James Joyce: A Life by Edna O'Brien
Author: Edna O'Brien
Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / Literary Criticism / Writers on Writers / 20th century / Ireland)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin (11/29/2011)
Source: The publisher
Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A rambunctious retelling of James Joyce's life and work.
Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's eye-catching and bright.
First line: Once upon a time there was a man coming down a road in Dublin and he gave himself the name of Dedalus the sorcerer, constructor of labyrinths and maker of wings for Icarus who flew so close to the sun that he fell, as the apostolic Dubliner James Joyce would fall deep into a world of words--from the "epiphanies" of youth to the epistomadologies of later years.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is an exciting, rambunctious read!
Why did I get this book?: Edna O'Brien is a marvelous novelist, and I couldn't resist her take on Joyce.
Review: I love writers on writers. O'Brien's biography of James Joyce is as boisterous and playful as Joyce's own prose. This is a reader's biography, full of fantastic vocabulary and mischievous, serpentine phrasing. Those familiar with Joyce's life will likely learn nothing new, but the passion and joy O'Brien has for Joyce makes revisiting his life exciting; for those new to James Joyce, this biography is a bit like baptism-by-fire. The reader is plunged in to Joyce's life with little explication of the whos and the wheres. Like reading one of Joyce's own novels, it is up to the reader to keep up.
Joyce inspired O'Brien to be a novelist, so it seems a perfect fit for her to write a biography on him, but disappointingly, I found little of O'Brien in the narrative. Certainly, a passion for Ireland, a deep appreciation for the way the place kills and inspires, but very few 'I' statements that make clear her opinions. (I've gotten spoiled by biographies that allow the biographer to be present.) In some ways, this reads as a very long essay on Joyce and his works, but the style is very personable, very rambunctious, envisioning Joyce's thoughts and feelings with certitude.
What made me appreciate this book was O'Brien's taken on Nora Barnacle, Joyce's lover and eventual wife. It's always the women -- the wives, the daughters, the sisters, the lovers -- who intrigue me, and in this, Nora, and later, Lucia, were of greater interest to me than the man himself. O'Brien is sympathetic toward Nora, which I appreciated since I'm sympathetic toward her; even better, O'Brien recognizes and honors the dynamic between Joyce and Nora, the genius and the 'peasant'. (In fact, O'Brien had me when she wished, on page 56: "If only she had kept a diary." If only!)
A quick read at 178 pages, this biography invites lingering and reflection, and of course, a look at Joyce's works. For fans of delicious language, this book is a must, whether one is familiar with Joyce or not!