Showing posts with label David Pierce. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Pierce. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Declan Kiberd's "Ulysses & Us": Book Review


A critic strives to reconnnect ordinary readers with a book meant for, and about, the rest of us. His colleagues strangle Ulysses in theoretical nets; average folks often fear, mock or abandon it. Unfairly, Kiberd insists; Joyce teaches us how to understand his narrative.

Kiberd rues: "A book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them. Was this a case of bad faith or bohemian hypocrisy in a work which idealised just the sort of simple souls who could never hope to read it?" (7) This guide and commentary-- unlike his own handy Penguin 1992 Annotated Student's Edition (never available in the US and enmeshed in the copyright battles over the Joyce estate abroad; based on the Bodley Head 1960 printing)-- does not seek a line-by-line commentary. However, it'd be a welcome primer. As with David Pierce's similarly themed, recent Reading Joyce (my Epona joint review of Pierce & Kiberd's in press), Kiberd blows away dust. Neither book might be the very first to consult when taking up this novel, but they'd come early on in one's supplemental instruction. Both scholars show us how a century ago readers came to face this work, and how, after nearly another century, aided by scholarship, we can restore the wonder of this dazzling narrative.

Bohemia may have inspired early Joyce, but Ulysses determines to be less Stephen Dedalus and more Leopold & Molly Bloom: it's a bourgeois setting. It celebrates the mundane and tells how to recapture the awe in the everyday moment "In that context, Ulysses exists like a blasted road sign in a war zone, pointing at a future that is exhilarating to precisely the extent that it is uncertain and open." (21)

This work promotes an engaged Everyman, but the failure of the 20th century it heralded shows that its "world so lost turns out to have been far better than that which replaced it." We lack middle-class culture that modernism, social democracy, and the text sought to place within our grasp. Instead, "mass entertainment" reduces "all the oppositional forces of modernism" to supplant them with "only the identikit shopping mall, the ubiquitous security camera and the celebrity biography." Our train conductor will not regale us with a quote from Shakespeare as we alight in Limerick; "overpaid experts and underpaid service providers" replaced the sidewalk flaneur and public character on the street with us, scurrying towards our locked cars "from one private moment to another." (24)

The next chapter on the novel's ties back to the Irish past and its revival promises an emphasis, for once, on Irish-language predecessors. This subject could display Kiberd's bilingual expertise. Yet, beyond typically provocative asides such as how the novel might be reconfigured as "a central text of the Gaelic revival," this theme languishes in far too brief a section. (36)

Eighteen chapters follow. It would have helped to have a preface to this book explaining Kiberd's overall aims. Kiberd gives over the bulk of his necessarily brisk explication; by titling each of his chapter commentaries on "Ulysses" with a verb he neatly remind us of its predominant action: "Waking; Learning; Thinking; Walking; Praying; Dying; Reporting; Eating; Reading; Wandering; Singing; Drinking; Ogling; Birthing; Dreaming; Parenting; Teaching; Loving."

Stephen keeps the British confused; his rebellion's neither as lackey nor terrorist. "He refuses to be easily decoded. So in truth does Joyce's book." (49) The novel rescues one day from dullness. On 16 July 1904 when not much happened historically, a lot gets recorded imaginatively. This frees its Irish characters.

Shifting from Stephen with Deasy's conversation, via Sandymount strand, then to Bloom's monologue, Kiberd links them with an easily overlooked motif. His observant eye assists experienced readers to recall images and associations rewarding repeated visits to the text. While "Deasy valued shells" for what they were as objects, "and not for the life which they contained," young Dedalus "seeks their inner meaning, the soul which animates their exterior form." (64) Bloom will soon praise the first man bold enough to eat an oyster; later Kiberd muses about Bloom's attraction for Molly as "Sirens" ends: "The rhythm of sex, like the rise and fall of the sea-tides, produces desire and then forgiveness, a sound to be heard in the seashell thrown up on the beach (though what is heard is really the pulsing of the listener's own blood)." (177-78)

Like Ulysses, Kiberd's focus rapidly may alter. The chapters move quickly as their source-text does. The pace of both author and critic demands attention to details. A Latin Quarter hat, Plumtree's Potted Meat, the "U.P." postcard message, Bloom's defecation all earn scrutiny. The first three episodes present "a version of the problem to which Bloom might be the answer." (80-81) Styles alter every chapter, Kiberd suggests, to further the reader's education as much as Stephen's, as the bohemian pose of the student with the hat weakens under the force of the bourgeois life examined scrupulously-- by a newspaper ad, a rumor, the body's demands-- so as to release wonder from daily routine.

