Sunday, October 30, 2011

James Joyce: A Life by Edna O'Brien

James Joyce: A Life. Edna O'Brien. Penguin Lives - Penguin Books, USA. November 2011. 192 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780143119937.

Emotionally bereft, haunted by poverty, cynical of religion and politics, James Joyce spends his whole life determined to grasp every experience to its dregs. Edna O'Brien masterfully conveys how these attitudes and consequent behaviors both attracted and repulsed professional and consumer readers throughout Joyce's stressful, conflict-ridden life. In the beginning of his life, he moves from being an ardent Catholic to one who projects his hatred of his own lusts upon the priests who formerly inspired him. A fluctuating love-hate relationship exists between him and the predominant political leaders of his time as well. Yet O'Brien doesn't allow the reader to forget that he passionately loved the land he was to reject for most of his tortured life, condemning them as he wrote, "Poets were the keepers of spirituality and priests the destroyers and usurpers."

Ibsen is Joyce's first love, sharing with him a hatred of hypocrisy and falsity. Joyce read voraciously throughout his whole life, and it is that knowledge as well as every facet of his own world that will fill the pages of Ulysses, the work he is most famous for crafting. Support and rejection fluctuate from Joyce's family, including his closest brother Stanislaus. O'Brien calls the relationship with Joyce's mother, as with all brilliant writers, "the uncharted deep." For Joyce it was an association of the Host of Catholicism, the prostitutes and his mother's tenderness," hardly associations yielding a good connection to family, romance, and religion. He will wed Nora Barnacle and their marriage will be full of attraction and repulsion as life becomes more ordinary when the writer can revel only in the extraordinary, unique, and almost frenetic moments that give purpose to his understanding and writing.

Memory and exile are the elements fueling the pages of his novels and stories, to which one must add knowledge. O'Brien takes us through each work Joyce constructed, the reactions of individuals and Ireland and the difficulties in publishing Joyce knew, chiefly because of what was perceived to be criticism highlighted with the most obscene language and images. Sexual passion continues to fuel his life with Nora, a woman who pleased him in this one way but could never even come close to understanding his mind. His family life is even more stressed later on with the mental instability of his daughter, Lucia, a woman who finally is committed yet who remarkably resembles her father in so many of her ramblings and associations.

While many know the highlights of James Joyce's life, Edna O'Brien presents her knowledge and analysis with aplomb, implying with depth the undercurrents of Joyce's mind and soul, while stating the obvious; interpreting and making connections that the average reader might miss while again implying that so few truly understood what drove Joyce's scurrilous and debasing depiction of life's grand and sordid aspects. Brief but potent, O'Brien's biography of James Joyce is a phenomenal read about an unfathomable writer - both are brilliant, indeed!!!

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