Re-reading (And Not Reading) James Joyce
I know that every single one of you is wondering whether and in what ways I appreciate James Joyce’s work. So, in this post, I’ll borrow –and add to — a typology that Alan Jacobs has come up with. I’ll then show how that typology seems true for me when it comes to James Joyce’s four best known works of prose.
Alan Jacobs’s typology
Alan Jacobs offers three categories of books he chooses to re-read (italics in original):
- Books I have read and know well and want to re-read precisely because I know them well.
- Books I have read but feel I haven’t fully grasped and so want to re-read to get more out of them.
- Books I have read but don’t remember a damn thing about, so I can’t say that I
am re-reading them but rather reading them for the first time … again.
To that typology, I’ll add a fourth: Books I’m too intimidated by to even try reading.
Category 1: Dubliners.
I love this book (as my pseudonym suggests). I’ve re-read it countless times. I’ve read commentaries on it. I’ve started (slowly) to listen to a free audio book version of it on YouTube.1 For those who don’t know, it’s a collection of short stories and not a stand-alone novel.
I’ll confess that one reason I know this book so well, and have been able to enjoy it so much, is that I read it for the first time in a literature class, under the guidance of an instructor who also understood the book well. If I had read it on my own, without his assistance, I might not have “gotten” the book.
Strangely enough, that instructor did not focus so much on establishing the context of the book or on exploring the literary tools Joyce used. In fact, I recall that he had a fairly light touch when it came to talking about such things.
Instead, I got two other things from him. The first was that he assigned the book in the first place. I wasn’t against reading Joyce, but I might not have finished Dubliners had I simply picked it up and started reading. Speaking for myself, being required to do something is often a great inducement to do it.
The second and most important thing was that the instructor impressed upon me just how funny Dubliners is.2 Had I read it on my own, I might never have noticed most of the humor in it. In some cases, the humor is there for English reader to see. In others, it requires some background knowledge of the issues involved. For me, I was a VERY SERIOUS nineteen-year-old student, and I tended to see only the VERY SERIOUS points made by PROFOUND authors. Humor usually didn’t enter into the picture in any meaningful way, at least not for me.
A couple examples:
From “After the Race”:
He knew that he would regret in the morning but at present he was glad of the rest, glad of the dark stupor that would cover up his folly. He leaned his elbows on the table and rested his head between his hands, counting the beats of his temples. The cabin door opened and he saw the Hungarian standing in a shaft of grey light:
From “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”:
…Mr. Henchy said to the boy:
–Would you like a drink, boy?
–If you please, sir, said the boy.
The old man opened another bottle grudgingly, and handed it to the boy.
–Tell me, Martin, he said. Weren’t some of the Popes–of course, not our present man, or his predecessor, but some of the old Popes–not exactly…you know…up to the knocker?
There was a silence.
–O, of course, there were some bad lots….But the astonishing thing is this. Not one of them, not the biggest drunkard, not the most…out-and-out ruffian, not one of them ever preached ex cathedra a word of false doctrine. Now isn’t that an astonishing thing?
–That is, said Mr. Kernan.
–Yes, because when the Pope speaks ex cathedra, Mr. Fogarty explained, he is infallible.
Category 2: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
I read this book on my own. I actually read it before college, when I was a senior in high school. It was like wading in a fog in which I caught only glimpses of something. Even so, I think I “got it,” at least partially. The opening scenes, where Stephen is a baby and later, when he goes to boarding school, struck me. I got it. Kind of. The later portions of the book took me a while to get. It was a slower slog. But I seem to remember something about hell and damnation and conversion and later turning away from the church.
I’ve re-read it at least once and have tried to re-read it more times. For some reason, I tend to stop after the boarding school chapter. If or when I do re-read it, I’ll do so precisely for Jacobs’s reason, to get more out of it what I didn’t quite get before.
Category 3: Ulysses
I swear that my eyes saw every single word in that novel. I even remember some scenes. I remember the chapter about the drinking episode. I remember Stephen making an antisemitic joke to Leopold and Leopold’s disappointment. I remember the recurring scenes of people being paid to walk around the city wearing “Healy’s” sandwich boards. I remember Leopold burning the kidney he was cooking for breakfast. I remember something about Stephen feeling guilty about what he said or didn’t say to his dying mother. I kind of remember the parting monologue Molly gives us. I probably remember a few other things, too.
But I really didn’t “get it.” I didn’t get it in the way I “got” Portrait, and certainly not in the way that I got Dubliners. I just didn’t understand, not even at a superficial level. I didn’t even understand [SPOILER ALERT] that Molly was having an affair with Blazes Boylan, that Leopold was aware of that fact, and that the affair was a recurring theme somehow throughout the novel. The only reason I know about it now is that I read some commentary about the book that mentioned it.
If I ever do reread Ulysses, it will be as if for the first time. I’ll probably do it with a guide on “how to read Ulysses,” with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. If I ever decide to enroll in a class for fun, one such class would be on reading the novel. I need some expert guidance.
Category 4: Finnegan’s Wake
I’ve been to libraries and bookstores and opened up copies of Finnegan’s Wake and marveled at the first page. Then I put the book back on the shelves.
My main “memory” of the book actually comes from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. In one scene, the protagonist (who in a sense is Plath, because it’s an autobiography, but who in another sense probably isn’t Plath) decides that her senior thesis will be on Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. She reads the first line, and it seems overwhelming, depressingly so–at least to me as a reader. I read Bell Jar when I was a teenager and don’t have the clearest memory of its odds and ends. Frankly, I read it because in the English class I was taking at the time, we had to analyze Plath’s poem “Sow,” and I wanted to know more about her writing and outlook.3
- For what it’s worth, I recommend reading the written version, maybe a few times, before tackling the audio version. There’s something “visual” about Joyce’s writing which is not easy to explain to those who haven’t read it and which the audio book just can’t convey. That’s true even for Dubliners, which is probably the most “conventional” of Joyce’s prose fiction.
- It’s curious that when I think of the teachers I’ve had throughout my life, the ones I remember most fondly are those who I think of as teaching “me” things, or explaining things “to me.” In fact–with the exception of thesis committees and whatnot–almost all of those interactions occurred with me happened as part of a class. I should remember the teachers as saying things “to us” or teaching “us” things. But instead, I personalize it.
- For the record, I probably at least partially “got” The Bell Jar, but I probably won’t read it again.