Friday, June 18, 2010

David Pierce's "Reading Joyce": Book Review

Another book on James Joyce, but a necessary one. For David Pierce combines thirty years of teaching Joyce with forty years of reading him. He integrates essay passages from his students at the University of York, his experiences teaching adults in Spain, and reflections from his junior seminary stint in the pre-Vatican II Church. He shares what he has learned from his own mixed Irish Catholic and English Jewish heritage. He enriches his lessons with contextual visits to his relatives near the Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare during the 1950s. And, as with his Irish literary history, Light, Freedom and Song: A Cultural History of Modern Irish Writing, and his magisterial anthology Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century, he encourages beginners (not only students themselves) who wonder what to read next, and how.

One situates Joyce in the city, in the photographs, in the maps, in the questions raised by Pierce and his students and fellow scholars. The patient elucidation of so many inquiries asked over and over the years, one senses, illuminates many cruxes in Joyce. Pierce accompanies the reader in guiding him or her into the metropolitan labyrinth.

Pierce’s personal encounters model those of any reader coming to Joyce. “We might legitimately feel that whatever insights we possess deserve to be more than merely those that supplement or confirm the author’s original intention or achievement.” (8) While none can match Joyce’s obsessive comprehensiveness, we can, Pierce offers, follow Joyce’s intricate difficulties, not to find completion, but at least to rouse contention within texts that reward our patient inquiry.

The study begins with Pierce’s introduction to how Joyce intersects with his own varied experiences. After situating 1904 as the pivotal point for the Joycean universe, he begins to explore how difficulty and delay work to deepen our responses to the four major works. Rather than providing a potted summary of each text, the professor shows how his varied and idiosyncratic responses pattern those raised by anybody reacting to Joyce’s fiction, whose intent he locates within a prose calculated to trigger delay as often as recognition. This structure shows how Joyce’s mind tends to be elsewhere: “unfinished sentences” of “The Sisters” comprises his first case study of how we may enter into ambiguous and elusive stories. The “ventriloquial effect” of the spare dialogue in “Eveline” reveals the gaps that Joyce left for us to fill.

Building upon scholarship, blending his academic expertise with his individual struggles to make sense of Joyce’s major works, Pierce extends “criticism into areas that might prove more attractive for today’s reader.” (5) Prominently featured, as expected from an author whose 1992 James Joyce’s Ireland documented a visual counterpart to a critical survey, his own photographs alongside period illustrations parallel his chapters. Some appeared in the earlier book; many photos were taken since then by Pierce. Similar to filmmaker-archivist George Morrison’s method, Pierce prefers sharp-eyed captions. For example, he snaps North Richmond Street in 2006, near a 1954 photo and a 1900 city map. Each alerts us to Joyce’s scrupulous application of his city’s reality to Dubliners; municipal fact is never far, but far enough, away, every time.

As a cultural tourist, Pierce follows his fellow Joyceans. Yet, as in asides to “railings” in “Two Gallants” and blinds in “Araby,” his close reading of words –- rather than summation of their stories, which he expects his reader will have already studied –- gives new glimpses into the class barriers and geographical reifications within the familiar (after a century of exegesis) movements of characters throughout Dublin. He marvels: “A writer with poor eyesight sees the whole world in colour, and Joyce was no different. The photographs we have from the period are all black and white, but imagine a world with colour and everything comes to life. That is what reading Dubliners can be like– the awakening to colour.” (115)

Pierce’s own time spent teaching English in Madrid shapes his perspective for how the Continent deepened Joyce’s recollections. A postcard reproduced of via Donota in Trieste, from 1910, depicts a nearly Oriental street scene, yet it mirrors “A Painful Case” in those details an exile evoked, “a thousand miles away from the scenes of his youth.” (136) Discussing Portrait, Pierce remembers his students as they tried to get the title right in their essays. In that novel, Joyce’s “perversely kinetic” portrait elides and sidles, “so that we never have the luxury of asserting that this moment above all others captures the subject.” (164) In this “provisional quality that inheres in the indefinite article,” whether the title for a student trying to capture it is rendered “The or A Portrait,” “The or An Artist”, “The or A Young Man,” an elusively Cubist impact may linger.

