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James Joyce: A New Biography Hardcover – June 5, 2012

4.3 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“[Bowker] offer[s] a less awestruck, more warts-and-all account of the writer's life and character . . . Bowker writes clearly and forcefully . . . Gordon Bowker's ‘new biography' is well worth reading, even if Joyce comes across as brilliant but exploitative, admirable as an artist but often mortifying as a man. It's not always a pretty picture, but it seems like a true one.” ―Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

“Gordon Bowker's life, the first significant volume for more than 50 years since Richard Ellmann's version, is a masterly example of how to trace the life of a writer, particularly one as difficult as Joyce. Mr Bowker begins by skillfully describing his early years in Dublin, filling in the background details of an Ireland which Joyce would draw upon, for the rest of his life, as material for his fiction. Mr Bowker evokes the dark and occasionally cramped conditions of the Joyces' various family homes, and refers to meteorological reports, school timetables and details of Joyce's father's various mortgages, his biography meticulously researched. Out of these facts, a picture of a brilliant but troubled writer emerges . . . It is apt, 90 years after ‘Ulysses' was published, that Joyce is celebrated on ‘Bloomsday', June 16th. This biography is an excellent reminder of why he deserves such a celebration.” ―The Economist

“[A] brilliant work by Gordon Bowker . . . clear and straightforward, beautifully written and meticulously researched . . . [Bowker] has produced a portrait of the artist in full. He places Joyce's fiction solidly within the context of his life, relating fictional episodes to their real-life counterparts. Few biographies of Joyce have so clearly established these relationships.” ―John M. Formy-Duval, About.com

“Gordon Bowker's James Joyce: A New Biography is a fascinating and insightful portrait of the artist as a young, then middle-aged, and then old man, and goes a long way to explaining the Western world's most enigmatic literary giant . . . Bowker's narrative concentrates on the existential struggle of Joyce's life, going beyond the complex relationship he had with his wife, Nora Barnacle, his muse and template for Molly Bloom. Bowker reveals the yin of this fundamentally bourgeois family man with the yang of his hyper-bohemian and rebellious soul . . . Bowker vividly sets the turbulent life of James Joyce in the context of his time and place, dominated as it was by the über-provincialism of his native Ireland, the land that he loved and scorned, immortalized and repudiated.” ―Doug McIntyre, The Lost Angeles Daily News

“It is a great boon that British biographer Gordon Bowker, who has written lives of Malcolm Lowry, George Orwell and Lawrence Durrell, should have taken on this task, and better yet that he has produced such a fine portrait of the artist and the man who was James Joyce . . . Instead of being daunted by Joyce having in a sense got there before him, Bowker makes this a strength, as he skillfully presents incidents and experiences both as they happened in life and, suitably transformed to varying degrees, on the page . . . the reader has the best of both worlds, being informed--or in the case of those already familiar with the books, reminded--both of the glories of Joycean fiction and of their roots in his life. Never reductive, genuinely attuned to both Joyce's fictive methodology and his human qualities, Bowker manages to be immensely sympathetic to his subject while managing to preserve necessary critical distance and acuity.” ―Martin Rubin, The San Francisco Chronicle

“In his unfussy way Bowker gives a sound account of Joyce's maturation as an artist, one who could weather the many vicissitudes, rejections, and appalling bouts of ill-health with which he had to contend . . . Gordon Bowker has written a solidly readable life of one of the great figures of the twentieth century . . . If it succeeds in bringing new and younger readers to these marvelous fictions, his book is to be warmly welcomed.” ―John Banville, The New Republic

“Joyce himself emerges from these pages as oddly heroic in his seriousness and perseverance . . . The distance between Joyce the man suffering and Joyce magisterial at his desk seems large and mysterious. The story of his life, told here with verve and pace, nonetheless remains a fascinating version of making it new under the most severe pressures.” ―Colm Toibin, The New York Times Book Review

“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 . . . impressive . . . Our guide is wise and the journey is wondrous.” ―Kirkus

