My review of Edna O’Brien’s James Joyce: A Life ran today at PopMatters.
A few years ago, I picked up Richard Ellmann’s massive biography of Joyce, which is considered to be the best literary biography ever written. I still haven’t read it. It’s so big, so imposing, I’ve yet to find an opportunity to fit it into my life. Someday.
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For now, Edna O’Brien’s compact, 179-page biography will be just fine. O’Brien’s slim book manages to traverse the entire life of this complicated, brilliant man, detailing his adolescent struggles, creative breakthroughs, and personal relationships, in particular his rocky marriage with Nora Barnacle. O’Brien sets out to help the reader understand and appreciate Joyce’s difficult, rewarding body of work, and does an admirable job of making Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake seem approachable without spoiling the mystique that surrounds and enhances them.
It’s a nice survey, slight but elevated by O’Brien’s fun, playful prose style. For a more specific look into Joyce, I’d recommend checking out Ulysses and Us, which is a great, down-to-earth walkthrough of Joyce’s magnum opus.