A critic may, after immersion, adapt the text so long cited into his or her own prose. Kiberd begins "Dying": "At funerals people formally mourn the dead person, while privately experiencing an even deeper sadness for those who remain in the world." (100) The chapter on another theme starts: "Reading was often the last thing on Joyce's mind when he visited the National Library. Like many Dublin libraries, it was used more for talk than study." (157) Kiberd remarks about the city he shares with Joyce: "In Dublin there are only two kinds of joke-- those that were once funny, and those that were never funny." (104) The avuncularity of these comments shadows their sharpness, in true civic register.

The difficulty of keeping a tone, for author, emerges for this critic early on in the interior monologues. Even by the newspaper visit, the insertion of headlines shows the dangers of misleading a reader, as a sub-editor often has not studied the articles themselves under pressure of deadlines. Kiberd uses this example to illustrate Joyce's risk-taking. Unsure of his own tonal perfection, Joyce warns of language churned out mechanically, formulaically "Joycean." So, the author as a clever modernist keeps updating his art, with no version staying "final" or "official." Similarly, as this editor knows, he and his colleagues add to the textual indeterminacy of never one "authorized" text of "Ulysses."

Instability in "Cyclops" widens the gaps as the narrative continues. Bloom's monologue goes missing. Interior richness fades at Barney Kiernan's. The Gaelic literary tradition's oral culture's "shreds and radiant fragments" break the chapter's juxtapositions into banal barstool dialogue. Not even Joyce, Kiberd holds, could sustain the "density" of earlier chapters, and gaps open up to allow other voices to enter the novel.

Similarly, as Bloom's watch stops at the time of the assignation of Blazes Boylan with Molly at 4 p.m., so the narrative skips and hastens. What in "Nausikaa" alternated between Bloom and Gerty and then merged briefly increases in "Oxen of the Sun" as Joyce takes on all of English literature (with as Kiberd notes the exceptions of Chaucer and Shakespeare) as the author determines to escape any system able to hold him down. Kiberd emphasizes the novelty of Ulysses: "its strategies changed as it was written, by way of the writer's reaction to the reception of earlier episodes, and with no clear sense of the total conception until the final phase was written." (225) The pace quickens and the prose often thickens, until, in Nighttown, it leaves chronology behind for "the timeless zones of the unconscious."

We learn in "Ithaca" much about Stephen and Bloom that monologues could not tell us. Their conversations in "Eumaeus" remained wayward, warm if tentative. These sections, often discouraging readers, regain their worth in Kiberd's interpretation. A combination of the parental role of Bloom in the former and the catechetical mode of the latter chapter shows how the intellectual may reclaim the ordinary. After Stephen leaves, thoughts of a psalm of liberation accompany him. Left behind, Bloom goes to bed. There the novel was supposed to have ended.

Yet, "as Molly counter-signed her husband's passport to eternity," surprises await. (259) Masturbation, uniting solitary spouses that day, found both Blooms soon thinking of each other. This subversive action, Kiberd holds, represents a satisfaction that neither the glimpse of Gerty or the embrace of Blazes could. As for the often contradictory sections of Molly's revelations, Kiberd proposes that she be treated not "as a definite person," but "'the voice of the book,' a voice that breaks out of gender confines and individual identity." (272) As for her husband, so for Molly; they can be seen "moving out of time and into the infinite."

Five chapters of this study close with literary antecedents. The influence of the "Odyssey" moves Kiberd to regard Homer's epic as anticipating "many features of the lives of the civic bourgeoisie," while Joyce's response laments "bourgeois virtues that were fast disappearing." (282) Prophetic modes in the Old Testament fulfilled in the New play off of latent powers unleashed in Ulysses. Lacking any quotation marks within, this novel encompasses all voices that predicted it.

Dante and Hamlet offer two examples of how masters may guide followers through danger, on pilgrimage and in coming-of-age. These essays recall Erich Auerbach's comparative perspectives, and roam as widely. Throughout, Kiberd grounds most of Ulysses in its quotidian, even modest, assertions of the mundane as magical. The interpreter of the past strives to recover a fidelity that the present can never match. Yet, in this dismantling of the original, a new text responds and renews it.

