On James Joyce: A Layman's Literary Review
One must, if he’s to limit his exposure to the dangers of a field of literary mines, approach the greatest authors, the men and women around whom the Western Canon is formed and to whom, for want of wisdom, he desperately returns throughout his life, with particular care. Yet he must—if his discretion be the part superior to his valor—watch his every step along the way. In the pursuit of an appreciation of literature, as in that of any other field worthy of his chase, the risk is limb and life. They are, the two of them, appendages of which the aesthete and the pedant will gladly be dispossessed, but only if their final attainment is that which is beautiful and good. No price is too highly set for the attainment of these invaluable ends.
Still, a small bit of caution will be of great value if our chaser of literature will heed it; the subtle mines laid by those brilliant minds are quite sensitive to the touch. Tempting though they might be to our understanding, they’re always evasive of our grasp. From a distance, we seek their comprehension but often are confounded the nearer we inch. Still, we move toward them, one moment thinking them tangible, the next unintelligible, until they welcome us by initiating our fall. They’d rather trip than embrace us and proceed to laugh merrily as we tumble down.
One doesn’t merely fall into the works of James Joyce; he must descend into that abyss of his own volition—or else be pushed. Either way, be it an act of masochism or a punitive measure, he's to be left feeling the result. Yet he knows that upon landing, whether it be on his feet or on his rump, the thud will be explosive. Whether it be salutary or harmful, he’ll need time to assess, but his literary appreciation is sure to expand, as does the cloud after the explosion of a nuclear bomb. His thinking will undoubtedly be altered, his mentation fully shaken, but when has that been a bad thing? The fireworks will be a phantasmagoria, the prose a bomb, and the investment of his time uncertainly repaid. Either way, he’s sure to tremble from the effect of tripping the literary land mine that is James Joyce.
My own approach to his work has been simple, if not detrimentally indirect: begin with the work of his considered most inscrutable and continue until my own sense of time, place, and cognizance is restored. In consideration of Joyce’s four seminal works, I’ve ranked them in order of decreasing inscrutability—beginning, as it were, with that which is most difficult to understand, the dream-defying Finnegan’s Wake, whence I moved, in succession, to that pagan piece de resistance Ulysses. Emerging from the obscurity of these two perplexing works, I ventured next upon A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a cleanser to the palate before tasting Dubliners—a frank and understandable piece of writing but an underwhelming dessert.
As stated, my immersion into the Joycean canon—a dive from which few readers escape—got its start with Finnegan’s Wake. Perhaps because the titular character’s name so closely approximates my own, I’ve always found myself attracted to this circuitous and intriguing tale—considered by most modern critics to be among the twentieth century’s finest. Being but one letter removed from the surname of Finnegan (which produces, when spoken, a playful sound of Hibernian mirth. Doubtless, this was Joyce's intention), I felt as though this book might, indeed must be the one amongst all others with which I needed to connect. If not intimately, then I was determined to do so nominally. I imagined its contents would be reflective of my own, as if it were to shine a mirror on every Finnegan-Finneran fiber of which I thought myself composed.
But the work, much to my disappointment, proved itself rather ambiguous than consanguineous—inscrutable than fraternal. Shorn of what I hoped might be an intimate literary relation (to which, I imagined, few others so curiously-named could make a claim), this is the lonely conclusion to which I’ve been resigned. Finnegan, a name with which the words “begin again” doubtless purposefully rhyme, does precisely that. It has no birth and no death and thus enjoys a relation to none, least of all to me. Its stream-of-consciousness style (a product and an export of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, which found, across the Channel, the acquisitive ear of the francophone Joyce) is both atemporal and atypical. As such, it pains the reader to whom proportion, caution, and form are absolutely key. It’s cyclically daunting and interminably loud. It initiates no shortage of questions and frustrations that clamor about my head. A surfeit of disquiet and a deep source of bewilderment, this book resonates because of its cacophony of sound.
Yet sound, surprisingly, is the only means by which this work is to be redeemed. By this I mean to say that Finnegan’s Wake is rather more impressive to the auditory than to the visual sense—to the ear than to the eye. The best medium, in my opinion, through which this amorphous work ought to be captured and consumed is through that of the voice of the man by whom it was conceived. For this, as for all things irretrievably archaic, one turns to the ageless glories of the internet.
For all of its recent misbegotten standards and half-baked decrees, YouTube is an incredible asset readily placed at our disposal. Indeed, it must be if the gem that is Joyce is to be found speaking there as the twentieth century in which he lived churned along. Browse the site briefly and you’ll find the audio recording of Joyce reading, so far as I can perceive, the first chapter to what he doubtless knew would be his final book. More than merely reading it, however, Joyce seems vivaciously to be living the tale by which he hoped to bewilder future scholars.
As was his pen, as was his mind, his narration of the story is inimitable and every word is given life through his breath. Prior to his pronouncement, the words—so far as they impressed themselves upon me—were a shapeless and analphabetic mound of clay. That said, as did God through Adam, Joyce exhaled upon the words and made them move. In some cases, they even arose to dance, as his charming Irish accent is heard to be clicking its heels as he flings another neologism up in the air and catches it on its diction-eluding descent. He speaks the work as he thought it and as he ultimately thought it should be heard. The shame is what’s absent; there’s only one such chapter available on YouTube, one experience by which we might be guided through the mellifluous rhythm of his vocal arrangement and the circuitous thinking of his head.
