The Banality of Brilliance

To speculate about whether Proust was a snob is as superfluous as debating the degree of Joyce’s egotism, though we could construct an argument that Proust would have been unfitted to dissect the society of Recherche without a social climber’s desire. And Joyce writing in A Portrait  that the “artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails” feels more like his defence of a narcissistic narrator than a personal attitude. Neither quality detracts from the brilliance of either writer, and arguably both characteristics are disproportionally present among writers of the time (or perhaps any time).

Both qualities are in the foreground of the story Joyce told Frank Budgen (Further Recollections of James Joyce, 1955) of being introduced to Proust at a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev. “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’ Our hostess [although observers claim this question came from Joyce] asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, ‘No,’ And so on.”

Though the two men apparently sat beside each other and later shared a cab home, no written record exists of their encounter, though there is no shortage of biographical speculation about conversations about health and truffles.

Joyce’s Literary Tastes

Surrounding James Joyce and his novels is a conveyor belt of critical texts purporting to help the reader decode Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Some of these are both readable and rewarding. Of the shorter texts, Eliot’s Ulysses, Order, and Myth [PDF] is valuable. Stewart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses looks good, though I have yet to do more than scan its pages.

Frank Budgen’s James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses is a major critical reference, concentrating on the biographical and human details of the text. Budgen knew Joyce well whilst he was writing Ulysses, and he uses that personal knowledge to offer insight into Joyce’s creative practice. Its style is ponderous, and it is the off-hand biographical references that particularly reward the effort, one of which I partially record here:

Joyce was a great admirer of Defoe. He possessed his complete works, and read every line of them. Of only three writers, he said, could he make this claim: Flaubert, Ben Jonson and Ibsen. Robinson Crusoe he called the English Ulysses. Joyce read to me once the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, stopping often to repeat the lines and retaste the elegant humour of each one.  “Of all English writers Chaucer is the clearest. He is as precise and slick as a Frenchman.”

The English Ulysses comment is fitting as in Ulysses, Joyce gives Leopold Bloom the line, “Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it.” Three sentences that remark on fiction, realism and plot.