“Bowker's splendid, insightful, and witty biography illuminates the connection between Joyce's erotic imagination and humane spirit, offering a clear-eyed celebration of his perverse comic genius . . . Drawing on material published since the 1982 revision of Richard Ellman's classic Joyce biography, including biographies of Nora herself and their troubled daughter, Lucia, Bowker . . . explores Joyce's inner landscape, most of it shaped by Dublin and his Jesuit education. Bowker captures the human comedy that surrounded Joyce, describing Ezra Pound, whose review of Dubliners in 1913 launched Joyce's career, as ‘Literature's own fairy godmother.' As Joyce's reputation grew, he retreated into a circle of friends and family and the increasingly interior world of his writing. His last years were increasingly darkened by illness and concern for his family. Joyce thought his daughter Lucia's strangeness was untapped genius similar to his own and fought to keep her out of the hands of doctors and clinics--egocentric in the extreme, but far from heartless.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Wonderfully detailed and gripping . . . It is different from most literary biographies because Joyce's life and work are so tightly bound. Bowker sets it down: there would have been no Stephen Dedalus without James' father, no Molly Bloom without Nora, no Leopold Bloom without Alfred Hugh Hunter . . . Here we meet the models for everybody . . . And the final success of this book is that when you snap shut the final page there is nothing your hand wants to reach for except a volume of Joyce.” ―Chris Proctor, Tribune Magazine (London)

James Joyce by Gordon Bowker is the finest biography of the year . . . but this new work is a consummate and more complete understanding of James Joyce and the source of his inspirations . . . If you care about the making of a new language by the most revolutionary Irish writer who ever lived, you will also find how the persons and incidents in his life became the fragments for Ulysses and more. This is also a brilliant study of young Pound, Yeats, Synge, Eliot. It’s also a potboiler. How could it be anything but? The young James Joyce was licentious, sentient, fearless, and interested in a sexually active world. Literature may be a high form of gossip and this has all the rich and powerful details, as well as a history of European literature in the early 20th century . . . It would be impossible to read this book and not be transported and privileged to be led through the doors and mirrors with this tortured―self-created genius. Gordon Bowker’s exhaustive research has given us a triumph of literary scholarship.” ―Ruth Cavalieri, The Washington Independent Review of Books

“The strength in James Joyce: A New Biography is that Bowker knew exactly what he was dealing with . . . he's crafted a powerful, insightful, and compelling biography of a man who is scarcely better understood than his work. His tone is confident but never familiar, and very rarely speculative--a pleasure given the trends in recent biography . . . You hold in your hands the best ‘approximation' of a life--no less, but so much more. It's not a novel, or a soulless two-dimensional collection of facts. Instead, it's a more than capable, fast-flowing narrative that is buttressed by facts that contributed to some of the greatest and boldest literature of the twentieth century . . . A portrait of the artist, and a not so flattering one at that, emerges . . . Bowker's approach outshines what people come in knowing, destroys rumor, provides fact, and paints a vivid portrait . . . of the scarred life of a genius . . . Each corollary between life and literature, made by Bowker, is enriching and exciting as the knowledge of Joyce's works (major and minor alike) is continually expanded . . . [A] terrific biography . . . . Read the Bowker, and reach to Joyce.” ―Josh Zajdman, Bookslut

“[A] deft, accomplished biography . . . It shows Joyce's recognition of his creative vocation as a gift to the world, though it cost so much in the way of poverty, misery and mortification.” ―Richard Davenport-Hines, The Telegraph

“No book on James Joyce goes half as far as this one in establishing connections between passages in the classic texts and incidents in the artist's life . . . This study will be valuable to students as a summation of our current biographical knowledge of Joyce. It captures recurring features of his art [and] shows how difficult he could be even to his greatest admirers; yet it also evokes the heroism of a man who, confronted by poverty, ill health and endless uprootings, somehow found in himself the courage to write epics in celebration of ordinary people and the intricacies of their minds. It is in its way an example as well as an account of dignified audacity.” ―Declan Kiberd, The Guardian

