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Originally published Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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'James Joyce': How the writer's life led to the words that survive him

Gordon Bowker's "James Joyce: A New Biography" doesn't break new ground, but its knowledgeable and engaging perspective will please fans of the Irish writer and anyone fascinated by writers' lives.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'James Joyce:

A New Biography'

by Gordon Bowker

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

608 pp., $35

Like his sentences, meandering and twirling and refusing to settle into something soothingly predictable, James Joyce was a wanderer. The man who changed the art of the novel forever with "Ulysses" (and who wrote one of the loveliest novellas ever to see print, "The Dead") spent his life moving from place to place, drifting with his family through an endless stream of rooms and flats across Italy, France and Switzerland — far from his native land of Ireland, which nonetheless informed every word he wrote.

A new biography of Joyce seems an unlikely and perhaps unnecessary endeavor: The meticulous, splendid "James Joyce" by Richard Ellmann (first published in 1959; revised edition 1982) remains definitive. The writer's life seems thoroughly mined; even his wife, daughter and father have recently earned their own biographies. So while Gordon Bowker's new "James Joyce" contains little that's startlingly new, it's nonetheless a pleasure, for Joyce fans as well as those fascinated by writers' lives.

That life, to be sure, had few monumental events. James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, born to a struggling Dublin family in 1882, seems to have spent most of his waking hours asking various benefactors for money, changing addresses, singing (he had a fine Irish tenor), drinking — and writing. His literary output was relatively small: a book of short stories ("Dubliners"), three novels ("A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, "Ulysses," "Finnegans Wake"), a play ("Exiles), a few poems. Each built on what had gone before, leapfrogging into another level of language-turned-music, of allusion, of wordplay. You can read in the early work "The Dead" the beginnings of those unexpected yet somehow perfect rhythms, particularly in its final sentence: "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

"Ulysses," his masterpiece, commemorated one pivotal day: On June 10, 1904, young Jim Joyce met an insouciant redhead strolling along a Dublin sidewalk; their first date was six days later. She was Nora Barnacle, and "a master had just stumbled into his Irish muse," writes Bowker. Though an unlikely duo (she had little interest in books), they were inseparable for the rest of their lives; raising two children while sauntering through Europe, and finally marrying long after the fact, in 1931. "Ulysses," a complex and layered work that's a joy to untangle, takes place in Dublin on June 16, 1904; it's a richly populated tribute both to a woman and a city, filled with music and vivid sensual detail. Frequently banned, it brought Joyce notoriety, a measure of fame, and never quite enough money.

Later came the famously obscure "Finnegans Wake" ("Perhaps under morphia his meaning would stream to the surface," Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend), the heartbreak of daughter Lucia's mental illness, and finally his early death, of complications from ulcer surgery, aged not quite 59. "The great Joycean caravan," writes Bowker, "had finally come to a halt."

The author of biographies of Malcolm Lowry and George Orwell, Bowker writes knowledgeably and engagingly about his subject, clearly fascinated by how the life led to the words that survive it. Early on, he compares biography to confronting the wreckage of a deserted house. "Amid the chaos," he writes, "we may catch a fleeting impression of what the place once was like when occupied, a presumption of lives lived, of memories stored and passions spent." Here, he's found a life — and a mind — well worth a second glance.

Moira Macdonald is

the Seattle Times movie critic.

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