Monographs analyzing the composition history of the great works of modern literature are not a new phenomenon. In the English-speaking world, A. Walton Litz's The Art of James Joyce: Method and Design in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (1961), Jon Stallworthy's Between the Lines: Yeats's Poetry in the Making (1963), and, more recently, Susan R. Van Dyne's Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems (1993) are fine examples of books that dip into an author's archive to elucidate the creative processes behind the work. But while their aim was to say something about aesthetics, they sat uncomfortably within the critical tradition. On the one hand, these studies were said to do important groundwork, laying the foundation from which the more serious task of literary criticism could begin. That textual scholarship was itself performing a critical act was simply ignored. On the other hand, reading a literary work through its early stages was said to ground the work in its origins and to foreclose interpretation; critics who did so were succumbing to any number of historical fallacies.
Ironically, some textual scholars did not necessarily disagree. Their conception of a literary work was not particularly different from that of the new critics. In describing Yeats's working method, Stallworthy, for instance, compared the process of writing a poem to "a locksmith opening a safe," who, "searching for the right combination," turns the dials and "listens for the click of cogs slipping into place."1 Litz, in an essay he wrote he a few years after The Art of James Joyce, confessed that "the temptation to over-emphasize the critical importance of the manuscripts seems almost irresistible," and stressed that the "finished work remains an independent creation, and its structure is the final arbiter."2 For both these men, the work remains a well-wrought urn, its history secondary to the thing itself. The resulting poem or novel embodies an ultimate state of perfection which nobody can take apart; its craft lies in its final shape; the coming-into-being of the text, no matter how interesting, is in the end of very little critical importance. But the well-wrought urn is a romantic myth. An author never has full control over the object he creates.
Textual scholarship, of course, has developed and continues to develop. The New Bibliography of W. W. Greg and Fredson Bowers—which, as several commentators have indicated, owes more to New Criticism than was generally assumed—has been complemented by the sociological approaches adopted by D. F. McKenzie and Jerome McGann. At the same time other "textual" disciplines such as the History of the Book and the History of Reading emerged, bringing new knowledge, but on the whole many new questions and exciting avenues of investigation to a burgeoning field of cross-disciplinary research in the production and consumption of books, texts, and literary works. Dirk Van Hulle's excellent Textual Awareness: A Genetic Study of the Late Manuscripts by Joyce, Proust, and Mann draws on another whole new area, or areas, of study: variantistica from Italy, Variantenkritik from Germany, and, most importantly, critique génétique from France.
Van Hulle's book is the first of its kind in that it adopts a comparative approach to textual studies, and that from several angles at once: he introduces and makes accessible Italian, German, and French traditions of textual editing to an Anglo-American audience and compares the composition strategies and textual dossiers of the three major modernist novelists writing in French, English, and German. All this is achieved concisely and lucidly, bringing these different aspects together in his overarching aim to show the relevance and importance of textual scholarship for literary criticism. Opening with a quotation from Fredson Bowers about the gap [End Page 777] between literary and textual criticism, Van Hulle seconds Bowers but does not simply develop his argument with the characteristic lamentation that literary critics fail to take textual matters seriously; he seeks to bridge that...