Discoveries: Edna O'Brien

James Joyce by Edna O’Brien. Penguin. 179 pages.

"JAMES JOYCE, POOR JOIST, a funnominal man, supporting a gay house in a slum of despond." Edna O'Brien lays it on a little thicker than Smiley, perhaps because Joyce thrashed around in his own life a bit more than Dickens - there was wreckage, drinking, unhappy children, angry landlords. "Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create?" she asks, and it's a question worth returning to now and then. "I believe that they do. It is a paradox that while wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict." Some readers will feel a competition with Joyce in O'Brien's writing; others will appreciate the way she engages with him and reflects his style. O'Brien shows how Joyce changed throughout his life - from "Sunny Jim," his childhood nickname, to the glowering observer who watched his hated father try to kill his mother. "He would be the poet of his race," she writes with not a little pride. "In one of his early verses he likened himself to a stag, antlers charging upon the land." Held up and hobbled by women-from Nora, his wife, to Miss Weaver, his patron, and Sylvia Beach, his faithful bookseller. O'Brien captures the writer's widening emptiness, his fears and the ways they hedged him in. Joyce's best epitaph, she writes, came from Nora: "My poor Jim, he was such a great man."

LARB Contributor

Susan Salter Reynolds is a book critic and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Vermont. She has three children: Sam, Ellie, and Mia.


Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!