Friday, February 2, 2007

THE USE OF JOYCE (for JJ's birthday, 2/2/1882)

This past week the Finnegans Wake reading group recommenced its labors with the first half of "Anna Livia Plurabelle" (chapter 8). This will be the third semester of work on the book and with this chapter we'll be leaving Book One behind. I've been through the entirety of the book probably no more than twice, but I've been through some chapters three or four times that number. Why is it I feel compelled to keep repeating the trip through Joyce's works, particularly Ulysses and the Wake?

The title of this blog is actually the title of an essay (which might be a short book) I've contemplated writing several times. The essay would be an attempt to delineate what reading Joyce, indeed study of Joyce, does or can do for a writer. The idea first cropped up when I realized that some critics, like Dan Peck and James Wood, lay blame at JJ's door for contemporary writers who excel in excess -- excess which is deemed to be unnecessary, a kind of self-perpetuating overload of the reader's patience and resources. The point of the essay would be, in part, to give some consideration to that criticism, to try to look at what is going on in Joyce's prose, why it has to be the way it is. And why, it being the way it is, it has to be read and appreciated. The other point of the essay would be much more personal: an attempt to get down on paper my Joyce, the main version of Joyce that I encounter in his works, which is to say, my conception of a certain idea of "the writer" as it existed for a time in the first half of the previous century. I don't know if such an essay is really necessary -- either for readers or for myself -- but it sometimes seems a tantalizing task, rather than a boring chore.

I believe there are few reading experiences that have affected me as strongly as my reading of Joyce. My knowledge of him began when I was in 7th grade. My sister, who was in 11th grade, was challenged by an English teacher to give Dubliners a try. She read the first story and couldn't make anything of it. So she passed it along to me. I also couldn't make anything of it, but I never forgot certain very strong impressions the story created: the use of some odd words -- paralysis, gnomon -- and the specifics of a kind of creepy Catholicism as filtered through a boy's mind that seemed to me to be rather startlingly faithful to that boy's perspective.

In high school, I read about Joyce, and I looked through The Portable Joyce. I even checked out Finnegans Wake just to have it around -- to look at it and feel that attraction of the unfathomable, but also of something else that I couldn't have said then: I saw in it a lesson from an era when greatness in literature was still possible. However unreadable the book was, it belonged to Great Literature; the time in which Joyce was an upstart having to prove himself was long gone and that fact riveted me. He had done it, and what's more he had done it without being an Englishman, or a European. Unlike writers whom I had read a great deal of -- like Hesse and Nietzsche and Dostoevsky and Dickens and Baudelaire and Shelley -- I saw that Joyce was a part of my world, of modern times, in a way that those others weren't. And set beside the likes of Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Orwell, there was a dimension they lacked: call it the metaphysical. Catholicism was an issue for Joyce, as it had been for me growing up. Systems of belief. And words, because of prayer and because of Shakespeare, were never innocent, never simply the names of things. They had histories, they opened onto inner worlds of reverie that many writers seemed to believe in but that no other writer was so meticulous about rendering. And so there had to be some point to Finnegans Wake. Its oddity had to have something to do with the oddity of Joyce's own position, the fact that, as an Irishman in exile, there was simply no one else who shared his unique perspective -- and his unique obsessions.

But Joyce didn't become an obsession for me until I finally made it all the way through Ulysses in the summer of '80 while living in a thoroughly beat apartment building in Philadephia, behind the public library. I had tried to read the book in high school but only made it to the start of "Oxen of the Sun" (chapter 14). The opening of that chapter was incomprehensible to me and I couldn't just skip it and move on because my conviction that I was "following" the story had been too violently shaken. After I read its entirety -- turning 21 and with a child on the way -- I undertook to read it again in the fall.

That second reading was one of the great pleasures of my life and from then on the book has been a lodestone of my conception of what literature can be, of what the novel can be, and of what the challenge of modernism was all about. Subsequently, I read Ellmann's biography of the man (first published the year I was born), then read through all Joyce's works in sequence, even going so far as buying a Penguin copy of Finnegans Wake and reading maybe 100 pages. It was my friend Joe Scuderi who challenged a group of us to undertake a reading of the Wake together, aloud. I didn't make it through all the way that time either, but eventually Joe and I did so, with our friend Rick Moore. By then I was 24 and had made it through Proust's Recherche (another work I'd spend a long time coming to terms with); for that first reading of the Wake in its entirety I relied on Campbell and Robinson's Skeleton Key.

The camaraderie of reading it with others is what keeps me going back to the Wake group at Yale; between the two reading groups, I wrote a senior thesis on Part Three of the book, included some references to the Wake in a chapter on Joyce in my dissertation, and recorded myself reading selections and entire chapters; for several years in grad school I kept an Easter vigil till dawn, reading from the Wake. For awhile there I seemed to have believed that the book had some particular meaning for me, that there was a purpose for me in trying to interpret it. I've also been called upon three times to present a kind of intro to the Wake in Laura Frost's Joyce seminar, so that, to some students at least, I'm identified with the Wake as one of the few people around the university who seems to think that some purpose is served by reading it.

What I get out of Joyce's works would indeed take a book to say, but the simple way to say it is that when I'm reading him I'm always in the presence of the Master's voice. And sometimes, it seems, that's purpose enough.

I'm reading Ulysses for the fun of it.
I'd like to live inside a comprehensive fiction,
but all I have is memory, dream, and imagination.

--DMT Brown, "Bukowski's Got the Right Idea" (1981)

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

Peck and Wood may have no use for Joyce, but I am always fascinated by the number of literary "laymen" who participate in Joyce reading groups, or even attend Joyce conferences. And part of their activity is reading FW.