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Joyce & Ireland
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Joyce & Ireland
Andrew Gibson. James Joyce. London: Reaktion Books, 2006. 190 pp. $16.95

I could be wrong about this. Looking for those little superscript numbers through stretches of text is a needle-in-a-haystack operation, and I may have eye-skipped one. Still, I'm pretty clear that between the superscript 48 on page 85 of Andrew Gibson's James Joyce and the superscript 50 on page 100, no superscript 49 appears, although there is an entry for that number in the notes at the back. In any case, I am definitely certain that, for the next twenty-two appearances, a superscript number seldom if ever matches the endnote entry, at least not up until the number 72 appears twice, once on page 145 and again on page 153, at which point, perhaps with some exceptions, front numbers and back numbers start matching again, as they did before the presumably AWOL 49. I am also certain that, until you do figure this system of skewed correspondences out, trying to figure it out can be annoying. Harumph.

It is a strange blunder in a book which does things so well in most ways. James Joyce is an attractive product—otherwise free of misprints, compact, nicely priced, crisply printed, enlivened with pictures which always seem to illustrate, precisely, the text running alongside them. There is an elegance to the whole package, and especially to Gibson's writing. Its efficiency and neatness consort with the trimness of the volume. The style is fast-paced and punchy. It has almost no [End Page 256] truck with sentences over twenty words in length. Writers of thrillers could learn something from Gibson about moving things along. As Bertie Wooster might have said, Lee Child could take his correspondence course. Though sometimes the uniform terseness can get monotonous.

Well, yes: I was making making fun, a bit, there at the end, so it's only fair to let Gibson have the floor:

The years 1890–1903 formed a distinct and very significant stage in the emergence of modern Ireland. The period is bounded by two major pieces of legislation, the Local Government Act of 1898 and Wyndham's Land Act of 1903. These marked what was virtually a peaceful revolution. The end of the Gladstone government in 1895 had dealt the final blow to all hopes of Home Rule. But the advent of a Conservative-Unionist government was by no means the disaster that some Irish might have feared. For the Conservatives now spoke of the need to "kill Home Rule with kindness."

I think this passage illustrates the book's two best points, Gibson's skill at conveying quantities of information without losing momentum, and his fingertip familiarity with Irish history. James Joyce and Irish History would have been a perfectly apt title. Readers of Joyce, at least most non-Irish ones, will learn a good deal about a subject of intrinsic interest to them. At the book's best moments, they will also learn something of value about how that subject may pertain to Joyce's writings. I must have read "The Dead" twenty times, but the sentence "His soul had reached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead," registering, on the next-to-last page, the thoughts of a westward-looking Gabriel Conroy, will never be the same to me after this, from Gibson: "Just beneath the surface of the ending of the story, however, lies a still starker theme. It was the west, above all, that had suffered from the Famine. In the 1840's, it had been quite literally corpse-littered, to an extent that left foreigners mute with awe."

Illuminating by itself, like most good criticism this comment opens other avenues. For instance: at the center of "The Dead" is an annual holiday banquet, lovingly described, presided over by two women. At least one of them is old enough to remember the Famine.

Unfortunately, most of the book's rencontres between historian and close reader are disappointing in comparison. Commentary on the other Dubliners stories is conventional and ignores recent and not-so-recent controversy. Should Eveline really have eloped with Frank? Does Mr...