Response and renewal, by ingesting earlier texts and cannibalizing his own, characterize Joyce's process to resist incorporation and parody by his literary heirs. Kiberd reiterates the contents of Ulysses that emerge once its scaffolding falls away, its veils drop. As wisdom literature no less than the Torah: "Everything was in the holy book, including all that had been known to predecessors." (301) The Irish epic binds the sacred to the mundane. Bloom's humility corrects Stephen's aestheticism. The body, as both Blooms show, can soothe the overexcited mind. Intellect need not be divorced from experience, as the sacramental transformation in Ulysses emerges by "an almost tantric sense of delayed gratification." (353) In a world far busier than Joyce's, Kiberd urges readers-- in this helpful guide by another textual master-- to reclaim the magic within not only this great story's telling, but in our own relationships, objects, thoughts, and words.

P.S. I caught three minor slips in this work that relies on a wealth of knowledge as vast as its inspiration. "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha" Kiberd attributes on pg. 191 to the Buddha, but this koan conventionally has been credited to the founder of the Zen Rinzai sect, Linji. "St. Theresa" should be Teresa, as "of Avila"-- not Therese of Lisieux-- part of one of "saintly couples" on pg. 275, here aligned with St. John of the Cross. The "famous NASA photograph of the earth" was not "taken from the moon in 1969." (327) It was sent as "Earthrise" from the lunar orbiter Apollo 8, Christmas Eve 1968.

(P.P.S. Again in the transatlantic publishing battle, those Brits beat us Yanks. So, is copyright [as with so much in the Joyce industry] to blame? Why Eve Arnold's ca. 1952 snap of Marilyn Monroe graces the Faber cover while we're peddled Norton's duller shot of the early edition of this big fat tome by duller comparison beats me.) (A somewhat briefer review appeared on Amazon US 12-15-09, cross-posted to my blog for longer reviews "Not the L.A. Times Book Review.")

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Book Review: Light, Freedom & Song

I sent this off to The Blanket; a shorter version I posted on Amazon. A sample of my lit crit for that common reader Woolf sought. Maybe it's you.

Many collections of essays by literary critics tend to be an assortment of talks, reviews, articles, and anecdotes strung together, closely or loosely as the arranger deems. For David Pierce, of the University of York, he in his new book places within frameworks that stretch over the past century many topics perhaps temporarily orphaned, perhaps, after being presented at 'Joyce symposia and Irish conferences' across the world. But, here James Joyce's treatment of cricket finds probably its first analysis, along more familiar subjects as Yeats and the Rising, the Celtic Revival and cultural nationalism, and the Troubles or the famine from over the past 150 years in literature.

These chapters, then, play off extended riffs. What need do we have, still, for another professor's compendium? Pierce pursues the game of the harp vs. the crown. Caught up in the paper chase, he charges past British and Irish fences. Pierce asks how authors stalk a quicksilver Irish colonial-postcolonial phantom. In Beckett, appropriately, Pierce finds a master of evasion and redeployment. Beckett jolts his words, however sparingly arrayed, to transmit precision and defiance. The latter quality, Pierce judges, energises tired clichés and rudimentary utterances. 'Beckett's language is always more than simple texture or local colouring, and not infrequently it seems to belong to a form of slippage, an Irish sense of defiance that can be seen as underlying all his work'. (113) Nothing human is foreign to me, mused a Roman a couple millennia back, and this universality, which we often associate with Joyce in his verbal largesse, also applies to Beckett, who pared down what his predecessor had heaped high.

Beckett's ambiguity as Parisian-Irish, foreign member of the Resistance, Anglo-Irish, non Irish-Irelander, Dubliner schooled in the North at Portara, satirist in English prose who chose the discipline of French: this marks a hybrid character who--as with Yeats, Wilde, and Swift elsewhere scrutinised-- becomes an emblem for Pierce. In his highly recommended anthology, Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century (Cork UP, 2000; reviewed by me on Amazon and a great bargain to boot), Pierce edited a massive tome that crams in fiction, fact, oratory, travelogue, diatribe, song, and verse and combinations thereof. This stirabout, this mulligan stew, satisfies its compiler, who explains movingly in a preface that in its personal revelations exemplifies the value for a scholar to show the hand he's played rather than hold his cards close to his vest, posing with an objective sang-froid none of us can sustain. Pierce, he explains about himself, was born in post-war England but son of an Irish mother, and drawn to the summers spent in his maternal homeland and then back to his own native but not quite home turf. This attraction and retreat, comparatively, marks a writer only beginning to be taken seriously now after years of silence. A decade ago, his first three plays, the Leenane trilogy, teased mid-90s London audiences with their disturbing mix of Synge and Tarentino, Beckett and British television satire (at least that's where I place him early on in his career). Surely the nemesis of the remorseless INLA and tender cat-lovers both (a combination rare indeed?), Martin McDonagh's other early play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, has been revived recently. He wrote seven plays, or most of them, around 1994. Suddenly, he succeeded. And, with his recent stage success after nearly a decade of lying low, The Pillowman (which is not addressed by Pierce), McDonagh again confounds-- with a non-Oirish setting of a grim taleteller collared in a police state-- jaded hipsters expecting another send-up of Man of Aran meets Father Ted.

