Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Cambridge Companion to James Joyce: Review

Posted to Amazon US, today! The cover's odd; Mainie Jennett, although her 1922-44 modernist abstraction "shocked the Dublin art world," we find from the back blurb: "No connection with Joyce has been recorded."

This second edition (2006) adds essays by Garry Leonard on "Dubliners," Joseph Valente on sexuality, Jennifer Wicke on consumer culture, and colonialism & nationalism by Marjorie Howes. The others mostly carry over, with minimal revision if lightly updated bibliographies, from the 1990 book. The earlier essays often are barely revised, however; Seamus Deane manages to have his earlier, then-innovative "Joyce the Irishman" essay offer no bibliography with any works later than his own 1987 book. Deane fails to revise what could have been a widely read entry for a new generation of readers and critics following the scholarship that he and his colleagues in the 1980s had pioneered. Deane offers no new thoughts on Joyce to the considerable and innovative criticism of the past fifteen years, somewhat disappointingly. The post Field Day surge in critical debate in Irish Studies seems ignored.

Christopher Butler gives you a lot on modernist counterparts to Joyce but less of Joyce himself within this daunting context. Joseph Valente manages to make a solid point about how Joyce took on all of sexuality as if it transgressed the norm in the Irish Catholic ethos gone haywire, as if universally any sexual manifestation was tainted by its very existence. Unfortunately, from this enticing observation the essay descends into jargon that vitiates the juice out of this potentially engrossing topic.

The heavy hand of the academic interpreter does weigh down many of these essays, new and old; too fusty and theory-bound, they reflect not only the potential of younger Joyceans to suggest fresh readings but the tendency of the recent scholars minted and tenured to fall back into dense, dull, and deadly polemics that drain the vigor out of the texts they analyze. The enlightened non-professoriate for which Joyce also sought to write here lacks its contribution. The Joycean industry churns on, its own productions as the headnote to "Further Reading" listed at the back ironically notes-- none of the secondary listings annotated are judged as essential!

Therefore, given that they are the results of devoted toilers on the Joyce assembly line, the essays vary in quality. This was in 1990 the first "modern" Companion to follow only Shakespeare & Chaucer. Now, there are dozens, and no professor let alone educated reader can keep up with even one author or genre among those Cambridge carries. The recommended reading should guide you to the best of the past few years that's been published, nonetheless. But few of these books (however necessary are guides to Ulysses and the Wake) will provide the verve of the original texts. Also, the excitement I recall that linked all of those in the Joseph Conrad Companion is here vitiated by the combination of more mundane lit-crit merged with au courant theory and polysyllabic verbiage that has made the Beckett, Irish Drama, and Irish Poetry Companions more plodding in parts.

But, the best essays here deserve singling out. I rounded this up from 3 to 4, more or less, based on four or five entries whose strengths overshadow most of their competing peers. Editor Derek Attridge's encouragement in "Reading Joyce" reminds us of the multiple possibilities latent and apparent in the texts that have taught us how to understand modernism even if we have had little exposure to Joyce! His few pages should be required reading for anyone encountering the author for the first or fiftieth time. Garry Leonard's "Dubliners" chapter makes me want to read the professor's other works, for he reminds us of the care with which Joyce crafted his stories, and how much a few sentences from "Clay" can serve to illustrate the manner in which we can unlock the treasure of these enigmatic, pared-down, and endlessly suggestive tales. Similarly, Jennifer Levine beckons the nervous neophyte into the mysteries of "Ulysses" in a way that reassures the reader of the vastness of the novel, yet also grounds the ambitious narrative within a humanist, approachable, and sensible grounding in quotidian experience.

Jeri Johnson gives a spirited rejoinder to any student skeptical of feminism within the texts; Jennifer Wickes reminds us how even academics forget that they too are a targeted market envisioned by Joyce himself, and how his books encompass all of the world, mass culture managing to snare us all to our evident delight (as you read about my contribution to mass-cult here on Amazon in turn) rather than any retreat into elitist retreat (even for the Wake?) or recondite experimentation.

In summary, Attridge, Levine, Wickes, and especially Leonard remind us of the potential excitement that the texts hold for beginning or advanced readers. Joyce cannot exhaust, as Leonard admits in his classroom experience (about the only critic who acknowledges this crucial mode of transmission and continued reception of Joyce that surely enters the uncredited thoughts of every scholar here contributing), our ability to comprehend him. This Companion, for all of its shortcomings, does attest to the depth that great literature can offer us, the re-readings that carry us deeper into the labyrinth made by the inheritor of Dedalus.

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