matt's Reviews > Re Joyce

Re Joyce by Anthony Burgess
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Apr 11, 12

bookshelves: literary-crit, worldly-lit, joycenalia
Read in April, 2012

Wonderful so far, and I'm almost at the end.

***

"If critics will accept the logic of Finnegans Wake, hidden beneath what seem to be mad words and intolerable length, they will still shy at the lack of what they call action. This, they say, is presented to us as a novel, and in a novel things are supposed to happen. Very little muscle is exerted in either Finnegans Wake or Ulysses, but we have to avoid lamenting the fact that Joyce was never strong on action of the Sir Walter Scott kind, that, though he was drawn to epic, he early rejected the bloody substance of epic.

We have seen in his work how even the least gesture of violence will provoke earthquakes or Armageddon, even shiver the universe to atoms- events too apocalyptical to be more than static, comic rites, final mockeries of action as the best-sellers know action. he did not reject such action as a vulgarity, only as a property that might damage language by inflating it. The representation of passion or violence had best be limited to thought or speech, since the thrust of fist or phallus, being a physical cliche, seems to call for a verbal cliche in the recounting. The cliches of Dublin pub-talk or an advertising canvasser's interior monologue are mere naturalism; the frame of symbol and poetry is a new creation out of words and the rhythms of words, static rather than kinetic. The novel should aspire to Shakespeare's language, not Shakespeare's stage-directions.

But, of course, Joyce was a family man, and the small events of the family day had far more meaning than the big passionate public events of the books on the sitting-room shelves. In both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake he attempts to cut history down to size, measure it against his son's cold or his daughter's toothache, his wife's plea for more housekeeping money and the broken dental plate he cannot afford to have repaired.

He committed himself to glorifying the common man and his family, anointing them with a richer language than the romantics, whose eyes were full of the universe, ever gave themselves time myopically to amass. Examine that stain on the table-cloth, the crescent of dirt in your thumb-nail, the delicacy of that frail cone of ash on the end of your cheap cigar, the pattern on the stringy carpet, and see what words will most exactly and lovingly render them. The words that glorify the commonplace will tame the bluster of history. The moon is in a cup of cocoa and Viconian cycle turns with the sleeper on the bed with the jangling springs. At the same time, take words as well as give them, so that eternal myths are expressed in exactly caught baby-talk, the slobbering of the crone in the jug-and-bottle, or a poor silly song on the radio. This is Joyce's art.

It is, finally, an art of scrupulous rendering. I do not mean by this that Joyce's great achievement was solely to find the right word and the right rhythm for the thing that was already there, waiting in the DBC tea-shop where Parnell's brother 'translates a white bishop' or on the banks of Shakespeare's Thames where the pen is 'chivying her game of cygnets.' I mean rather that he set himself the task of creating exact and inevitable language for the conceivable as well as the actual, and that Finnegans Wake is an exercize in rendering the almost inconceivable. From this point of view alone it cannot be ignored, though imaginitive writers continue to ignore it, being perhaps frightened of admitting that they, like young Stephen Dedalus, 'have much, much to learn.'

Joyce continues to set the highest standards of any author except Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and Hopkins to those who aspire to writing well. His mountain looms at the end of the street where so many of us work with the blinds down, fearful of looking out. So long as we ignore his challenge we can go on being content with what the world calls good writing- mock Augustanism, good manners an weak tea, the heightened journalistic, the no-nonsense penny-plain, the asthmatic spasms of the open-air invalid, the phallic jerks of the really impotent.

But when we have read him and absorbed even an iota of his substance, neither literature nor life can ever be quite the same again. We shall be finding an embarrassing joy in the commonplace, seeing the most defiled city as a figure of heaven, and assuming, against all the odds, a hardly supportable optimism."

Amen. You may now put down your hymmnals.
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message 1: by Steve (new)

Steve You're a rare man who can absorb all this Joyceanna, and even write about it clearly. Well done, my friend! I'm tempted to give Ulysses another try some day, but Finnegan's Wake is another matter.


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