Literary biography is an often derided genre. Writers, in particular, tend to be suspicious, if not openly hostile, toward what they are apt to regard as a secondary or parasitic form. And there are valid reasons for this wariness. The assumption behind a biography is, reasonably enough, that the writer’s life informs the work, but establishing the precise relevance of the life to the work is a treacherous business. Because it is possible to argue that anything a creative writer experiences is at least potentially significant, there is no obvious line between a legitimate and a trivial, or even a prurient, interest in the details of a writer’s personal life. Furthermore, the biographical approach would seem to have a natural bias toward a view of the work of art as symptomatic. In granting priority to the material facts of the writer’s existence, it preferences, and in some cases openly pursues, interpretations that are either narrowly literal, reductively sociological, or dubiously psychological.
Ignoring the finer points of James Joyce’s genius
James Joyce: A Biography
by Gordon Bowker
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $60 hb, 617 pp, 9780297848035
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James Ley is an essayist and literary critic who lives in Melbourne. A former Editor of Sydney Review of Books, he has been a regular contributor to ABR since 2003.
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