BOOKS

A literary Irish stew

FOUR DUBLINERS: OSCAR WILDE, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, JAMES JOYCE, SAMUEL BECKETT Richard Ellmann

GEOFFREY JAMES February 1 1988
BOOKS

A literary Irish stew

FOUR DUBLINERS: OSCAR WILDE, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, JAMES JOYCE, SAMUEL BECKETT Richard Ellmann

GEOFFREY JAMES February 1 1988

A literary Irish stew

FOUR DUBLINERS: OSCAR WILDE, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, JAMES JOYCE, SAMUEL BECKETT Richard Ellmann

(Firefly, 122 pages\, $16.95)

The four brilliant writers who are the subjects of Richard Ellmann’s book of essays make up, at first sight, an odd quartet. But more than being just Dubliners, they turn out to have been connected in the most surprising ways. In 1888 Oscar Wilde invited the young poet W. B. Yeats to Christmas dinner; Yeats, for his part, was one

of the few to give public support to Wilde during his 1895 trial for indecent behavior. A few years later Yeats rose at dawn to meet James Joyce’s train in London and, after giving the young man breakfast, took him around the city’s editorial offices. The withdrawn Samuel Beckett was as close a friend as Joyce, a man not given to intimacy, would allow—and after Beckett was stabbed in a 1938 Paris street brawl, it was Joyce who sat silently beside his hospital bed.

Such intimate revelations are typical of Ellmann, who died last year at the age of 69. The first American to hold an English literature professorship at Oxford, Ellmann was a literary biographer who combined acute scholarly insight with a taste for gossip. In Four Dubliners, originally delivered as a series of lectures at the Library of Congress, Ellmann’s working method is to

examine each writer at a particular, revealing point in his life. In so doing, he has cast light on four writers who, in different ways, changed the Western literary terrain.

Ellmann’s Wilde is the undergraduate Wilde of Oxford, which the biographer calls a place that, “for Irishmen, is to the mind what Paris is to the body.” Wilde, writes Ellmann, was an amorphous 20-year-old when he arrived at the university, a fully formed young man when he left four years later. His maturing consisted of coming to terms with the paradoxes in his own personality, which oscillated between Roman Catholicism and atheism, between love of women and love of men. “The wise,” Wilde wrote later, “contradict themselves,” and Ellmann shows how fruitful those contradictions were to his art.

Yeats, by contrast, is portrayed at 68, undergoing what he himself called a second puberty. In an effort to rejuvenate both his poetry and his sex life, he had a vasectomy. Ellmann reveals that the operation failed to cure Yeats’s o impotence, but did spark y a fecund period of ar5 tistic creation in which the poet’s movement bez tween the beatific and S the despairing became % even more pronounced. Joyce is seen at an equally vulnerable moment. In 1918 he was beginning to write the Nausica episode of his masterpiece Ulysses, where his hero, Leopold Bloom, ogles a girl on the beach. Ellmann shows how Joyce made overtures to two women, perhaps with his book in mind. His would-be infidelities may have served his art, if not his peculiar life. Only the intensely private—and still living—Beckett seems to have staved off Ellmann’s sometimes prurient inspection. What the biographer brilliantly shows is how much Beckett owes to his predecessors and how his own achievement now helps in understanding their work. Like the other essays in Four Dubliners, it is both readable and elegant. And it provides a good point of entry into work that is sometimes difficult, but always rewarding.

-GEOFFREY JAMES