“Both learned and readable . . . There have only ever been three important biographies of Joyce, including the present volume.” ―Edmund Gordon, The Sunday Times (London)

“This new book extends the record--and not only the record, but the entire epistemology of the Joycean discourse. Taking previous biographies and published records as a series of knowing but politicised texts, Bowker has restored Joyce to his contradictory, ambivalent humanity. Digging deeper into personal archives, Bowker explores the complex family background . . . [A] shrewd and highly readable biography.” ―Thomas McCarthy, Irish Examiner

“In James Joyce, Gordon Bowker does an efficient job of presenting the often bleak realities of Joyce's childhood. Since that childhood became the raw material of so much of his fiction, Mr. Bowker is wise to emphasize it . . . Mr. Bowker's endearing advocacy--‘when [Joyce] wrote, all boundaries fell before the force and sweep of his imagination'--is touching and . . . revealing of truth . . . This is a well-researched, accessible book . . . It is refreshingly free of the jargon of literary-critical theory . . . Ultimately, Mr. Bowker's biography leaves the reader with a picture that feels true--of a brilliant, somewhat broken but ineffably brave author who set out while very young to do something impossible and was willing to accept any consequence . . . Joyce is a powerful reminder that only one thing matters: the words on the page and getting them right. He worked hard at that task. It seems only fair that his readers might be asked to meet him halfway, as Mr. Bowker does, to his credit.” ―Joseph O'Connor, The Wall Street Journal

“Gordon Bowker . . . gives us a massive, intricate, contemporary take on Joyce, making use of newly discovered materials . . . Bowker . . . create[s] a sharp, memorable portrait of Joyce, particularly the youthful Joyce whose ‘merry comedic spirit,' along with ‘his brilliance, his wit and his amusing streak of contrariness' comes across vividly . . . [The biography] remind[s] us of the enormous talent and dedication [Joyce] possessed.” ―Floyd Skloot, The Boston Globe

“Gordon Bowker's new James Joyce . . . [is] a pleasure, for Joyce fans as well as those fascinated by writers' lives . . . Bowker writes knowledgeably and engagingly about his subject, clearly fascinated by how the life led to the words that survive it. Early on, he compares biography to confronting the wreckage of a deserted house. ‘Amid the chaos,' he writes, ‘we may catch a fleeting impression of what the place once was like when occupied, a presumption of lives lived, of memories stored and passions spent.' Here, he's found a life--and a mind--well worth a second glance.” ―Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times

“Veteran writer Gordon Bowker's James Joyce: A New Biography is a deft and delightful left turn, a graceful avoidance of the sternly traditional approach to literary biography . . . Gordon Bowker walks through the deserted, century-old ‘rooms' of James Joyce's life, duly noting the location of the furniture, the details, the fabrics, which windows or doors are closed, which ones are open. He fingers the curios on the shelf, but, unlike Richard Ellmann before him, he dares to spin the gramophone, uncover the chair in the corner and try it out, see how it feels; he sits down, noticing the view from that corner of the long-dead room. He shares it with us, helps us see the life of a great writer . . . One of the strengths of Bowker's approach is his presentation of the roots and origins of the famous characters--Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, all drawn from the streets and people of Joyce's Dublin, his friends, enemies, relations. We know them now, we see them . . . It is Bowker's style and grace that illumines and enchants. You will be inspired to reread. Or first read. Finnegans Wake on the beach this summer? It could happen.” ―Barry Wightman, The Washington Independent Review of Books

“There are obvious autobiographical resonances throughout Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Bowker is helpful in drawing these out . . . Bowker carefully unpicks these characters, settings, and events from Joyce's work, both annotating the life fictionally and allowing biography to ‘foreshadow the work' . . . Describing Joyce's death in 1940, Bowker writes that ‘his condition deteriorated and he lost consciousness, waking only to ask that Nora's bed be placed next to his as his had been close to hers in the hospital once. ("He might die before his mother came," thought young Stephen Dedalus.)' Flights of biographical fancy like this one--where the writing serves as a direct substitute for the writer's thought--have a beautiful, mirror-like quality . . . Bowker . . . conjure[s] sparks.” ―Jenny Hendrix, The Christian Science Monitor

