The main strength of this book is its infectious, informed passion. The writer’s interest and enthusiasm give the book an appeal and an ongoing sense of drama that is hard for a reader to resist. Kevin Birmingham presents the rise of Modernism and the early career of James Joyce as important breaks with the thinking of the past that helped to create the early twentieth-century world. These points may seem marginal in their importance, but they are not. Nonfiction writers, like teachers, can fall into habits where they merely present rather than underscore the importance of the information they set forth. The second approach not only engages readers better but also indicates a writer who has mastered a subject to find even subtle significance beyond the facts and events.
The conciseness of the writing and the high ratio of ideas to words contribute to the book’s appeal. One good example turns up on page 209. We read that “the pressure of writing enhanced Joyce’s superstitions” and then find some examples: “Opening an umbrella inside, placing a man’s hat on a bed and two nuns walking down the street were all bad luck. Black cats and Greeks were good luck.” But our understanding is sharpened and our interests energized when Birmingham brings out the larger point: “Superstitions gave Joyce the feeling of control, the illusion that he could place a finger on the tiller of fortune to help steer a life that seemed blown by chance—money arriving just when the cupboards were bare . . . . It was comforting to think that all the world’s details were like the details of a novel, that they had meaning and that they could be altered by marginal revisions like replacing a hat or adding a fourteenth dinner guest.”Again and again the author distills information and significance into similarly concise, stimulating passages—on Joyce’s early life in Dublin, on meeting Nora Barnacle, on Ezra Pound and Dora Marsden, on the diminished view of epics, on censorship and anarchism, etc.
A person could read the Introduction to the book, recognize these qualities, and also see the map for the entire book. At the end of that section, Birmingham surveys some of the books about Joyce and describes his research. You get the feeling that his passion for Joyce and Ulysses is so great as to justify any effort to track down any fact or document, even some stray something in one of the twenty-five archives around the world that he cites. It is a pleasure to read his energetic, compelling study.