The struggle to read Finnegan’s Wake is Sisyphean. This, at least I don’t think, is a criticism to which the Jovial Joyce would've been opposed. In fact, I think he’d have quietly welcome the comparison, smiling with a devilish grin upon the recognition of it being as mythological, meandering, and confusing as he’d hoped it to be. The book is a veritable boulder; with hundreds of pages of newfangled stone, it’s a load under whose literary weight one must stand and perpetually march. The reader, now the laborer, does so ever upward but always with the knowledge that he's to return back again. And, as it’s intended forever and ever to “begin again” (hence the name Finnegan with which the words "begin again" rhyme) between the book’s first word and its last, it’s very much like that wretched Grecian king who was made to repeat his divine punishment every single day. We, a mass of lesser beings no less with pretensions to be gods, are the Sisyphus of the modern age. In so humble a state we labor with Wake as our rock and Joyce our laughing Jupiter sitting and watching us from the firmament above.
Who then, is our Odysseus? Rendered in the tongue of the Romans, our beloved, bedraggled, and venturesome Ulysses mustn’t be forgotten if we’re to play the role of the Sisyphean fiend. Nor shall he be. In adherence to my list of Joyce’s most inscrutable works, Ulysses ranks second and there's scant competition for the claimant of that spot. That, however, must be said with the attendant disclaimer: only by that criterion does this remarkable work come in at number two. If assessed by any other literary metric, be it aesthetic, esoteric, beautiful, or vital to the Western canonical core, Ulysses stands superior to any other.
It is Joyce’s provocatively pagan piece de resistance. In one single day (a day to which we, a gaggle of Joycean pilgrims whether we know it or not, now ascribe the name Bloomsday to mark the sixteenth of June) the tale of the journeyman’s decade is told. Concerning the Greek monarch after whom the book is named, Odysseus was, as we all know, the king of Ithaca—an island over which his formidable wisdom reigned for many a good and fruitful year. He fought for the conquest of Troy and the elevation of Greece. After conceiving of the horse from whose bowels the Greeks poured causing Ilium finally to fall, he was cast upon the waves as an insect in a pool. Inured to hardship and military toil, he now found himself at the whim of a god. He was thrust by Poseidon into a maritime nightmare of an epic scope. There, he spent ten torturous and, at times, involuntarily amorous years attempting to find his way back home.
Eventually, he did, at which point he discovered scores of lascivious competitors lying all about his home and hearth. Each was vying—some scrupulously, most hungrily—for his wife Penelope’s devoted hand. In the raiment of a beggar and with the clever incompetency of his weaving wife, Odysseus, assisted by his son Telemachus, entered his home and regained what once was his. The epic thus ends on a happy note.
The Ulysses of Joyce’s imagination lacked the clear resolution that inclines us so forcefully to that of Homer’s. Yet linguistically, his is a far bolder exploration of the limits of the tongue, as was Odysseus’s of the Mediterranean Sea. Every Scylla and Charybdis through which the Irish author sails his verbal ship lands upon an at times quizzical, yet always paradisiacal shore. Eden, so long as Joyce is in command of navigating this book, is to be found everywhere. One need only take a leap.
Two gardens upon which one might land appear to me particularly fertile. Conveniently placed for your adventurous soul, they’re situated one after the other at the very end of what seems at times to be an endless book. There, having swam or sailed that far, you’ll find that the final and the penultimate episodes are by far the book’s greatest. Your endurance will be rewarded as you drift onward, take up Ulysses, and read.
Of course, individually the two chapters are masterful, but when joined together, their connection is what makes them a mutually exalting experience in the reader’s mind. The first of the two is the chapter entitled Ithaca. Like the island nation for which it’s named and that to which our Homeric hero exhaustedly returns, we crawl into this chapter and are reawakened to new life. The prose is pure pedantry in the style of a catechism, but the entire scene is vivifying nonetheless. A grand inquisitor, not unlike that from a Karamazovian scene, puts to the protagonist over three-hundred questions loaded with religious exactitude and force. The structure is dogmatic, the responses fantastic. Theology meets parody and the firmament a farce as Joyce speaks of matters both celestial and bestial, enlightened and crude, hilarious and fun.
The following and concluding chapter, by whose name of Penelope we remember it, is radically different. In the entirety of its forty pages, it has but eight sentences. It is, in this way, stream-of-consciousness at its most garrulous.
Molly Bloom, a fictionalized version of the author’s beloved Nora Barnacle, is the only character we meet. As such, hers is the only voice we hear. So too, for that matter, is it the only voice she hears. The only chapter in which her narrative is presented, be it by word of mouth or merely in thought, is in the form of an undulant and, if we’re to be frank, quite prurient soliloquy. In stark contrast to Odysseus’s wife, that grand exemplar of fidelity and love, Molly Bloom passes the time thinking of paramours old and new—all while nestled next to her husband who's soundly asleep in bed. Men, menses, Gibraltar, and an episode of her Sapphic youth come to mind as though she were on an Odyssean voyage all her own. And, as if an itinerant coquette, she has no hesitation in leaping from one lover or topic to the next.