Why bother with McDonagh? Pierce considers him only momentarily, but McDonagh for me plumbs Irish doldrums: folks mired but happy as a pig in slop. This is our greedy, ironic, twitchy mentality. Pierce seeks hybridity. Well, ghosts of Gaelic haunt the syntax of McDonagh's eagerly anglicised Gaeltacht folk. Even as they revel in cartoonish violence in his 1990s plays, they-- and I would align McDonagh's The Lonesome West cautiously with moments in Tarentino's 1994 Pulp Fiction-- trip upon a threshold beyond which beckon meanings hidden within but inimical to a tawdry existential wasteland. As an aside, Pierce's anthology includes all of Lonesome, less prominent than Beauty Queen of Leenane or Cripple of Inishmaan, but in my judgment his best Irish play to date. Speaking to Fintan O'Toole in the 6 March 2006 New Yorker, McDonagh recalled the 'lunar' landscape near his father's birthplace around Lettermore. 'Skulls in Connemara'. And, so we return to Godot. Beckett's anguish finds itself prolonged rather than terminated or abandoned, through the career of a Londoner who went back during his summers to Connemara found himself taking in much more as a teen in the 80s than he probably expected. John Lydon in Rotten tells of his early disappointment, a couple of decades earlier, when he was ridiculed on his holidays by his Galway relatives-- Lydon being a fine Connemara name, by the way, not far from Leenane in many clan manifestations. McDonagh credits listening to the Clash around 1982 (at twelve) with inspiring his distrust for regimes, whether paramilitary, clerical, or familial. For McDonagh, propelled straight after his own media blitz manipulated by/for Johnny Rotten into the notoriety enjoyed by Tarentino a dozen years ago, the self-taught playwright produced drama in a Hiberno-English that seemed to emerge without his intention, as he heard the voices of his relatives in the characters he created. He credits the Pogues for their example: the trash could be separated from the treasure that Irish tradition still offers us. With the anarchy that punks mimicked and terrorists perverted, McDonagh taunts us further. He shoves his characters within this garish spectacle. He forces them and so us to witness a neglected, fragile, all-too-human soul.

Think of Johnny Rotten onstage in the spotlight, before the mike, eyes unfocused, dazed in a too-large wooly sweater, weary, hands wrapped around his skinny frame: a well-known circa '77 snapshot. Shane McGowan hushing the mosh pit to make them listen to Eric Bogle's lyrics as 'The Band Played "Waltzing Matilida". Tarantino's protagonists wondering what light emanates from the suitcase, and why one says it's the most beautiful sight he's ever seen. Or, Pierce invites, ponder The Lieutenant of Inishmore. 'Very few characters or situations in modern Irish literature lie outside the known or familiar. Padraic tells his distended victim: "If it hadn't been such a nice fella I would've taken one toenail off of separate feet, but I didn't, I took two toenails off the one foot, so that it's only the one foot you'll have to be limping on and not the two".' (qtd. 42) Pierce observes what could be said of Beckett or Tarantino (where to place Lydon: "we're the flowers in your dustbin, your future"?): McDonagh knows his stereotypes, of the nutting squad, of republican comrades who find themselves victims of yet another INLA split to find themselves hung inverted about to be split. Recent reviews often contained warnings to the potential audience-- likely more to weep for the fate of a cat than of the torture of three men. So weary are he, we, and they of such Jacobean revenge. McDonagh parades violence but subverts power's futility.

