45 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 1999
I've just finished reading this masterful biography, and it has had the magical effect of making me forget all others. This is a simply splendid book -- a life of the greatest writer of the 20th Century that is so scrupulously detailed that one leaves it feeling you personally know and like the subject. Joyce is presented to us from all sides -- as friend, husband, father, drinker, raconteur and most importantly, writer; a man with unparalleled control of the English language and no control of life or money. One measure of the book's genius is that it makes you feel quite close to Joyce toward the end -- as he gets ever blinder and broker, his energy used up by a book he knows will go unread and a daughter who is slowly succumbing to mental illness.
I think of this book now almost as part of the Joyce canon. I'm not sure you can really know Joyce without knowing Ellmann's Joyce, too.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Richard Ellmann's biography is the most definitive and complete examination of James Joyce that has been written. This extensive work examines Joyce's life from his birth to his death. Ellmann's narrative derives from Joyce's letters as well as accounts from Joyce's brother, Stanislaus. The book is most revealing in offering an understanding of the process it took for Joyce to come up with his most monumental works, ULYSSES AND FINNEGANS WAKE. Ellmann states that Joyce intentionally made it difficult for anyone to understand what he wrote. He wanted to keep his critics, academics and scholars, guessing of what significance his nonsensical gibberish creation represented. In addition, Ellmann intertwines events that occurred in Joyce's life that show how they closely resemble the characters in the works he produced, such as his early work, A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.
James Joyce most likely can be considered a "starving artist." He would go without a new pair of shoes until they wore down to the soles, but looked debonair and sophisticated with non-matching suits. In the beginning, he aspired to be a work within the realms of Jesuit studies, but later opted for a writing career that would take him from Trieste, Paris, and Zurich. Joyce struggled with poverty through out his life even as his most famous works were published. Monetary problems and health conditions that affected his eyesight never hindered his creative process. If he lost his eyesight, he probably would have continued to write blind. Joyce appeared to be an eccentric and stubborn man. However, Ellmann shows a caring and supporting man who loved his wife and children, and most of all, his father, John Stanislaus Joyce.
In terms to history and literature, Ellmann constantly references Joyce's fascination with Shakespeare, ancient civilization and history. This is best displayed in ULYSSES, but one significant footnote is that he did not appear to care for American history. He makes a minute reference to Ulysses S. Grant in ULYSSES, but he did not even know who the man was; Joyce loathed the United States. Also, Ellmann offers a birds-eye view of what his cohorts thought of his work. Gertrude Stein as well as Ernest Hemingway praised and envied Joyce's contributions to Modernism.
Ellmann examines a tremendous amount of information within his narrative. When one completes JAMES JOYCE, what else do you need to know about this genuine writer who used his craft as a means of getting back home, but never quite made it there? But he preferred Zurich and its snow-capped mountains as home rather than the complexities of his former Dublin. JAMES JOYCE is the springboard one needs when beginning a study of Joyce the man and his works, which should begin with PORTRAIT and ending with WAKE.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2000
Richard Ellman was this nation's foremost Joyce scholar for almost three decades, and his great, vast biography is perhaps the best ever written of a literary figure. This book is a wonderful fusion of Ellman's unique critical vision and rigorous biographical technique. Beyond his obviously deep understanding of the subject, Ellman writes in an engaging, eloquent prose that kept me interested for the 750-page sprawl of the book. Going in, I was a vague admirer of Joyce's work; coming out, I felt ready to go forth to encounter for the millionth time the farthest reaches of his fiction.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2000
Don't let the size of the book (including 67 pages of footnotes) daunt you; this is a beautifully written account of one of the most enigmatic figures in literature that combines precise scholarship with a straightforward narrative style into a model for the biographic form. Scholars of Joyce have undoubtedly read and re-read this book; however, for those readers who are just now approaching Joyce, or for those readers who have been frightened by the prospect, this biography will make the introduction painless as well as pleasant. Ellmann's biography treats every aspect of Joyce's life including family, friends, and the creative processs that resulted in his masterpieces. As Ellmann remarks in his preface: "In working over these pages, I have felt all my affection for him [Joyce] renewed." The reader of this judicious work will close the final page with this same sentiment.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2006
In all things about James Joyce, no one has exhibited more of an acute understanding of the man and his works than Richard Ellmann. He is the bridge by which readers who have not read Joyce or do not understand what they have read by him to the inner workings of the artist and his life.
This biography, "James Joyce" has been around for decades, virtually unchallenged. He presents to the reader all the facets of Joyce's life and personality. This is no mere star-gazing. Along with all the great things about Joyce, he also examines his weakness: his superstitions, his drinking, his occasional selfishnes, his sexual complexities, and his failure to really take care of his family. We get to see Joyce in all his dimensions and from several perspectives. That makes this book not only the best biography of James Joyce but one of the classic biographies of all time.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2006
Richard Ellmann's biography of James Joyce is hands down among the three best or the best biography written in the 20th century. For anyone with a serious interest in Joyce or his writings, will truly enjoy getting to know Joyce and his writings through this book.
