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.