Reading Joyce

On 16th June 2004 I was at a bar in Dublin explaining Joyce.  The sceptical local who faced me was convinced all the surrounding Bloomsday anniversary fuss was, like Joyce’s novel, ‘a load of bollix’.  I told him reading novels at least twice to get the point was not crazy but like listening to your favourite album more than once; he told me he was a bookmaker with no time for that nonsense.  I told him that, as it had been one hundred years before, this Thursday was the Ascot Gold Cup, and proceeded to give him the prices of 1904, explaining how all drinking Dublin considered the Jewish advertising agent Leopold Bloom ‘cute as a shithouse rat’ for tipping (successfully though inadvertently) the long-odds outsider Throwaway (100-5) to win ahead of the favourite (and following year’s winner) Zinfandel (5-4) – and then not standing any drinks.  This story impressed for just a moment, if it would never entirely convince; but it well illustrates the problem David Pierce’s new book intends in some way to resolve.  Despite an ever-expanding and grossly prolix critical industry Joyce generates many fewer enthusiastic readers than he should.  Reading Joyce is personal account of the problems and pleasures of encountering Joyce written by a distinguished Irish literature scholar explicitly in hopes of finding and guiding new readers to Joyce.  It is in many ways a brave book: that it does not succeed is not to spurn the many pleasures to be had by the way.

Taking as a starting point Joyce’s apparently personal plea in Finnegans Wake ‘Is there one who understands me?’ Pierce sets forth his sense that the word ‘delay’ better encapsulates the reflective attitude Joyce should inspire than that obstructive word ‘difficulty’.  The suggestion is that if the reader will just wait a little the books tend to explain themselves, and if such homespun wisdom as ‘Joyce was extraordinarily reluctant to say what he means’ initially jars, Pierce saves himself by elucidating what he calls the Modernist ‘resistance to paraphrase’, and we understand that Joyce was extraordinarily keen to say not what others meant to say but exactly what they said, nuggets which gather then their own meanings.  The text is framed in eleven chapters and a brief afterword: following a revealing introductory piece we encounter a thoughtful probe into Joyce and his city in 1904; four further chapters on aspects of Dubliners; only one, regrettably, on A Portrait of the Artist; three further chapters concerning Ulysses and student responses; and a final chapter on ‘Figuring out Finnegans Wake’.  It might be deduced from this that Pierce takes a material attitude to Joyce’s texts: he imagines them built from the ground up, from fragments and cityplans in fact, and thus helps us to become familiar with all of Joyce’s cities and their surviving extrusions.  He has less time for Stephen Dedalus’s ethereal wordplay and this commonsense approach is not without compensating subtleties, although as his comments on A Portrait are particularly enlightening, and his heroic unearthing of Sussex Earwickers abundantly fascinating, one might wish for more on these less tangible texts – to take as sample an insight that evidently draws on the author’s own experience: ‘interior monologue […] began long before Dujardin, Joyce and the Modernist novel.  It was known in the Church as mental prayer and, crucially, it included the distractions that accompany mental prayer.’

Such insight represents the best side of what is the most striking characteristic of the book, and this is a narrative threaded with autobiographical reminiscence.  I began with an anecdote for a reason: Pierce’s book is littered with them.  If this is liable to irritate I would suggest reading something else, or only looking at the pictures, which is not as silly as it sounds.  In fact as a Joycean pictorial miscellany this book has few equals, and the treasures Pierce has unearthed will be of inestimable interest to thoughtful scholars, teachers, and students.  Many photographs and images (including maps, bookcovers, and music) I had not seen before, and the author’s musings in the proximate captions on Joyce (‘a boxy sort of mind’) provide entertaining reading.  Yet as we observe Pierce reading or teaching Joyce, visiting his family or revisiting his upbringing the personal stories produced seriously run the risk of banality.  His occasional and unconvincing ventriloquism of Joyce-the-writer (or the voice of Irish nationalism) ignores exactly that resistance to paraphrase he elsewhere commends, while his inclusion of reliably imprecise excerpts from student essays is not always the revelation that was evidently expected.  This is frustrating, as it gets in the way of some real gems of local insight, especially in the latter half of the book.  Pierce evidently believes in the luminous detail, and at his best will take the unfinished sentences of ‘The Sisters’ or words from St John’s gospel and in a few deft touches allow their gleams to illuminate the whole.

All of which suggests that in the flesh Pierce is a very fine teacher, with a gift for the communication of complexities without patronizing his listeners: many handouts and tips are passed on here.  But outside the classroom it is much harder to get the feel of one’s audience: books are not reciprocal events, however much we pretend them to be.  Too often on the point of discovery the narrative lapses into discursive asides, which appear on the page only as strained attempts at ‘relevance’.  Worse, the book seems to miss its intended readership.  Many details are luminous only after much polishing and thus appeal only to those steeped in Joyce, without providing the overall shape a general reader might desire.  In the new reader the book on occasion assumes too much Joycean knowledge; more significantly it is hard to imagine that time-pressed students would not be frustrated by the intrusion of so much circular and frankly unilluminating autobiographical tales.  Pierce does not have Joyce’s gift for concision and resonance in autobiography: well, few do.  But to take on an author with such propensity for transmuting the base metal of personal experience into gold is, however faintly, to set oneself up in competition: tired phrases like ‘then he had to face a different kind of music’ reveal who is the better storyteller.

It is only just to note that in this pervasive spirit of openness Pierce recounts how he was pestered to write the book by his publisher.  Given ‘the demise of critical monographs’ there was, it seemed, a need to make criticism ‘attractive’, especially for Joyce, the great unread.  Pierce responds by attempting to fill a perceived lack: a book that says ‘not “this means that” but “Why should I read this at all?” and “How does any of this connect with my life” and “Please tell me things but make it interesting.”’  In Ezra Pound’s view ‘the critic who doesn’t make a personal statement, in re measurements he himself has made, is merely an unreliable critic’.  Pound though is arguing the critic should not pretend to impersonal objectivity when it comes to questions of value; it is his reasoning, not his biography that should be adduced.  Criticism should perhaps be enjoyable but above all it must be concise and get out of the way, leaving the thing itself to communicate.  So although Reading Joyce marks a noble effort to fulfil the whims of educational publishers, and contains much of value, one can only hope (or pray in that interior space Pierce so well describes) that it does not represent the ‘attractive’ future of academic criticism.  Joyce was a teacher too, we remember; assuming effort but not our overwhelming intelligence, his books knew that only direct contact with us readers ensured they were news that stayed news.

David Pierce, Reading Joyce. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2008. xviii + 366pp. £14.99 (softback). ISBN 978-1-4058-4061-3.

[To see this article in print see Irish Studies Review, 17:2 (May 2009)]

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~ by thebicyclops on November 30, 2009.

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