Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Joyce Division

Adam Mars-Jones' review of a new biography of James Joyce begins by claiming that Joyce has "lost a little ground" to Proust in terms of popularity. This would be a pleasant surprise to me if true. "People like to read about the rich" he says, adding another dubious claim. Do people read such writers for such reasons? Before this can be answered, Mars-Jones returns to fact: "No one in [Joyce's] books ... is worth more than a thousand pounds all told". But then we're back with an odd construal:
Even Gabriel Josipovici, a stubbornly brilliant critic, seemed to short-change Joyce in his recent polemic What Ever Happened to Modernism? He was more attracted to writers with a high rating of aesthetic anguish, to Kafka's writhings and incompletions, to Beckett's long campaign against his own charm and eloquence, which is a rather romantic way of responding to an anti-romantic movement. In his books, Joyce shed the 19th-century cleanly and decisively, and had a great gift for generating rich new material from arbitrary scraps of patterning. The interval between his realising that a certain way of writing the world was bankrupt and finding a new one seems to have been enviably short, however long it took him to get the words exactly as he wanted them.
I emphasise Mars-Jones' assertion because it is in direct opposition to Josipovici's reasons for short-changing Joyce. (The "high rating of aesthetic anguish" is closer to these, as will become clear.) Of course, the assertion is axiomatic in the history of Modernism. Almost every review of What Ever Happened to Modernism? presents Joyce as its prime representative and Ulysses as the definitive Modernist novel without noticing that Joyce is mentioned in the book only in passing and Ulysses not once. This reading impairment encapsulates the unfortunate confusion in the reception of What Ever Happened to Modernism?, even in reviews sympathetic to the project of the book; the project has not been appreciated fully for its revisionism.

To redress this, here are the final paragraphs of a Sunday Times review of Hugh Kenner's Joyce's Voices from 1978. (It also shows that Josipovici's iconoclasm has not changed in the last 33 years.) "This is criticism of the very highest order" he says. "Nevertheless, a doubt remains":
Not about Kenner, but about Joyce. No objective style, Kenner rightly insists, can be said to exist; no truth can be discovered by aligning so many words to so many things; every attempt to simulate such a Truth will, as in the case of Hemingway, itself quickly become a 'style'. 'The True Sentence, in Joyce's opinion, had best settle for being true to the voice that utters it.' Yet what Kenner fails to see is that in the end Joyce does, against his own deepest insights, cling to one unquestioned Truth, that of the completed work. If there is no True Sentence, then why is there is a True Work? This, it seems to me, is a major weakness of Joyce, his refusal to recognise the vulnerability of the Muse, his insistence, against the evidence, that to make a book is itself a valuable activity.

Compared with Proust and Beckett, Kakfa and Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Joyce presents a strangely rigid attitude; he refuses ever to let go, to trust the work to take him where it will. Every 'letting go' has to be carefully fitted into its place in the overall design, even though there is no longer, by his own admission, any authority for the pattern the design itself assumes.

It is perhaps a weakness of Joyce and not just a fact about him that he is such a godsend to the academic community. For there is ultimately something cosy and safe about Ulysses: underlying it is the belief that the mere accumulation of detail and complexity is an unquestioned good. Far from being 'the decisive English-language book of the [twentieth] century,' as Kenner suggests, it is perhaps the last great book of the nineteenth.

1 comment:

  1. Like Adam Mars-Jones, I find Gabriel Josipivici a “stubbornly brilliant critic” but his reflections on Joyce seem to me uncharacteristically wide of the mark. One hackneyed critical saw was that Proust and Joyce were somehow diametrically-opposed poles of the Modernist novel, typified in the apocryphal anecdote of the two men being stuck together in a Parisian taxi, Proust wanting the window closed because of his asthma, Joyce wanting it open because of his claustrophobia – a sort of peurile tableau vivant of what was seen as their prevailing aesthetic tendencies, Proust supposedly introspective, Joyce extro-. This sort of belletristic shorthand leads (don’t ask me how) to the Manichean tribalism of thinking that if you respond enthusiastically to A la Recherche then you somehow can’t, or shouldn’t, also respond enthusiastically to Ulysses (it used to be similarly imputed that you couldn’t be an admirer of Joyce and Lawrence at the same time.)
    Isn’t there a trace-element of this in Josipivici’s prejudice against Joyce and the illogic and special pleading with which he justifies it? His main contention about Joyce’s “refusal to recognise the vulnerability of the Muse, his insistence, against the evidence, that to make a book is itself a valuable activity” all but strains the limits of rational discourse and potentially sends us to back to indulgent clichés about writers being doomed souls stretched out on the rack of their own genius, abortive Chattertons expiring in a welter of their torn-up literary failures. Kafka, at least, had the courage of his convictions in asking for his works to be posthumously destroyed (thank goodness Max Brod had the weakness to see the writing of his friends’ books as having been “a valuable activity”), but is it really feasible to suggest that Proust believed the roman a fleuve of 3,200 pages he spent 13 years writing and rewriting was somehow inherently invalid or misconceived ( we know he was obsessively interested in the reviews and sales-figures of the early parts of A la Recherche as they appeared)?
    In The World and the Book, Josipivici writes movingly about Proust’s “heroic” endeavour to eventually transmute his life into the protean form of his great novel, meaning that the text is continually folding back on itself and tracing its own gradual efflorescence. Is this self-exploratory, metafictive aspect what Josipivici misses in Joyce, what he calls “letting go”? But in its formal experimentation and linguistic jouissance Ulysses contains more “letting go” than any other novel and surely Joyce’s own odyssey in completing the book in 3 cities and through 7 years is every bit as heroic and as deeply inscribed with its author’s inward and outward lives as Proust’s– his dogged struggle for it to be published at all in the face of litigation and contumely (that “safe,cosy book”!) is a “moral exemplar” for all writers who might feel inspired by Joyce’s “insistence that to make a book is a valuable activity”, just as we might also feel inspired by many of the 20thC writers living under oppressive regimes who have risked imprisonment or execution to undertake that activity.
    But sounds like I’m falling into the same trap of literary hooliganism and qualitative point-scoring and I should quickly withdraw. Joyce and Proust are both enormously important to me, as they should be to anyone who wants to gain an understanding of 20thC fiction. I also like the other writers cited, although a desire to go out with a flourish compels me to suggest that the most famous works of Eliot and Woolf could not have existed without the example of Ulysses and as for Beckett, he always knew who the Master was.

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