|O'Brien's Slim, Savory Volume on James Joyce
Review by David Kipen
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, December 9, 1999.
Where does talent come from? It can't be all genetics, or James Joyce's nine brothers and sisters would have written a "Ulysses" apiece. But it can't all be environment either, or every turn-of-the-century Dubliner with half a Jesuit education might've written one.
Richard Ellmann's 900-page "James Joyce" (1983), probably this century's best biography of a writer, wrestles the fundamentally insoluble mystery of Joyce's genius to an honorable draw. It's frightened off all but the hardiest of would-be rivals, leaving a large niche for a small book that might impart some flavor of Joyce's life without taking up so big a chunk of our own. That small book has now arrived: Irish novelist Edna O'Brien's scanty but welcome pocket bio, also called "James Joyce."
At 179 pages, O'Brien's "Joyce" is all but slim enough to use as a bookmark in Ellmann's. Joyce elopes with Nora Barnacle, and before we know it she's his wife -- where and how they got married go undescribed. Joyce's full-length play, "Exiles," barely rates a mention. And one could close the book without knowing whether Joyce ever finished revising "Finnegans Wake," let alone that Viking actually published it in 1939, two years before the author's death. But for all that, O'Brien's book is a handy one to have around. A distinguished novelist ("The Country Girls Trilogy," "A Fanatic Heart"), O'Brien writes knowingly and well about Joyce's family's resentment of him: "It has happened in more than one writing family. The spark of genius is given to one and not to all."
In passages like that, O'Brien identifies with her subject as few academic Joyceans, however gifted, do. Similarly, here she is writing about Joyce's marriage: "Between him and Nora there was friction. Writers are a scourge to those they cohabit with. They are present and at the same time they are absent."
This degree of identification between biographer and subject largely accounts for the varying appeal of Penguin Lives, the publishing series of which O'Brien's "Joyce" is the latest installment. The series affords editor James Atlas the happy task of playing matchmaker between good contemporary writers and the great figures from history and literature.
When Atlas is on his game, it means we get to look forward to Jane Smiley's hundred-odd pages on Dickens, or Janet Malcolm's on Chekhov -- both due later this year. Less enticingly, Atlas also promises Louis Auchincloss on Woodrow Wilson, potentially diminishing the readership for master biographer A. Scott Berg's (Maxwell Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn and Charles Lindbergh) recently contracted life of the 28th president.
A cynic can easily see Penguin Lives as symptomatic of the downfall of American publishing: good writers doing cheap, quickie biographies for a fast buck while their more important work -- and true scholars' more substantial biographies -- go unpublished. Where would "Ulysses" be if Joyce had taken a hefty advance to dash off a hasty biography of Homer instead? And where would Ellmann be if his original publisher had said, "Sorry, Dick, we've already commissioned a pocket-size life of Joyce from Sam Beckett -- go back to Oxford, there's a good chap."
Penguin isn't the only offender, either. Ballantine has inaugurated a series of slim, pamphlet-length books about contemporary issues under the rubric "The Library of Contemporary Thought." For that series, January will bring us "Workin' on a Chain Gang," Walter Mosley's 128- page meditation on labor under capitalism. And to think Marx wasted two volumes on the subject!
But these aren't inherently bad books, at least until they start chasing better ones out of the marketplace. O'Brien's "Joyce" is particularly good. She adopts a feminist approach -- not to bash Joyce for sexism but to pity and praise bookseller Sylvia Beach, arts patron Harriet Weaver and Nora for enabling the penurious, myopic polymath to work productively for as long as he did. When you're involved with a genius -- provided he's not the only one who thinks so -- an enabler isn't always the worst thing to be.
The real fault with these booklets lies not with publishers for commissioning them, or even with authors for taking their money. The blame is ours, for the penguin lives we all lead these days -- waddling around in such a perpetual hurry that our lack of extended reading time keeps us forever earthbound.
With that in mind, it's especially cheering to see the new Penguin reissue of Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" -- a book so notoriously time-consuming that its most vocal champions are either tenured or incarcerated. One such champion is John Bishop, a Joyce scholar at Berkeley who's written the new edition's blessedly unforbidding introduction.
Penguin's concurrent releases of O'Brien's "James Joyce" and the repackaged "Finnegans Wake" are more synergy than coincidence, of course. Viking, Penguin's corporate cousin, invested in "Finnegans Wake" 60 years ago -- an investment still paying dividends today. But has any publisher this year gambled on a book we'll still be reading in 60 years? Or are they all too busy micro-publishing Penguin Lives, the Library of Contemporary Thought and other made-to-order fare for the time-crunched?
Wherever genius comes from -- whether circumstances or chromosomes -- there's no doubting where it will go without the proper encouragement.
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle
(Special thanks to Charles Cave)