©1999 Edna O'Brien; (P)2000 Books on Tape, Inc.
"O'Brien's triumph is that while celebrating Joyce and his ecstatic quest to lay image on counterimage...she has drawn the desperation and sadness of the man whose name means joy." (The New York Times Book Review)
"It is swift, moving, and brimming with the author's enthusiasms and her well-earned affection for a difficult colleague." (Los Angeles Times Book Review)
"Both the author and narrator Donada Peters handle the language of Joyce's major works, especially Ulysses, exceptionally well....Peters is unusually good at using inflection and maintaining an appropriate pace....Perfect for Joyce novices and devotees alike." (AudioFile)
Edna O'Brien's short biography of James Joyce packs a lot in: Joyce's many changes of residence (sometimes pursued by landlords to whom he owed rent); his long, intimate relationship (and finally marriage) with Nora Barnacle; their two children, Giorgio and and the sadly doomed Lucia; Harriet Weaver, one of Joyce's major financial props and a long-suffering friend; Sylvia Beach, the bookstore owner in Paris who first published "Ulysses"; and Joyce's many illnesses, ocular and otherwise, ending with surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer that resulted in his death.
It's a lively, raucous story, told with enough detail to make it memorable but not so much as to make it exhausting. O'Brien is particularly good at weaving references to the work into the narrative, and she includes outstanding summaries of many of the chapters of both "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake."
There are a couple of places where I think O'Brien is less charitable than she could have been. She says that Harriet Weaver began to get "cold feet" as the writing of "Finnegans Wake" dragged out for 5, 10, and 15 years. The implication is that somehow she let Joyce down when he needed it most. But there was plenty of subtext: O'Brien mentions, but doesn't dwell on, Joyce's extravagant living - first class hotels, European spas, fancy restaurants, gallons and gallons of fine wine - all of it on Weaver's dime. He was constantly burning through the money she sent him and asking for more. And it wasn't just her who had doubts about that final project: as he continued plowing through "Wake" and publishing segments of it here and there, many of the champions of "Ulysses" began to wonder about his judgment if not his sanity. (On the other hand, I should note that elsewhere O'Brien nominates Weaver for literary sainthood.)
All in all, it's a great listen; Donada Peters (= Nadia May = Wanda McCaddon) keeps the pace brisk and the tone warm. Gordon Bowker's new biography of Joyce would make a good audiobook as well (one can only hope), but even if that were to happen, this one would still be valuable: it hits all the high notes with enthusiasm, humor, and insight, and it never drags.
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