Within such delay, tension and difference, difficulty and resolution exchange. Ulysses deepens the immersion necessary to enjoy and persevere within a novel that for Pierce, demands attention but lavishes pleasure upon those bold enough to venture into its depths. Joyce satisfies by “a process of entanglement and disentanglement.” (221) Fiction and reality contend; Stephen’s Protean surfaces and Homeric patterns open a narrative with an “x” of a razor’s cross that closes with Molly’s “y” of a last “Yes.” Both Dedalus and Molly wander within Leopold Bloom’s home and work environment, which Pierce reconstructs in a few of its many scenes that June fifteenth.

Student essays on Molly spark Pierce’s ingenuity. Pondering “Penelope” with its unpunctuated, eight sentence, 19,000 word monologue, he unpacks the “German Emperor” reference with deft re-punctuation and character attribution as a short dialogue to show the density of Joyce’s entry. Reminding us that we eschew complete sentences in most of our own mental articulation, Pierce transfers this observation to his own Co. Clare recollections. “Interestingly, as I would assume for Joyce’s Galway partner Nora, the intake of breath on a word or phrase among my relatives from the West of Ireland is a constant accompaniment to their speech and utterly beguiling in its randomness.” (291) He aligns Nora’s counterpart Molly’s “words and breathlessness” as halting, flowing interior monologue, only with its final orgasmic affirmation-- perhaps-- uttered aloud.

Her flow of consciousness elicits academic treatises galore, yet Pierce manages, aided by his students’ essays, to revive fresh reactions to topics that through theorists tangle skilled scholars.

“Penelope” presents the unstoppable, unsinkable Molly Bloom. Only Joyce’s demand that his fortieth birthday coincide with the printing of Ulysses, Pierce avers, ensured an end to Molly’s reverie. We listen to it, Pierce perceives, with mingled voyeurism and distance from her intimacy. Discomforted by our closeness to the female voice usually hidden from public scrutiny, in her unvoiced soliloquy we encounter our own mysterious consciousness. “Isn’t this one of the nicest ironies about ‘Penelope’, that it represents what happens to us all, and all the time, but it’s written in a way that seems unique and never encountered before?” (295) This passage typifies Pierce at his most alert: honed by the classroom, sharpened by his scholarship, tempered by his awareness of a reader who may struggle to keep up with his energetic pace, he strives for clarity, coaching, and commiseration. He never patronizes or obfuscates. He remains aware of those beginning their enviable study of works he knows so well after a career of their contemplation.

By focusing on amateur readers as often as professionals, Pierce reverts to what a century ago may have been a rawer, less accomplished, but more vibrant and unpredictable reception to Joyce. Before the academic industry churned, Joyce confronted readers then as now in their own mind-set, perhaps with few or no guides. Pierce provides a select bibliography; being limited to works mentioned in his text lacking many of the primers perhaps better suited for absolute beginners, but this gap can be filled by any diligent novice with a few moments at a keyboard or library shelf.

Pierce dispenses praise and correction fairly. His study roams more than aims, as he shares Joyce’s “indeterminacy” when grappling with the master’s formidable texts. Rather than fall short of explicating them, Pierce shows us how he confronts them; from these disparate encounters he learns wisdom, humor, emotion, and humility. The strength of this innovative, if more individualized, presentation: he advances his reactions yet leans back to entertain alternatives. After all, as far as scholars have progressed in solving Joycean cruxes, many remain, as Pierce’s Finnegans Wake chapter reproduces with jotted notes after readings and re-readings.

His afterward recovers Joyce’s covenant, “a devotion to an ideal community of readers and a refusal to endorse the easy option.” (338) Pierce joins Joyce in expecting no less from us. While the exile from Dublin “remains an enigma to the end,” his four main books remind us that we can take up the challenge and continue the game that his text set up, with rules or without marks. “In the closing moments of his final almost impenetrable work, Joyce asks a question that many of his readers over the years must have thought about him, ‘Is there one who understands me?’ (FW 627:15)” (339) As a scholar with ten books to his name, most in part at least on Joyce (ironically the Cork UP anthology has a blank page, due to copyright bickering among Joyce’s heirs, where his excerpts were to be inserted), Pierce could have produced one more assemblage of his thoughts and passed it off as an introduction. Instead, he leaves the preliminaries to his able predecessors. More than reading Joyce, we must hear his chamber music rise from the page. (A portion of this appeared on Amazon US 6-18-10; this combined with Declan Kiberd's Ulysses and Us will be reviewed in Epona.)

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