Hand in hand, we join her in making that leap, but our destinations at this point diverge. The depths of the meretricious mind by which she’s possessed allow few to enter, fewer to exit. We escape them availed of this knowledge and feel ourselves as we land upon the third of Joyce’s works (again, listed in order of inscrutability for most to least). Third on my list, but second in importance and literary force only to Ulysses is Joyce’s early work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
There is no work by Joyce that isn’t also a story about Joyce; he lives and breathes within the heaving gasp of every page. Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses conceal him, but only slightly. Still, with the turn of each page, though you might not comprehend his message, you feel his chest rise and fall. A Portrait (as henceforth I’ll call it) makes no pretense and you see the fullness of the man as he exhales.
The main character is a purely Joycean invention, an alter ego to whom the mythical moniker of Stephen Daedalus is given. Daedalus, of course, was a primary character who was to be seen meandering alongside Leopold Bloom through the oscillations of Ulysses, but in A Portrait, he is the sole focus upon whom our fascination lies.
And much fascination is provoked, as is much careful observation. Daedalus (at times devious and lecherous without compunction to sin, while at others philosophical, studious, and devout), presents himself as a precocious boy coming to the age of man. Yet maturation is never so straight a path, and one need not bore himself with its pursuit if some enticement to straying from it for the purposes of pleasure can’t be had. Certainly, and indeed repeatedly, this path to adulthood was for Daedalus one from which he was compelled to stray, but we smile and forgive him this. We do so as we forgive the Jesuit Joyce (upon whose early days at an Ignatius-inspired boarding school the character of Daedalus’ experience is based), as we forgive ourselves and the immature dalliances of our own long-forgotten youth.
Philosophical, eschatological, sexual, yet ultimately autobiographical, A Portrait is a sublime work that touches upon numerous fields. Those fields, variable though they may be, always come back and converge in the person of Joyce. Yet there’s always one field, verdant and mountainous and historically oppressed, to which Joyce perpetually returns. The title of one of his earliest published works but the last on my list is that very field from whose memory Joyce never could, nor never wanted to escape.
Dubliners is last on my list for two reasons—one that’s neither good nor bad, and another that’s bad only. For one, it’s the most lucid of Joyce’s works. The tired reader, upon recognizing this fact (and after having travelled the path above prescribed), can sigh in exhausted relief. Rejoice in Joyce and in the knowledge that it can be read and, more than simply read, understood. No supplementary material is required—material of which one can’t be deprived if studying any other work by Joyce. It is, especially for the busy reader of today, a work into which he can penetrate without too much intellectual strain and without the investment of much time. The second reason for its placement on the bottom rung is because it is the worst of Joyce’s productions (excluding, of course, any consideration of his dramatic, journalistic, or poetic work).
Dubliners is a homage to the homely, a paean to the emerald island and its politically tumultuous streets. It’s a thump of the heart in the Irish nationalist’s chest, a swelling of the pride in his inebriated gut, and it makes a descendant of that fierce and faithful people nostalgic to read and remember his former life. Joyce writes a collective encomium of the nation he’d left behind before he turned and set out east for the fashion and the fascination of the continent (Joyce was to live most of his adult life in France).
That said, of the four works to which the Joycean oeuvre grants admission, Dubliners has the distinction of being the most unremarkable of them all. In accordance with the descending (though never condescending) order of my list, it is also the least inscrutable. That is to say it’s the most capable of being read, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in any way deserving of your reading, much less your reverence. All in all, I think it’s not. Yet if the goal is—as I take it to be—to paint in the brightest of colors the most vivid image of Joyce, it must be read, and read it we must.
The best I can say about Dubliners is this: while its accessibility is perhaps its greatest merit, its banality is its fatal flaw.
On the whole, each of the fifteen short stories is relatively easily read—nothing of the strenuous perplexity that makes Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake so daunting an experience and so prohibitive a task. But it could just be that having read those two works before settling down to the subdued tone of Dubliners was an injudicious approach; it made for a steep and sobering drop after having been on the fumes of a surrealist’s high. Nocturnal to diurnal, one’s brought from the phantasmagoria of an orgasmic dream to the boring tedium of middle-class Irish life. There is epiphany through the course of the pages (though admittedly of a far humbler type), but none of the exuberant spontaneity that brings to life Joyce’s other works.
But so long as Joyce’s works continue to live, to breathe, and to be read by those for whom the health of the Western Canon is an abiding concern, the order by which they’re approached is a matter of personal choice. But always in approaching them, one need maintain his caution. Though brilliant, his books can be land mines—happy little head-scratchers awaiting your misstep. From banal to inscrutable, fantastic to frank, the choice of the work with which you’ll begin is yours, but approach it with a plan. So long as you begin and, if needed, begin again…the triumph will be yours.