“Particularly during his account of Joyce's final two decades, Bowker provides useful updates to what Ellmann wrote, thanks to more recent biographies of Nora and Lucia Joyce, Stuart Gilbert's often catty journal and materials involving Ulysses publisher Sylvia Beach. Bowker also draws helpful connections between biographical details in Joyce's life and fragments of Finnegans Wake, where even the most intrepid and devoted Joyce reader can always use more help.” ―Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“Bowker's work focuses more on Joyce's inner life . . . As a biographer of Malcolm Lowry, George Orwell, and Lawrence Durrell, Bowker is well-placed to take on those English writers' high-modernist Irish predecessor and contemporary . . . The first half moves along at an efficient pace as many anecdotes demonstrate how Joyce applied everyday details that would be used decades later in his texts . . . Along the long way, Bowker corrects common misnomers such as the assumed Jewish identities of Reuben J. Dodd and Alfred Hunter, and he regales readers with bawdy and witty snippets from Joyce and his cronies, notably his ‘Mephistopheles' Oliver St. John Gogarty . . . Bowker's work is a necessary contribution to the study of Joyce, and should be welcomed by any serious student or scholar . . . The biography ends . . . poignantly; what emerges is the tale of a man whose books often brim with the mingled anguish and hopes of his fellow Dubliners and the milieu which paralyzed them first, and then their maker.” ―John L. Murphey, Pop Matters

“Gordon Bowker's biography, based on many new sources, must now be considered the definitive life of Joyce, and it is most welcome.” ―Tim Redman, The Dallas Morning News

“[An] engrossing new life.” ―Bill Tipper, Barnes and Noble Review

“For those seeking a terse account of the life, Edna O'Brien's James Joyce will do the job. For those wishing strictly literary criticism, John Gross's James Joyce is recommended. But for readers who want both in sufficient and up-to-date detail, nothing beats Bowker's book . . . Outstanding about Bowker are his judiciousness and readability on top of thorough research . . . Bowker's book becomes a paradigm of how brilliant fictional strategy works up bits of reality, how genius transfigures the givens of life . . . Bowker has further strengths, such as a dry wit that complements Joyce's own, frequently and hilariously quoted. Also keen psychological insight into such matters as Joyce's stupendous love-hate for his native Dublin . . . Joyce's entire life [is] deftly evoked by Bowker . . . I warmly suggest your reading Bowker's spellbinding biography.” ―John Simon, Uncensored John Simon

About the Author

Gordon Bowker has written highly acclaimed biographies of Malcolm Lowry (Pursued by Furies, a New York Times Recommended Book of the Year), George Orwell, and Lawrence Durrell, and articles and reviews for The Observer (London), The Sunday Times (London), The Independent, The New York Times, and The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in Notting Hill, London.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (June 5, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780374178727
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374178727
  • ASIN: 0374178720
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #580,071 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 12, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce, published over fifty years ago, has long remained the standard. Shorter studies of Joyce's early years and Trieste experiences appeared a few decades later, as well as archival finds and editorial corrections to his innovative works. Gordon Bowker incorporates this research into his study of Joyce and his circle. It focuses more on his inner life and less on the texts. As a biographer of Malcolm Lowry, George Orwell, and Lawrence Durrell, Bowker is well-placed to take on those English writers' high-modernist Irish predecessor and contemporary.

The page spread signals the adjusted balance compared to earlier lives of Joyce. About halfway through Bowker's text proper, Joyce is serializing what will soon appear as "Ulysses." He is nearly forty years old. Two-thirds of his life has passed, but the last third--ending with his death in 1941 when the Irish Free State refused to repatriate his body from Zurich for burial--comprises a considerable portion of Bowker's biography. The years of triumph blur into those of guilt, bickering, and tension. After the publication of "Ulysses" in 1921, Joyce descends gradually into pain and darkness as his eyesight diminishes. He struggled with his "Work in Progress" fourteen years. Meanwhile, he battled with Nora Barnacle and their children Lucia, as she faced madness, and Giorgio, as he married a woman whom years earlier his father had attempted to seduce.

