Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Joyce's first 'biografiend'

'Life, he himself said once, (his biografiend, in fact, kills him verysoon, if yet not, after) is a wake.' 55.06

'Joyce (was) an essentially private man who wished his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognised.'
Tom Stoppard, Travesties

Not many people today read Gorman's 1939 James Joyce: The Definitive Biography.  I picked up a 1941 copy in a second-hand bookshop many years ago, and I've never seen another. It includes some great surreal Max Ernst-style photo-montages (left), by G.R.Morris, who designed many book jackets for the Bodley Head.

Herbert Sherman Gorman (1893-1954) was an American in Paris, befriended by Joyce, who chose him to be his official biographer. Joyce wanted a biography as part of his bigger campaign, which included the books by Gilbert, Budgen and the Exagmination, to shape the reception of his work. 

'Gorman's work had been chiefly in the historical novel, but Joyce thought that this training might help him. Without saying so to Gorman directly, he made clear that he was to be treated as a saint with an unusually protracted martyrdom.'
Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

The main difficulty in writing the book was that Joyce wanted to hide so many aspects of his life. For example, Gorman was expected to go along with Joyce's pretence that he had married Nora Barnacle in 1904 - in fact, they did not marry until 1931. Gorman was also not allowed to mention the real crises that dominated Joyce's life in the later 20s and 30s - his daughter's illness; the rejection of Work in Progress by almost all the supporters of Ulysses; and his own crisis of confidence, writing block, and plan to get James Stephens to finish the book. Instead, Joyce is presented as a supremely confident Olympian genius, marching 'on an undeviated road of his own art, undisturbed by explosions, no matter how world-shaking.'

Joyce went through Gorman's manuscript, making many corrections, and adding new material. Here's how Gorman originally explained the reason for the family's many changes of Dublin address, which were due to John Stanislaus Joyce's refusal ever to pay rent:

'Either John Stanislaus Joyce was restless or he neglected to find out why rent bills were sent.'

According to Ellmann, Joyce rewrote that as 'Either John Stanislaus was restless or his growing family required larger quarters.' 

Some passages in the book can be read as a corrective to Robert McAlmon's 1938 memoir, which often presents Joyce as an undignified drunken buffoon:

'Joyce wanted to climb up the lamppost. He fancied himself various kinds of dancers, tap, Russian, and belly. Nora was there however, and protest as Mr Joyce might, she got him into a taxi, and, despite his bitter wailings and protestations, drove him home.' McAlmon

Joyce's favourite cigars
This is how Joyce preferred to be seen:

'Joyce was never a flâneur in any sense of the word....He maintained rigorously his self-imposed regime of never drinking alcoholic beverages during the day. It was only when night fell sprawling on the roofs of Paris and the late dinner hour was at hand that his thoughts (released from the day's discipline of labour) turned to the pleasant bottle or carafe of white wine (he never drank red). He was quiet, self-contained, always a little formal in manner, willing to listen while he smoked his cigarettes (jaunes) and small cigars (Voltigeurs) or lifted in a beringed hand (the one exotic touch about him) his goblet of Reisling or Swiss Neufchâtel. It was only very late in the evening and in the company of extremely close friends that his wit, dry or ironic, came into play and a joyous desire to dance agitated him.'

As well as trying to control his public image, Joyce used the biography to hit back at critics and perceived betrayers - while at the same time declaring himself to be above such things!

'Even attack, and he has never ceased to be attacked in certain quarters, moved him not at all. He might bleakly wonder sometimes why he should be the butt of so many scurrilous onslaughts but his idea of striking back in the same poisonous manner never enters his mind. He cannot dissipate his intelligence in such a meaningless way.'

This is immediately followed by an attack on Sir Edmund Gosse's 'senseless and unforgivable judgement' on Ulysses!  Joyce thought he could get away with this by using Gorman as his mouthpiece but clearly here it is Joyce speaking. 

The paragraph above reminds me of the 1948 official Soviet biography of Joseph Stalin, which Stalin himself edited, shamelessly inserting the following sentence:

'Although he performed his task as leader of the party and the people with consummate skill and enjoyed the unreserved support of the entire Soviet people, Stalin never allowed his work to be marred by the slightest hint of vanity, conceit or adulation.'

Quoted by Nikita Krushchev, in his speech to the Twentieth Congress.

The irony is that the most scathing portraits of Joyce are those in his own fictions. For Joyce could be self-revealing in his art, and even refers to the biography at one point in Finnegans Wake, as 'the great belt, band and bucklings of the Martyrology of Gorman' 349.23

'I will never write another biography of a living man. It is too difficult and thankless a task.'

Gorman, letter to John Farrar, 14 September 1937, quoted by Ellmann. 



Joyce's total control over the book makes it a bad biography, but the first place to turn to to find his intentions in writing Finnegans Wake. This description of Joyce's aims must come from the horse's mouth:

'The revolutionary conception had for its modus operandi a merging of time and space and race and characters. It would be written in a language that would telescope many meanings into single words by newly-minting those words from the vast slag-heaps of language. An attempt would be made to break the bounds of formal speech and achieve that plane where the word, no longer a much-handled and partially-defaced token to arouse in the reader's mind an approximation of the thing meant, became the thing meant itself. It would be the sort of language that must be seen and heard as well as read. It would sparkle and flow like a river and it would sink heavily into the grey fogs of sleep.  A unity that out-Aristotled Aristotle's unities, a unity, as it were, that unified all time, all history and all language, would control and shape the new work. It would have the gigantic dimensions of a Myth and yet it would be contained within the fleeting instants of a dream. It would be a Myth of sleeping life as Ulysses had been a Myth of waking life....Naturally the new work would be Irish in texture although at the same time its warp and woof would imprison the universal. Dublin would be all cities, the Anna Liffey all rivers and Howth all mountains.'

