James Joyce is a poet and novelist (one of the foremost writers from a country renowned for its famous writers) who reinvented the way we think of novels today, is considered by many to be the greatest prose writer of the twentieth century, was also a drunkard and, let’s face it, kind of a jerk.
This visually delightful graphic novel does not shy away from James Joyce’s negative qualities, but those are just one thread among many of the tapestry of his story. Alfonso Zapico’s portrait of Joyce includes his schooling and early life, his relationship with religion, his involvement in Irish politics, his travels throughout Europe in a quest to eke out a living while pursuing his passions, his mental and physical health struggles, and perhaps most centrally, his love for the feisty Galway girl, Nora Barnacle.
Zapico’s scribbly, active art with the pen strokes and washes of ink dashing across the page, alternately portrays the beauty and elegance of the European cities that Joyce visits, as well as the shock and violence of the Irish uprising and the two world wars. Joyce’s upbringing was mired in the politics of pre-nationhood Ireland, and his country is almost another character that grows up alongside him. It would help the reader if they already have an interest in Irish history and Joyce’s work, but it is all explained throughout the novel (albeit with very small text on some pages, in order to fit everything in).
No, James Joyce may not be the type of person that you would have gotten along with had you known him at the time. He drinks himself blind, pursues extramarital affairs, insults other writers to their faces, wastes his money on get-rich-quick schemes, and shamelessly mooches from his long-suffering brother, Stanislaus. Indeed, part of the middle section of the book seems to be just one Joyce-created catastrophe after another, and it gets a bit muddled between his drinking, carousing, and failure to get Dubliners published by various companies.
However, as the story progresses we see an older and more mature Joyce, who is even kind at times: playing with his grandson, mentoring other writers, and helping dozens of refugees escape regions affected by World War II. We sympathize with his loss of his sight, his guilt over his father’s death, and his coping with his daughter, Lucia’s mental illness. There are also some honestly hilarious episodes in his life that Zapico depicts brilliantly: Joyce’s run-ins with unstable roommates living with him in a round tower on the Dublin shore, a drunken bus ride singing traditional Irish songs with Samuel Beckett, and his entertaining explanation of which European nationalities personify the deadly sins. So although Joyce may frustrate us at times, he has moments of likability that increase in number as the story progresses. Zapico has created a well-rounded and honest portrait of a controversial yet brilliant writer, and the genius as well as the artistic temperament shines through on every page.
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