Reading James Joyce, particularly his two great works, Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), is a descent into a catacomb for which the correct key, or a well- informed guide, appears indispensable. The key and the guide come in the form of such books as Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to “Finnegans Wake” (1947) and Don Gifford’s Joyce Annotated (1982). Yet armed only with books like these, readers may come away from Joyce sensing that the experience was in some way flat, that between the stones analyzed and annotated lie cracks that seemingly hold the whole thing together, a continuity that eludes the simplistic, fact-by- fact approach of the well-meaning guides. The discovery of this continuity involves the study of Joyce’s life itself, to a degree unnecessary to the reading of a less demanding writer. Joyce is the most demanding of writers in the English language, if one dares call “English” his transmogrifications of the language, and not simply insofar as he requires the reader to approach with an air of erudition. Joyce demands to be known, and as is clear from the fervor of the Joyce industry, not a few have acceded to this demand. Shelves and shelves of books have come forth, among them a number of outstanding volumes, and among these at least one biography that, while it is mandatory reading for anyone studying Joyce, can in itself justifiably be called, as Anthony Burgess puts it, “the greatest literary biography of the century”—Richard Ellmann’s magnificent James Joyce (1965). Yet even as great as this book is, it does not cover certain areas of Joyce’s life as fully as possible, and in regard to a few relatively minor facts it is mistaken. Thus it is that Peter Costello’s James Joyce: The Years of Growth, 1882-1915 arrives as a welcome corrective to Ellmann.
Costello’s first chapter, “The Dead,” is as complete an expedition into the far corners of Joyce’s genealogy as one might desire. Costello follows each branch of the family tree, identifying great-granduncles and the like previously passed over by Ellmann. With these identifications come the family anecdotes with which Joyce grew up and of which he later made use in his writings. Famous among these is the anecdote Joyce wove into his story “The Dead” of his grandfather’s mill horse Johnny, which became stuck walking round and round a statue in a Dublin park while its rider roared and brandished his whip to no avail. Also, various details regarding the development of Joyce’s tastes and mannerisms are provided. For example, “The Yellow Ale,” a song that Joyce claimed was the most beautiful in the world and that Ellmann suggests Joyce learned from a 1901 edition of Irish Homestead, was actually taught to Joyce as a boy, according to Costello, by his grandfather. Unfortunately, details such as this are often left unreferenced in the scanty endnotes, and the reader is left to wonder how Costello became privy to such interesting and suggestive facts.
A strength of Costello’s book is his detailing of Joyce’s father’s slide into bankruptcy, a story of political backstabbing and deceits not adequately addressed by Ellmann. All of his life John Joyce claimed to have been financially ruined by government bureaucrats who disagreed with his politics, claims that Ellmann largely dismisses as the paranoid delusions of a mind overly pickled in liquor. Costello takes the more sympathetic view that John Joyce’s slide into terminal alcoholism resulted from the loss of the means to support his large family, and thus of his self-respect. Costello details the elder Joyce’s political entanglements and correlates his initial successes in securing well-salaried government jobs with the successes of the political parties he supported. At the same time, Costello, by a close examination of John Joyce’s assets and debits, attempts to show that he was guilty less of living beyond his means than of expecting those means to continue indefinitely. When the winds of politics changed, so did Joyce’s fortunes. He lost access to jobs, his pension was unjustly reduced, and the resistance he encountered when making claim to his rights was apparently insurmountable. The effect of the family’s fall into poverty on James, not yet in his teens, was profound, establishing in him a permanent sympathy for the poor while at the same time instilling a lifelong obsession with maintaining a semblance, at least, of bourgeois respectability....
(The entire section is 1842 words.)