In Praise of James Joyce

It’s quite common, even among well-read people, to joke about Joyce’s willful obscurity, and to suggest that people don’t really read or enjoy most of his books, except to say they have done so.  For me though, these books have been a nearly endless source of joy, the word that forms the root of their author’s last name, an etymology in which Joyce himself found great meaning (whether true or not).

I just finished reading the last of his books (last for me anyway, first for him) and thought I’d celebrate the moment by writing about a paragraph per work, and then also I’ve included several favorite textual chunks.  One of the most fascinating things about Joyce is his steadfast refusal to re-tread old ground.  Each work is arguably written in a different genre.  Even if we call the bulk of these books “novels” (something that doesn’t really ring true) there’s just such an astonishing range of difference between them, it is a wonder to behold.

The first book Joyce ever tried to write, the last that I read.  It was never published – in fact he tried to burn it, 19th-century-romantic style, because he thought it wasn’t good enough.  What we have is its final fifth, the part that describes Stephen Dedalus’s college days.  This book is often referred to as a rough draft or preparatory study for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and that’s true in that it covers a lot of the same ground, but it does so through quite a different method.  A useful contrast is between inner and outer – in Stephen Hero, we get an external view of Stephen the student, brother, friend, son.  The other characters are very more fully fleshed out in Stephen Hero, and though the story is told from Stephen’s perspective (this text is a paradigm case of the “third person limited” point of view), the world beyond Stephen is still much more fully developed.  Stephen’s idealism is often mocked in the secondary literature, and there’s a huge argument within Joyce scholarship about to what extent we’re meant to identify with Stephen, or to what extent Joyce himself did.  When I’m in the midst of these books, at least for moments, I’m right there with him, even as (perhaps because) his friends grow frustrated with his distance, his anger, his arrogance, and his seriousness.  One last thought – it’s really neat to me that right here at the start of Joyce’s career, the main characters of Finnegans Wake are already in place: HCE – Mr. Dedalus, ALP – Mrs. Dedalus, Shem – Stephen, Shaun – Maurice, and Issy – Stephen’s sister Isabel.  Words from its final pages deserve fuller quotation, being arguably more telling today than when originally written:

I went to this university day-school in order to meet men of a like age and temper… You know what I met… I found a day-school full of terrorized boys, banded together in a complicity of diffidence. They have eyes only for their future jobs: to secure their future jobs they will write themselves in and out of convictions… It is absurd that I should go crawling and cringing and praying and begging to mummers who are themselves no more than beggars. Can we not root this pest out of our minds and out of our society that men may be able to walk through the streets without meeting some old stale belief or hypocrisy at every street corner? I, at least, will try. I will not accept anything from them. I will not submit to them, either outwardly or inwardly.

Stephen Hero proves the creative-writing cliche that one’s first book, no matter whose, is always an autobiography.  Dubliners, though, first shows us Joyce’s immense range of extra-autobiographical possibilities.  The first few stories sound a bit like Stephen as a boy, and are told in the first person – “The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby.”  But moving outward from there, each story exhibits a wide range of personalities – of men, of women, of ensembles, or the old and the young, the rich and the poor.  This is a work of heartbreaking sincerity and cutting social criticism at the same time.  I’ve often wondered why Dickens gets so much credit for that particular niche – Joyce’s characters are so mcuh richer, and really are the “chapter in the moral life of his people” Joyce said he set out to write.  The stories feature men and women from many different classes of Dublin society, and though the stories are relentlessly particular, that very particularity gives rise to such universality of sentiment that it is hard, even on successive readings, not to be deeply moved.  Its final story – “The Dead,” reaches such a pitch of transcendence by the end as I have never encountered in any other short story, and indeed in few other novels.

Out of context, the final words of “The Dead” won’t pack quite the punch they do when read as the end of a sequence of fifteen stories, but they are still bear re-reading:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.

Portrait returns to the world of Stephen Dedalus, aesthete par excellence.  Its five chapters stand like monolithic columns in a perfectly proportioned classical temple.  Each contributes equally but differently to the whole.  Chapter I details Stephen’s childhood, chapter two his adolescence (culminating in a visit to a brothel), Chapter III a visceral and horrifying religious retreat during which Stephen hears fire-and-brimstone Catholic sermons (about, among other things, the sins of brothel-going), Chapter IV moves onward to his late adolescence, and Chapter V his life at college, and eventual escape from the captivity of Dublin and his flight to Paris.  Each chapter has a constantly evolving style which is roughly commensurate with how one feels and thinks at its particular age – we move from baby-talk (or, a story being told to a baby) through to an almost oracular-prophetic set of journal entries on the novels’ final pages.  It all adds up to a tour de force of the blidungsroman – the development-novel.  As with so many of Joyce’s works, you wonder how other authors who have read these works could attempt similar projects.  My brother likes to say that as a writer he’d rather read mediocre stuff so he doesn’t get discouraged.  Maybe reading Joyce will keep me forever from being a writer.  Here are the first and lost two paragraphs:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

APRIL 26. Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

APRIL 27. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.

Exiles is the only play Joyce ever wrote.  I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by its success, especially considering the rest of Joyce’s work.  It tells the story of Richard Hand, a struggling writer who seduces a younger protegee, and his wife, whom he would have cuckold him with their mutual fend Robert.  The action is relatively minimal, taking place in just a couple of homes, and there are some surrounding minor characters.  What I will say for Exiles is that Joyce even wanted to write it.  He had just written a book of short stories and a novel that were garnering acclaim (at least outside of Ireland), and then he turns to a new genre for no reason other than a desire to do something new.

