Sunday, June 14, 2015
"James Joyce in Context": Book Review
So goes received wisdom. Challenging this notion of a disengaged artist indifferent to his later surroundings, John McCourt edits essays from thirty-two like-minded academics who study James Joyce in Context. McCourt admits that Joyce "seems to us today a little less original and God-like, a little more accidental in his actions and choices, a more human author, happy to lift and to cut-and-paste carefully sifted material from a huge variety of sources before making it indelibly his own, a writer who was very much part of his world."
Starting with contributions on the composition history of his major works, on his biographers and his letters, this compendium places Joyce within our critical reception of his fiction and his facts. The dominance, Finn Fordham argues, of Richard Ellmann's 1959 biography endures fifty-odd years later. Fordham fears that tome limits Joyce studies to a specialist and "even isolationist" environment. He compares the few biographies extant to a "cityscape conglomeration" where Ellmann's structure looms tallest, even if it is not altogether still inhabitable. That slowly decaying monolith rises over a half-vibrant, half-moribund scene "so ripe for redevelopment but hindered from it indefinitely."
This essay must have been submitted before Gordon Bowker's 2011 biography appeared. Still, Fordham's remarks remain true. Joseph Brooker in his entry on "Post-War Joyce" concurs. Ellmann's monumental effort made that biographer "a tribal elder, a unique point of reference" resisting change.
In the second section of this anthology, various schools of theory and critical reception examine how we can interpret Joyce's works with more flexibility than his major biographer may have done years ago. Marian Eide targets Molly Ivers in "The Dead" to peer into how Joyce treated gender and sexuality. Eide's focus highlights her well-chosen case study. Eide avoids taking on too much in too little space. Each of these contributors has only a few out of these four-hundred-plus pages to devote to a particular theme, after all. In similarly brisk fashion, Jolanda Wawrzyca reports on Joyce's many varieties of translation exercises during his career. A lively look at Joyce's place within world literature enhances Eric Bloom's chapter. Other essays, as found in too many an academic volume, slow appreciation. Jargon and cant thicken. Critics dominate, not Joyce. Theory nudges aside insight.
Sean Latham repeats Fordham's frustration over another obstacle that impedes practical progress by Joyceans. The Joyce estate imposes strict standards on which post-1922 major works can be quoted. Deeper investigation of Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, correspondence and archived material is stymied. However, as Latham and Cheryl Herr demonstrate, media culture now and material culture in Joyce's era complement each other as methods to investigate the everyday milieu joining author with readers.
Herr's deftly chronicled observations of "engagement and disengagement" within Joyce and his characters open the third part of McCourt's collection. Background and historical topics comprise more than half of the book's chapters. Not only Dublin, Paris and Trieste, but British literary, Greek and Roman culture gain attention. Medicine and music receive scrutiny, along with modernisms and languages. Newspapers join philosophy, theology and politics as subjects relevant for Joyce's texts.
The variety of frameworks through which these contributors pore over Joyce and his works enable a reader familiar with this author's texts to delve deeper into current scholarship. By allowing Joyce to be more securely placed within his own life and times, James Joyce in Context shows how the writer emerged from his influences. It reminds us how he influenced the literary and cultural realms of modernism. While some entries may discourage the casual inquirer, others, all from experts, entice.
Science and the cinema wrap this up. This volume concludes with sex. How one chapter connects to the other within this final section eludes me. Yet, the appeal of Joyce, far beyond the few who are lucky enough to make a living pursuing the mysteries of his verbal labyrinths, endures. Christine Froula reminds us that Ulysses is being read today in Tehran. She footnotes a sly explanation. The ban on this novel was lifted in 1999 by the Islamic regime. Its "more objectionable passages" can be printed in neither English nor Farsi. As a fluent Italian speaker who taught his native language to Berlitz students in Italy, Joyce would have relished the irony of this Persian proviso. It permits those passages, which have incited censorship so often over the past century, to be printed,if only in Italian.
(Spectrum Culture 6/8/15; Amazon US 6/13/15)