These later sections sum up, despite the domestic drama, less exciting events than those which conventionally relate Joyce's earlier accomplishments. Their familiarity affords them shorter treatment in the retelling. Yet, Bowker does this well.
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Gordon Bowker has taken on the daunting challenge of telling the story of James Joyce's life and work. Synthesizing sources which have come out since Ellman's landmark biography (1959) and revision, (1982), Bowker is thorough, informative and entertaining, and still gets done in around 600 pages. The new biography will not replace Ellman, but it is a most worthy supplement to Joyce scholarship. It is a balanced and fair-minded portrait of a writer of incendiary genius who also possessed very human foibles and weaknesses.
I have one complaint: the illustrations in the USA FSG edition are printed on plain paper and have poor resolution. The UK edition, printed by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, has superior-quality printing of the photos on glossy paper with much better image quality. Just the same, Bowker has done an amazing job of telling a most complex life story useful for scholars and general readers alike. Bravo!
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I really enjoyed the book and greatly benefited from reading it. I love Joyce's work though I cannot, nor can anyone say he is not enigmatic. This biography caused me some pain in that Bowker ties, or references if you will, so many details of Joyce's life to his writing. At first blink, that might seem a dip in the shallow end of the pool since works like Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man are obviously autobiographical. No, I mean details such as Joyce himself rescued during one of his frequent drunken ventures into night town by a Jew. Better perhaps is the Ithaca chapter in the style of, not a catechism as often suggested, but a trial as the questions are interrogatory of the style of court. And as the punch Stephen takes from a private Carr---and later this odd chapter of questions and answers---similar to the court proceedings of Joyce's Carr affair---really shows detail by detail of Joyce recording his life.

Why would that 'pain' me? So much of Joyce's writing is autobiographical that I was at times afraid of losing my adulation for Joyce only to be again and again amazed at the use and composition of the events in his writing.

Look, I cannot compete with the scholarly reviews. I haven't the background or the time. I do want to say this. It is sad to see so few reviews of this superb book. That is as sad as how few people read, in the maturity and freedom of adulthood, Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses. This biography opens Ulysses to the reader allowing a richer, deeper read.

I am working on Finnegans Wake. I have been struggling with that book for months and reached page 89 last week. Bowker's biography is opening that book up to me as well and I have a sense of the unconscious, sleeping, dreaming Joyce. He is a conflicted person. Perverse and pious.
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This isn't a literary biography although it is, obviously, a biography of a literary giant. Bowker doesn't do the extended literary analysis and plot summaries of the genre although he does find plenty of autobiographical references in Joyce's fiction.

Borwick sometimes a bit too sure, almost glib in drawing a direct parallel from a house in which the young Joyce lived or an encounter with a relative or friend and an episode or image in his work, particularly "Finnegan's Wake" and "Dubliners". While the conformity between life and work is often convincing, it remains the fiction was about made up characters and how they acted, spoke and thought.

While working on both "Ulysses" and "Finnegan's Wake" Joyce often wrote and revised for 12 hours per day, every day, for months at a time, while he was going blind and, particularly during the composition of "Finnegan's Wake" suffering horribly from attempts of cure his failing eyesight including several operations and (amazing, at least to me, for Europe in the 1920s) the application of leaches to his eyes. Joyce agonized over every line, every word, of his novels, so to say that this particular image was a result of this chance meeting on the street may be assuming too much.

It suffers from a few extreme infelicities, almost verbal tics, that are impossible to ignore and therefore distracting. An example: "Paris was flooded that January and Joyce's imagination was also in flood". Another, describing the death of a James Joyce sibling from typhoid fever: "Everyone knew the boy was unlikely to survive, including George himself.
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