'the word...became the thing meant itself' reminds me of Beckett's description of Work in Progress in the Exagmination: 'His writing is not about something. It is the thing itself.'

And now we get the most interesting section, on the overall design of Finnegans Wake and how it is based on the Viconian cycles:

'As the idea possessed Joyce he began to see it as a work that fell into various parts, each of them loosely based on Vico's theory leavened with the metaphysics of Bruno.  Part one would be curdling with the intertwining shadows and phantoms of the past and so corresponding to the Neapolitan's first institution of Religion or Birth; part two, the love games of the children, Marriage or Maturity; part three, the four levels of sleep, Burial or Corruption; and part four, the beginning of the day, Vico's Providence.'

The source for this is likely to be Joyce, because 'shadows and phantoms of the past' echoes cryptic comments he made elsewhere. He told E.R.Curtius that the '1st 8 episodes are a kind of immense shadow.' (Curtius's notes from a 1936 conversation with Joyce published by Breon Mitchell in A Wake Digest, 1968, 80-81.)

And here's Cyril Connolly:

'… the whole first [part of Wip] is … the prehistory of Dublin… the first is a kind of air photograph of Irish history, a celebration of the dim past of Dublin, as was Ulysses of its grimy present…'

Cyril Connolly, 'The Position of Joyce',  Life and Letters, 1929

This was reprinted in Connolly's 1946 book, The Condemned Playground, with a footnote ‘The first English account of Finnegans Wake was told to me by him.’ (quoted by Adaline Glasheen in A Wake Newslitter, August 1982).

It's possible that Gorman took his account from Samuel Beckett rather than Joyce. Beckett's description of the Viconian structure in the Exagmination is very close to Gorman's:

'Part 1. is a mass of past shadow, corresponding therefore to Vico's first institution, Religion, or to his Theocratic age, or simply to an abstraction – Birth. Part 2 is the lovegame of the children, corresponding to the second institution, Marriage, or to the Heroic age, or to an abstraction – Maturity. Part 3 is passed in sleep, corresponding to the third institution, Burial, or to the Human age, or to an abstraction – Corruption. Part 4 is the day beginning again, and corresponds to Vico's Providence, or to the transition from the Human to the Theocratic, or to an abstraction - Generation.'

Gorman's description of the plan of the Wake is interesting also for what it doesn't say.  There is no mention of the book being the dream of a sleeping publican, H.C.Earwicker, or any other character for that matter. That was an idea invented by Edmund Wilson in his 1939 review of the Wake, 'The Dream of Earwicker.'

The biography ends with a description of one of Joyce's birthday parties, an idyllic scene of good cheer which could have come straight out of the Pickwick Papers:

'Presently Joyce himself is singing, his fine tenor clouded, perhaps, by the years, but his artistry and his obvious enjoyment making up for the inevitable inroads of time. He sings the old songs that he loves and is not allowed to rest until he has rendered 'Molly Bloom'. That accomplished to the hilarious satisfaction of all, Joyce must have another glass of wine. He evidences some restlessness and his friends know what is imminent. It is the time for dancing.
  No one who has not seen Joyce dance can have any idea from a brief description what his terpsichorean talents are like. To enlivening music he breaks into a high fantastic dance all by himself, a dance that is full of quaint antics, high kicks, and astonishing figures. He dances with all his body, head, hands and feet and the evolutions through which he goes, eccentric but never losing the beat of the music, are calculated to arouse suspicion in the beholder that he has no bones at all. Others join in the dances and he weaves wild and original patterns with them. When the music stops he sinks contentedly into a chair. The festival has been a success.
  It is after midnight when the moment for parting (delayed as long as possible) comes. Joyce stands by his door bidding good night to his guests, and as they depart down the stairs and into the night they glance back and see standing above them the tall lean figure of a great gentleman and a great writer.'

Wouldn't it be great to go back in time to one of Joyce's birthday parties? Apart from having lots of questions for him about the Wake, I'd love to hear him sing, and see his famous dancing.

Joyce dancing, by the British painter, poet and publisher, Desmond Harmsworth

It's a shame that, with all the statues there are of Joyce, not one shows him dancing!


  1. Do you know, does this new syphilis guy try to argue that FW was a symptom?

  2. I haven't read it yet, but there's an interesting review in the Irish Independent

    'As for syphilis, Birmingham insists Joyce had the disease, but on inspection, his certainties wobble. He says that in 1928 Joyce refused to take Salvarsan, not because of the side-effects – death in some cases – but because its "gravest threat" was to his eyesight. Never mind that death includes blindness. Birmingham doesn't seem to know the drug was taken off the market in 1912 and replaced.'

    - See more at:

  3. Gorman online:;view=1up;seq=11

    1. Thanks - that's his first book on Joyce, published in 1924. Never seen it before!

  4. Know anyone who can translate this?;view=1up;seq=1