reading public.

Joyce, on the other hand, locates the universal in the particular. Given that this is ostensibly a review of Ellmann’s biography, I will give Ellmann’s supreme summation of Joyce in his defense (forgive me in advance for the length):

Joyce’s discovery, so humanistic that he would have been embarrassed to disclose it out of context, was that the ordinary is extraordinary. To come to this conclusion, Joyce had to see joined what others had held separate: the point of view that life is unspeakable and to be exposed, and the point of view that it is ineffable and to be distilled. Nature may be a horrible document, or a secret revelation; all may be resolvable into brute body, or into mind and mental components. Joyce lived between the antipodes and above them; his brutes show a marvelous capacity for brooding, his pure minds find bodies remorselessly stuck to them. To read Joyce is to see reality rendered without the simplifications of conventional divisions.
Joyce is the porcupine of authors. His heroes are grudged heroes – the impossible young man, the whiskey-drinking graybeard. It is hard to like them, harder to admire them. Joyce prefers it so. Unequivocal sympathy would be romancing. He denudes man of what we are accustomed to respect, then summons us to sympathize. For Joyce, as for Socrates, understanding is a struggle, best when humiliating. We can move closer to him by climbing over the obstacles of our pretensions but as we do he tasks our prowess again by his difficult language. He requires that we adapt ourselves in form as well as in content to his new point of view. His heroes are not easy liking, his books are not easy reading. He does not wish to conquer us, but to have us conquer him. There are, in other words, no invitations, but the door is ajar.

Joyce’s most famous grudged hero is Leopold Bloom, the Jewish outsider cuckolded by his wife and reduced to masturbating voyeuristically to a female bather. Bloom is Joyce’s hero, the Ulysses of his epic, but there is nothing conventionally heroic about him. His strength is his simple humanity, his kindness and his optimism, and though we are permitted, even encouraged, to laugh at Bloom, we cannot condescend to him. This is Joyce’s strength, the ultimate purpose of his verbal and stylistic dexterity, and the real source of his appeal. Where Coelho offers only cliches, the husks of men and women, Joyce gives us human beings, imperfect bodies housing imperfect minds, and forces us to admire them.

Ellmann’s study of Joyce, hailed by the likes of Anthony Burgess and Frank Kermode as the greatest literary biography of the 20th century, paints as complete a portrait of the man as possible, drawing on accounts from friends and family as well as diaries, letters, anecdotes and, of course, the works themselves. The James Joyce that emerges from Ellmann’s account is preternaturally gifted, frighteningly self-assured and equally self-involved. He fancied himself a Dante, exiled from the land of his birth (though Joyce’s exile was largely self-imposed), and, like Dante, was not above revenging himself on his real-life enemies by including them, often quite transparently, in his novels. The one great love affair of his life was to his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle, and though much has been made of the salacious letters he sent to her, and though he often treated her poorly, he also consistently demonstrated towards her an intense, if quiet, devotion. June 16th, 1904, the date on which Joyce sets the events of Ulysses (known to admirers of Joyce as Bloomsday), was the date of his first outing with Nora, now forever immortalized.

I have on my table David McCullough’s biography of Truman, the jacket of which advertises the “vivid characters” that people it: Churchill, Stalin and Eleanor Roosevelt, for example. Well, consider the famous literary figures that Joyce would come to be involved with. The short list begins with Henrik Ibsen and William Butler Yeats and goes on to include Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Ford Maddox Ford, Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett, John Millington Synge, George Bernard Shaw and H.L. Mencken. You would have a hard time finding in all of history a comparable collection of literary genius corresponding with one another, supporting and promoting and criticizing one another (Elizabethan England springs to mind, and proved equally fecund for this reason), and while this aspect of the work might only appeal to literature nerds, it is an incredible thing to be transported to Paris at the height of its 20th century literary culture.

Ellmann’s work is expansive and well-researched, a fitting monument to its subject and a helpful insight into the works of one of literature’s most difficult and rewarding writers. And though Ellmann, like Joyce, is long dead, he too stands guard against this deplorable tendency, embodied by Coelho, to reduce, distill or abstract the human beyond all recognition.