These are, again, considered “minor works.”  Joyce wrote two sets of poems, one centering around a love affair (Chamber Music), the other more episodic and variable in subject-matter (Pomes Pennyeach).  I haven’t read them more than a couple of times, which I know doesn’t do justice to poems.  But either way I have to tip my cap to the mid-20th-century Joyce scholar William Tindall, who suggested that Joyce’s best poems were never presented as poetry, but as prose.  Each of the full-length books is self-consciously poetic in its own way.

This is likely the best of the books, often selected as the “best work of fiction of the 20th century.”  Obviously any pronouncement like that is silly because no one can ever have read widely enough to be able to make such a claim with any sort of responsibility, but insofar as I’m fit to judge, I agree.  Ulysses picks up where Portrait left off (plus a few months), with Stephen Dedalus’s triumphant escape to Paris having been thwarted by failure, poverty and the death of his mother.  It starts in a sort of post-Portrait style as well – Joyce’s famous “stream of consciousness.”  Stephen and Buck rising and having breakfast amidst heretical banter and the naive English anthropologist Haynes is certainly among the most striking openings of anything I’ve read.  “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…” And Stephen and Mulligan are really only an introduction to a much different and unique Joycean creation, Leopold Bloom.  The novel moves through far, far too many stylistic innovations and the integration of far, far too many other characters and settings (all clustered around Dublin) to be summarized here in this paragraph.  I’ll put in a word of encouragement though – if you start reading Ulysses one day and get mired in the opening chapters, you’re not alone.  It gets better – by which I don’t mean that those chapters are bad and later ones are better.  You’re just not yet in a position to appreciate the early ones.  Once you’ve gotten through this book once, and then return to them you will find they grow richer and richer.  There is a fundamental hilarity at the root of this book that captures such a wide swath of human experience that few other books can even be said to rival it.  The ones that might – War and PeaceThe Brothers Karamazov, Mrs. Dalloway, Middlemarch, almost all pale in comparison.

One of my favorite parts of this book is the hinge that joins chapters 1-3 (The hyperallusive Stephen Dedalus ones) with chapter 4-14 (the far more earthy chapters of Bloom).  It’s a great transition just as an analogous moment after the first third or so of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”.  At first, Stephen is on a beach brooding; after the break, Bloom is making breakfast.

My handkerchief. He threw it. I remember. Did I not take it up?

His hand groped vainly in his pockets. No, I didn’t. Better buy one.

He laid the dry snot picked from his nostril on a ledge of rock, carefully. For the rest let look who will.

Behind. Perhaps there is someone.

He turned his face over a shoulder, rere regardant. Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.

The coals were reddening.

Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry. The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.


If you’re still reading, you’ve already probably read or heard quite a bit of what I have to say about Finnegans Wake.  It is opaque in a way you could hardly have dreamed of even if you’ve read Ulysses cover to cover.  Joyce took 17 years to write it, and published it shortly before he died (though he had been published serially, in non-consecutive bits and pieces all along).  It is written in something like its own language (one that just looks like English some of the time).  It is more than 600 pages long and contains words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs few people have even alleged to understood all of.  A memorable line from a critic (paraphrasing): “there are some other things going on here, but I don’t know Mandarin, so I can’t really say.”  At its root, though, is a cluster of archetypical characters which, as I’ve said above, were all present in nuce back in Stephen Hero.  This book undulates from ballad to quiz show to childhood textbook to radio-play to movie-set to letter to monologue to drunken sermon.  You could read a page of it every day for the rest of your life and never come close to comprehending all the meaning contained in it.

Its first and last lines form a circle (I’ve added ellipses) –

…riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend
of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to
Howth Castle and Environs. [p. 3]

[p. 628] A way a lone a last a loved a long the…

This isn’t everything Joyce wrote.  There are plenty of non-fiction/occasional/journalistic bits and pieces, which were interesting to read, but hard to address without a bunch of context.  There are also three volumes of letters which I have not read, and hundreds of pages of notebooks (a particularly daunting one is shown above), edited manuscripts, and so on.  If I can find a cheap copy of the letters, that’s a future task I suppose.  It feels strange through, reading private correspondence later unearthed.

As Joyce moved from autobiographical fiction, to short story, bildungsroman, poetry drama, then stylistically divergent mock-epic through finally to Finnegans Wake (there exists no genre that can contain such a book), there are some common threads.  There is a constant consideration of the relationship between art and life, a back-and-forth about the role of religion in the secular world, a mediation between the body and the mind, between speaking and writing, between the individual and the collective, between Ireland and English, that is carried forth with a remarkable persistence in spite of all the inter-genre jumps.  Then there’s this overwhelming sense of both unity and total chaos, a recognition you will never “get your head around it.”  And besides the thematic constancy and ever-present confusion, there is finally always a focus on the physical details of our world – there’s snow, cow sounds, leather, tar, singing, snot, urine, cat noises, plenty of drunkenness to go around, and the rush of a river to the sea.  The overall experience of these books is of an ever widening spiral, but at the same time a circle of constant diameter around which you cannot stop moving.  Every page bears the stamp of its creator, and that stamp is the true meaning of the Greek root from whence our notion of “character” emerges.

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