Alan's Reviews > James Joyce

James Joyce by Richard Ellmann
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's review
Jun 04, 2012

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Read in January, 1969

This is the literary biography that started the craze for long biographies, only recently broken by brave biographers, often themselves novelists, like Carol Shields' Jane Austen (Penguin). Arguably, Ellman's subject
and his research required a grand scale. This is not always--dare I say, often not--true. So our bookshelves are overladen with fat biographies of doubtful readability. Less true of Ellmann here.
Of course, I read this when I was a Teaching Assistant in a Joyce course, so I had an added impetus to
find it of interest. Find it so I did. For example, in a minute detail that I quote to this day, James Joyce when applying to teach English in Italy, did better on his Italian exam than on his English. Admonitory in this hour of Test Test Test as a presumed improvement to American public ed. If the greatest prose stylist of 20C English did less well on his English test, clearly the exam was wanting--as most general exams prove, upon examination. Exams function best when focused--on a book, on a course, on a proof of the Mean Value Theorem.
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