I've read maybe a few thousand reviews of other titles on this website but this is the first book I've felt I needed to comment on. I comment mainly because I noted that two reviewers gave this book "4 stars". What unmitigated gall!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2012
In The Observer, Anthony Burgess called Ellmann's 1959 biography of James Joyce "the greatest literary biography of the century." However, those who have managed their way through the 800+ page behemoth are inclined to disagree with the novelist; Ellmann's work is in this reviewer's opinion, the greatest biography that has ever been written.
As concerns subject matter, Joyce remains an untouchable epoch of literature, and one that has only grown with intensity as the years have elapsed. The Irish writer who gave birth to not only the greatest novel of the 20th century, but also the most avant-garde piece of fiction ever contrived is a daunting figure to approach by any means.
Ellmann succeeds tremendously in bringing Joyce to a human level. Within his pages the reader will find plenty about his tumultuous relationships with his muse and wife Nora, his grudging yet dogmatic literary accomplice and brother Stanislaus, and his broken alcoholic, laugh-out-loud witty father, John Joyce.
As concerns Joyce the man, Ellmann provides a multitude of delightful anecdotes that befit every aspect of Joyce: the reader is privy to the portraits of the artist as a precocious extrovert, a vain young man, and a rather impertinent literary sensation.
One of my favourite episodes occurs when Joyce meets for the first time the aging poet William Butler Yeats. Following their extended dialogue, Joyce proceeds to rise and then asks unexpectantly Yeats's age. Startled, the eminent poet gives the number (a year younger than the truth) at which point Joyce says with a sigh "I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old for me to help you" (103). Other highlights include the drama in the relationship between Joyce and Oliver Gogarty (later immortalized as the incorrigible Buck Mulligan) and the advice he once gave to his brother Stanislaus when the latter was first leaving Dublin: "grow a mustache, pretend to know everything, and dress magnificently" (194).
Accommodating any reader of Joyce, Ellmann breaks down the most imposing walls surrounding Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with firm introspections, while simultaneously showing how Joyce's `grocer's assistant's mind' catalogued every one of his acquaintances and used them later as molds for his characters.
For serious readers, there is a bevy of interesting quips about such artistic notables as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Shaw, and Synge. There is also ample room devoted towards turbulent Irish politics (Parnell is referenced at length), although (thankfully) little concerning the world wars.
Many writers have made the mistake of drawing the man Joyce from his pastiche of characters, however Ellmann makes clear that, no matter how much we want him to be, Joyce is neither brooding Dedalus nor banal Bloom. The life of the artist was not a stroll through Dublin, but a rollicking and chaotic journey. Action, heartache, adventure, quality words, memorable characters, and scenic locations infest the pages. Why has this magnificent life never met the big screen, or the extended BBC special? the reader is more than once tempted to ask.
In its last hundred pages the biography's action flags and the new relationships can be hard to sift through, but this is entirely appropriate given Joyce's increasingly introverted temperament and the strain that Finnegans Wake and publishing controversies exacted upon his mind.
Joyce was only a man after all, and men get tired. However the most poignant accomplishment in Ellmann's book (and there are dozens) is that it manages to show us a man while giving us God.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 2005
I would agree that this is a masterful biography but be warned that it is neither lightweight nor a short read. What I would add is the thought that it it is wonderfully helpful in preparing oneself for a read of the major novel itself. That's something I had begun a dozen times in the last forty years, my furthest-on bookmark being about page 200. With this and the New Bloomsday Book, I finally read Ulysses through. It is an astonishing literary achievement, just as they say, and before your reading is over you've got to do it or it'll be like missing Hamlet. Reading this first is a good head start.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2008
I just cannot praise this book enough. Ellman's biography of Joyce is amazing, bewildering, daunting (at least in its length) and wonderful -- not coincidently, just like James Joyce. One caveat: I imagine a reader might be quite confused if s/he read this before reading any of Joyce's major works (Ulysses or Finnegans Wake). I am kicking myself that I didn't read this biography years ago! Truly a marvelous work -- and a must for readers of Joyce.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2009
Puts all of his work into a far more enlightening context. When most scholars are reading Joyce for the interplay of signs and signifiers and deeper questions about what can and can't be said in words, Ellmann returns us to the days when Cyclops was written because he though Michael Cusack was absurd and Penelope was a homage to his wife (as was all of Ulysses). There's something very endearing about this book and, like Bloom himself, incredibly humaine.