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Reading these three books was unfailingly pleasant and occasionally deeply interesting. The pleasant quality of the experience can be explained by noting that all three volumes, at this advanced date in Joycean criticism, necessarily replay certain cruxes, key passages, and familiar quotations in order to work their own individual wills upon those texts. Thus, the seasoned Joycean could turn to any one of these books and feel comfortable, and even a novice in Joyce studies would have the sensation of rediscovery, of having some widely held opinions confirmed, and of adding to those positions some useful new ideas and pieces of information. And if the unpredicted insight is what we delight in (as opposed to take pleasure in) when we read interpretive criticism, then it is possible to claim that each of these volumes has its own occasional delights, woven into a more or less familiar ground.
Perhaps because the voices of many Joyceans have become familiar, intertwined into a mutually informing (and infinitely necessary) choral reading, the writings of Vichians who are sometimes only obliquely attending to Joyce struck me as fresh and engaging. Donald Verene's compilation of sixteen essays, all originally delivered during a 1985 conference on Vico and Joyce held in Venice, Italy, takes the reader along a number of interesting left turns. A case in point is the elliptically exciting essay by Attila Faj called "Vico's Basic Law of History." Faj, Professor of Philosophy and Italian Literature at the University of Genoa, begins the article with a reference to rheology ("the branch of physics concerned with the flow and change of matter"), considers Finnegans Wake as an instance of the "river novel," and brings into relation Vichian historicism and Joycean simultaneity/flux. Equally engaging is Northrop Frye's "Cycle and Apocalypse in Finnegans Wake," in which anatomical criticism meets deconstruction and Lacanian psychology. Not as bracing as Frye's sweeping essays on Yeats's A Vision, this piece would still serve as an elegant introduction to the Wake.
The essays discussed so far appear along with pieces by Joseph Mali and Peter Munz in the first section of Vico and Joyce, entitled "Cycles and History." Part Two, "Joyce and Vico," includes essays by Bernard Benstock, H. S. Harris, Peter Hughes, Dominico Pietropaolo, Mary T. Reynolds, and Rosa Maria Bosinelli. Much of this section, like Part Three ("Language and Myth"—articles by Donald R. Kelley, Ernesto Grassi, John O'Neill, Naomi S. Baron and Nikhil Bhattacharya, Dominic Manganiello, and Carla Marengo Vaglio), seeks to uncover to what extent Joyce understood Vico's meanings, what Joyce might have understood within Vico that was not properly Vichian, and how Joyce appropriated his predecessor's meditations on time, space, history, myth, and etymology. I found especially stimulating mose essays such as Kelley's "In Vico's Wake," which, probing Joyce's "epistlemadethemology," turns like Frye's to the intersections of contemporary theory and the traditions through which we have become accustomed to reading Joyce. At best, the reader finds in Verene's book oblique points of departure that enable deeper movement into the texts of both Joyce and Vico. [End Page 684]
Those points collect themselves into larger statements on how we talk, right now, about structure in language and literature.
In some ways (and not necessarily detrimentally), Phillip Herring's contribution to recent Joycean debates about the status of textual information enacts a more predictable gesture than does Verene's collection. Rather than finding in Joyce's works a dialogue between the known and the unknown, Herring sees in the discourse of undecidability a "principle" of uncertainty. Herring's task in this sometimes tonally uncertain volume involves, in part, a tidying up of Joycean research. The problem, as he sees it, is that readers have not distinguished between the unsolvable and the mysterious, between issues...