If there are those who fear that the massive academic onslaught upon Joyce's work in recent years has been detrimental to the practice of careful and sympathetic reading, the publication of these three books in the same year ought to provide some reassurance. Very different in the way they approach Joyce, they nevertheless all testify to a wonderfully detailed familiarity with the texts they address, and they all articulate their nuanced responses with assurance and grace. Each of them demonstrates over and over again the pleasures of close engagement with Joyce's words, and conveys the sense of an ideal seminar in which careful attention to minutiae is balanced by an informed sense of larger structures and tonalities. They all rely on the best of their predecessors' work, but wear that learning lightly, concentrating on the subtleties of Joyce's writing rather than the arcana of current critical debates.
Robert H. Bell's Jocoserious Joyce is a readable, often funny, commentary on Ulysses as a comic novel, sometimes going over well-trodden ground (though usually with a sense of fresh apprecation), sometimes advancing more tendentious claims, especially about our judgments of the characters. The most consistently urged realignment of sympathy is away from Stephen Dedalus and towards Buck [End Page 514] Mulligan; the antics of the book's latter half are said to be closer in spirit to Mulligan's clowning than to any other perspective represented within the narrative, and strikingly different from Stephen's humor, characterized by Bell as "defensive, hostile, tortured, self-loathing." There can be no prospect of readerly concord over such matters, but inducement to reconsider one's settled responses is always valuable; I was glad to be reminded how much of the negativity that hangs about Buck is the product of Stephen's disenchantment, but found myself reluctant to give up my enjoyment of the latter's brilliant way with words. For Bell, "Proteus" can be dismissed as a "gloomy cavern" entirely justifying Mulligan's mockery of Stephen, but for many other readers, it is an endlessly rich and mordantly funny self-examination.
This devaluing of Stephen makes Leopold Bloom's warmth towards him a puzzle for Bell, especially as Bloom—whom Bell rightly celebrates as an outstanding exemplar of the heroic fool—strenuously urges the younger man to break with Mulligan. Molly Bloom is disappointingly seen through the scrim of the familiar stereotype, as a representative of "the simple life" whom we are said to regard as "some kind of life-force." Closer reading might find in "Penelope" a more complex—and more comically unsettling—mental world.
Jocoserious Joyce might have been an even better book had it been published ten years ago, when the author would have felt less constrained to engage with what he calls "the current construction of 'Post-Structuralist Joyce.' " Bell attempts to rescue "identity" and "the self from what he sees as a plot to deny or destroy them, failing to appreciate that Joyce's problematizations of a certain conception of identity and selfhood (to which Bell is fully alert) come much closer to the theoretical questioning he is distancing himself from than does his own straw figure of the identity-bashing "post-structuralist." His unease is perhaps evident in his joking reference to the "Transcendental Signifier" (when he presumably means "Signified"), and the allusion in a footnote to one "John Barthes." Fortunately, for most of his book Bell trusts his own responses to Joyce, including those moments that undermine traditional critical premises. Only once did I find him inexplicably deaf to Joycean humor: he is baffled by the names "Oldfellow" and "Thursdaymornun," uttered by Shakespeare in "Circe," even though he mentions Othello and Desdemona in the same paragraph. Such resistance to the playful deformation of language is perhaps related to Bell's...