Drawing on the work of Delcan Kiberd (who praised this book in his review in The Guardian) who writes in depth on this in his majestic Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation I recently asked 80 Irish writers if they thought Kiberd was right when he said the weak or missing father was the dominant theme of modern Irish literature. Kiberd details this theme in The Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man and to a lesser extent through Ulysses. The responses from the writers ranged from yes, to saying it is one of the themes to repudiation. Bowker lets us see the weakness in the father of Joyce in considerable detail. Joyce as a father is also one of the most important aspects of this biography. That he deeply loved his children is clear. What is subject to pondering is if his own weakness, proclivity for drinking himself into oblivion, his bad money handling skills, his deep dependence on female patrons, and his incredible vanity (justified) and sense at times that his work was more important than his family were not a manifestation of the weakness of the Irish father. One must say, it seems to me, that Joyce exemplified many of the things he hated about his own father.
Even though I knew the basic details of the life of Joyce, I found this book fascinating. I felt so bad for Joyce with his eye problems and I felt ashamed of his need to drink until he had to be carried home. I think I understand his love for whore mongering, no offense to anyone meant by this term but that is the best way to describe it. Joyce was not into high class prostitutes, even when he could afford them. Bowker tries hard to understand this. There is also the complex issue of his relationship to Nora Barnacle. This is tied in with his obsession with Night Town and its easy cheap prostitutes. Joyce, think back to Swift, probably conflated sex with other bodily functions and might have been into being urinated or defected on. He was deeply Catholic and that comes with a heavy sexual guilt.
Joyce did have jobs, as a language teacher, he was fluent in four languages and in total was comfortable in thirteen, as a clerk using his Italian skills but for much of his life he depended on help from others. He had a wealthy American patron, Harriet Weaver, who, per Bowker, over the course of his life, gave Joyce nearly £250,000 pounds. It was hard to admire Joyce when you read that he would ask Weaver for money pleading of his very real poverty, then once he has some money, spending lavishly for fancy meals.
We also meet Ezra Pound who did greatly help Joyce. Of course Samuel Beckett appears and the material relating to Sylvia Beach was fascinating.
Bowker details the tremendous problems Joyce had with censors in England and the USA where postal authorities seized Ulysses. There are many fascinating people in Joyce's circle. His genius was fully seen by many astute people. Through out his life, Joyce was beset by very serious eye problems and Bowker goes into some detail about this and it's impact.
We see the many years devoted to his work. We learn of his deep love for word play. One gets the feeling if Joyce had lived on a few years (1882 to 1941) he well might have won the Nobel Prize.
Bowker explains the mental illness of Joyce's daughter, it is hard to have a genius for a father.
I commend this book (I was in the interest of full disclosure given this book by the publisher) to anyone interested in Joyce or really modern Irish literature. It has inspired me to try to read Ulysses again.
Bowker (London) is also the author of biographies of Malcolm Lowry and George Orwell. I hope to at least read his Orwell biography one day.