Saturday, March 03, 2012

`Joyce's Big Joke'

Last weekend, for reasons I no longer remember, I read three stories in Dubliners. My copy is the Jonathan Cape edition published in 1944, three years after Joyce’s death, with a plain green cover and the first owner’s inscription on the front endpaper: “G.M. McGee-Russell, 27th May 1945.” Almost at random I chose “Two Gallants,” “Clay” and “A Little Cloud.” The last mixes claustrophobia and grim comedy. Joyce writes of Little Chandler, who will probably never leave Dublin or write a poem:

“There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul.”

I wonder, when I first read these lines at age fourteen, if I recognized in them my own ingrown adolescent soul? Probably not. I fell hard for Joyce at that age but missed much of his humor. I probably felt sorry for Little Chandler, a clerk in the Kings Inns, when Joyce writes of him:

“He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd, but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds.”

This fourteen-year-old was not qualified to pick apart the tonal strands of sympathy and satirical scorn Joyce is weaving. I remember standing at a bus stop downtown and contemplating an updated American version of Dubliners to be titled Clevelanders. I devoted much thought to the idea and never wrote a word.

The first book about Joyce I read, around that same time, was Re Joyce (1965) by Anthony Burgess. A couple of years later, when I was admitted to a Joyce graduate seminar as an undergraduate, the professor sneered at my Ballantine paperback. Then I wilted, but now that I’ve reread the book I can return the sneer to that long-dead professor. One can hardly imagine Burgess’ relentlessly non-academic appreciation being published today. The professors have hijacked Joyce and turned him into a forbidding industry. Almost half a century ago, Burgess was already addressing the injustice:

“My book does not pretend to scholarship, only to a desire to help the average reader who wants to know Joyce’s work but has been scared off by the professors. The appearance of difficulty is part of Joyce’s big joke…”

Joyce demands of his best readers a sense of humor, a capacity for enjoying a comedic repertoire that runs from smut to rarefied wit. When Little Chandler, after eight years, meets his old friend Gallaher, now a journalist in London, Joyce describes a blowhard poseur condescending to revisit the provinces:

“Ignatius Gallaher puffed thoughtfully at his cigar and then, in a calm historian’s tone, he proceeded to sketch for his friend some pictures of the corruption which was rife abroad. He summarized the vices of many capitals and seemed inclined to award the palm to Berlin.”

In the blandest of tones, Joyce assembles a garland of clich├ęs appropriate to an Irish-born gasbag from Fleet Street – “rife” is priceless, as is “award the palm to Berlin.” Joyce’s ear is pitch-perfect. In his foreword, Burgess claims his author “keeps silent, he never judges, he never comments.” This is a critical commonplace, one I dispute. Joyce regularly judges and comments, but slyly, with nuance and qualification. Like Shakespeare, his understanding is comprehensive enough to recognize that humans are infernally complicated creatures, not case studies or cartoons. I read Ulysses several times before figuring out that Stephen Daedalus is an insufferable prig and Leopold Bloom a hero. Burgess writes:

“I am convinced that many novel-readers go to a book not merely for the story but for the companionship of the teller of the story—they want a friend with a somewhat greater knowledge of the world than themselves, one who knows the clubs, a good cigar, Tangier and Singapore, who has perhaps dallied with strange women and read odd books, but remains friendly, smiling, tolerant but indignant when the reader would be indignant, always approachable and always without side.”

Burgess cites as examples of such writers Ian Fleming, Nevil Shute and Somerset Maugham, all of whom I had largely outgrown by the time I started reading Joyce. He contrasts the Irishman with such “approachable” company. I think this is a mistake. I seek out Joyce’s complicated company – his humor and sympathy, learning and savage indignation. I like him for what Burgess calls “the solemnization of drab days and the sanctification of the ordinary."


George said...

"One can hardly imagine Burgess’ relentlessly non-academic appreciation being published today. The professors have hijacked Joyce and turned him into a forbidding industry. Almost half a century ago, Burgess was already addressing the injustice..."

Hmmm. In about 1950, S.J. Perelman spoke of Dublin being packed with Americans writing dissertations on Joyce. In 1973 I first encountered an academic journal--monthly? quarterly?--on Joyce. It at once brought to mind Haines's remark that "Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of minds that have lost their balance" and the speculation that Joyce aimed to contend there too.

Buce said...

I once got into a bit of a tiff over "Two Gallants" with a respectable faculty wife. She said she thought they were contemptible people. I said I couldn't quarrel with her there but they sure reminded me of all the people I'd gone to high school with. She was not impressed.

Pete said...

Every writer judges and comments. But the great ones do it so well that the reader doesn't realize they're doing it.

And I'd love to read "Clevelanders."