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.

A Doll House By Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen at the Grand Café (1898) by Edvard Munch

Ibsen’s A Doll House turns on a single sentence, Nora’s “We’re settling accounts, Torvald”. On that sentence the puerile Nora merges from her pupal cocoon and rejects her husband Torvald. Before that sentence the reader is accustomed to Torvald’s casual misogyny and pomposity. It is a sentence of deliverance, of the sort that lifts the hair on the back of your neck. Nora begins the dialogue that concludes this electrifying third act.

NORA: We’ve been married for eight years. Doesn’t it strike you that this is the first time that the two of us-you and I, man and wife-have talked seriously?
HELMER: Well-“seriously”-what does that mean?
NORA: In eight years-no, longer-right from the moment we met, we haven’t exchanged one serious word on one serious subject.

Michael Levenson, in Modernism, describes the impact that A Doll House had on Europe in the late nineteenth century. “Anecdotes abound of quarrels over dinner and demands by hostesses that guests refrain from discussing Ibsen”.

The event that thrilled and appalled Europe was Nora’s departure from her husband and sleeping children. But the shock of rupture needs to be placed within the speech conditions that prepare it. When the dialogue in the third act turns back on itself and confronts the disturbances of conversation, it lays out a challenge as radical as its final event, in some ways even more radical, Nora does not simply leave after speaking; she leaves because she speaks.

With repugnance, Ibsen was coerced to write an alternative ending for German theatre, a conciliatory conclusion that he later described as a “barbaric outrage”. In a letter to a newspaper Ibsen stated, “Those who wish to make use of the altered scene do so entirely against my wish.”

Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad

Dag Solstad: described in the blurb as Norway’s leading author, an icon among Scandinavian writers. This book Shyness and Dignity, described as one of Solstad’s major works. I suspect that there is depth here that I missed through my unfamiliarity with Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.

The first part of the book, Elias’ growing tension in his senior school classroom, is brilliant. The presence of this melancholic man, set against the bored, passive defiance of his classroom, whether real or perceived, is powerful. After Elias’ pivotal action, the novel is undermined to a degree by the lofty, romantic Johan Corneliussen, a heroic figure who’s use as a plot device is flimsy and clichéd.

It’s not all melancholic introspection, there is humour here, of a sort, as in the description of a downhill skiing race:

One after another, they turned up on screen, in helmets and Alpine gear, before they threw themselves down the mountainsides of (or among) the Alps. Henri Messner, Austria. Jean-Claude Killy, France, Franz Vogler, West Germany. Leo Lacroix, France. Martin Heidegger, Germany. Edmund Husserl, Germany. Elias Canetti, Romania. Allen Ginsberg, USA. William Burroughs, USA. Antonio Gramsci, Italy. Jean-Paul Sartre, France. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austria. Johan Corneliussen knew the strengths and weaknesses of all the racers and continually informed Elias that now, now, he had to watch out, for there, on that slope, Jean-Paul Sartre will have some problems, whereas now, just look how Ludwig Wittgenstein’s suppleness manifests itself in that long flat stretch …

It’s not Curb, but I chuckled.

The writer’s artistry, to the degree it survives translation, is palpable from the first part of this novel. The second part feels compromised. I do however plan to read Solstad’s other novel in translation Novel 11, Book 18.