Irish tendencies towards gallows humour, mordant moralism, superlatives, the speed of craic at 90: this element rears with McDonagh but then fades in Pierce's study. Pages whir by with asides to authors and their texts, many barely mentioned. Still, as with an itinerary that must speed us past minor points-of-interest to better spend our tour at our destination, the journey's worthwhile. No matter how familiar you are with Irish literature, you will discover in this book writers you never knew. Much more could be said. Areas of merit: he opens up fresh perspectives on Northern feminism against and within the republicanism of the 80s. He places John Banville, John McGahern, Glenn Patterson, Denis Johnston, Francis Stuart, Robert Ballagh's art, Julia O'Faolain, Kathleen Coyle, Derek Mahon, Jamie O'Neill, Medbh McGuckian, and Aidan Mathews alongside much acclaimed Irish scribes. From Padraic Fiacc, an unjustly overlooked Belfast poet, Pierce cites his horrifying Missa Terribilis [1986] from 'Crucifixus' and 'Introit'. These poems transfix Christ-figures in agony, one from sectarian murder and another in the immolation of British soldiers. Even within academia, some on this list get short shrift by critics infatuated with Heaney's new verses. The reading public's more likely to hear of whatever Malachy McCourt's press agent's promoting. I would have wished more space given to newer arrivals. Only in passing does Pierce notice Ursula Rani Sarma (...touched and Blue), Conor McPherson (a hurried nod to Shining City), Hugo Hamilton (his enigmatic memoir The Speckled People), and Rosa González in her critical essays on 'the cultural greening of Britain'. With the predictable exception of Cathal Ó Searcaigh's treatment of homosexual desire, Irish-language writing receives little notice. Still, in hundreds of references, Pierce offers plaudits to both bestselling celebrities and those still humble (both feted at 'symposia and conferences' as he attends) for the success of recent Irish writing.

One failing of this otherwise solid book is that the illustrations-- often apropos from unexpected sources-- do not always match what Pierce is on that page explaining, and what he discusses could have gained more clarity if he had selected an appropriate postcard or photo. Few errors remain, but Westland Row station was not Connolly station pre-independence (136; Amiens=Connolly, Westland Row=Pearse). Irish-language lenition as rendered into English "h" is garbled and in one case misspelled in the captions translating Seán Ó Sullivan's map of Corca Dorc[h!]a from Myles na gCopaleen's An Béal Bocht. (A novel that I find anticipates McDonagh's charmless squalor praised by tourists to this Wild West.) However, a superb semi-bird's eye view map on pg. 138 from The Sphere paper, 6 May 1916 showing locations for the rebellion reveals graphics surpassing the flat perspective we see on conventional diagrams of the Rising. The book's atypical format, halfway between standard and small 'coffee table/art book' size, makes a heavier volume to hold but worth the price for its wealth of colour and, as in the Rising map, better rendered pictorial details previous studies did not know of or could not afford to reproduce. Pierce's diligence, although intermittently erratic in its distribution, of the archival as well as the textual research gathered (as in his anthology) shows an eagle-eye rivalling that of The Sphere. He enriches context with a 1930 AA roadmap or plastic bullet photo or the infamous shot taken of Countess Markievicz with pistol ready. He displays the cover of the 2 July 1953 BBC weekly The Listener to indicate this 'extraordinarily time-warped sentence' to bolster his point about imperial British fealty: 'Her Majesty will today receive and reply to addresses of loyalty.' (30) Pierce's meticulous attention enriches his effort. This BBC caption is in tiny print under a large photo of the Houses of Parliament. Only a sharp-eyed reader would notice this regal reference on a mundane magazine page.

Pierce in his enthusiasms to link Clongowes Wood to The Crying Game to MLR James via West Indian cricket, for instance, proves unwittingly how even when he cannot stop interpreting (for then he dashes into comparing them to Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano), he manages to keep you reading. Inevitably, we must give way to the trailblazer. We lag behind Pierce's furious cogitation as he associates everything he's ever read to the purported topic. (A fault I sympathise with generously.) Pierce-- as veteran anthologist-- recalls snippets from hundreds of literary works, so to deploy the mot juste, check off that text, and hurry on to another dozen references from often equally overlooked books to back up his latest bold assertion. You'll have a hard time keeping pace if you lack the stamina. The chapters are best read one by one, with pauses for mental or physical refreshment. Knowledge of Irish literature, from Pierce's own anthology or a refresher from Neil Corcoran's After Yeats and Joyce (OUP) or Seamus Deane's A Short History of Irish Literature (U of Notre Dame P), would be a wise pre-requisite. Rarely tainted by jargon or puffed with theory, Light, Freedom and Song is not for absolute beginners. But, if you already know your Yeats from your Keats, it follows one man's trail into the blizzard of print from an island prolific to the extreme in its inhabitants' wish to have out on paper what's been too long stored up inside as potential poem or persuasive prose.