Joyce to the Life

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I have the clearest recollection of my first reading of Richard Ellmann’s life of James Joyce. I have just reread it, from cover to cover and from footnote to footnote, for the second time. And, at the end, I have found myself, as I did thirty-five years before, with tears in my eyes.

I first read it in Venice, in the summer of 1980. I was there for a month, with a friend and various visitors coming and going: we had arranged a house swap, exchanging my London home for a family flat in Dorso Douro with a partial view of the dome of the Salute. Ellmann was my August reading. I can’t remember exactly why, but I think my choice must have been connected with the growing influence of the biographer Michael Holroyd. (We married in 1982.) Also, Venice was not so very far from Trieste, where the Joyces spent so many years, so I knew I was in the right climate. During the day, my friend and I would wander our separate ways, she with the book she was translating, I with my companion Ellmann, whom I would read in cafés and on creaking landing stages and occasionally in the Biblioteca Marciana. One evening, when we met for dinner, I reported that I was drawing to the close of Joyce’s life. She told me that she could see that I was affected. And, more than I knew, I was.

I was surprised by my response. I was not, and am not, a Joyce scholar, and had never encountered his work at university. I had read Ulysses, at first surreptitiously and selectively in the copy my father had brought home from the war and concealed in a bottom drawer, and then, more comprehensively but far too speedily, when challenged by a clever American student in a London-based class that I was teaching in the 1970s. I knew I wasn’t grasping the work as a whole, and needed to give the volume more time. I think the thought of reading the biography suggested itself as a way of making my way into the book. And so it was, but it was also a magnificent achievement
in its own right,

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About the contributor

Margaret Drabble is a novelist and critic. She completed her nineteenth novel in 2016. It deals, pertinently, with questions of ageing. She will now have to embark on her twentieth, which may turn out to be about childhood.

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