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The Cambridge Introduction to James Joyce (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 1, Fall 2007
pp. 163-166 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0037

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Reviewed by
The Cambridge Introduction to James Joyce, by Eric Bulson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xii + 139 pp. $19.99.

Among Joyce scholars, "introducing" James Joyce has always been considered a necessity as well as an act of service to the master whose reputation as the creator of impenetrable narratives simply will not go away. Yet there are others, including common readers, younger scholars, and students, who are unfamiliar with Joyce and who should simply be encouraged to pick up a book and start reading. Eric Bulson must be sympathetic to the latter group, for he comes to his task with no apologies for the hermetic nature of Joyce's structures and makes no attempt to justify the difficulties of reading him. He responds to Joyce as one would to any major author who has a large body of writing that has stood the test of time, and his enthusiasm [End Page 163] for Joyce is evident.

Unlike earlier introductions (by Michael Mason, Matthew Hodgart, and Steven Connor, for example1), Bulson's eschews a labored style, over-emphatic tone, and patronizing attitude, which makes for engaging reading. He sensibly defends Joyce against the charge of obscurity and refers to Samuel Beckett's discussion of Joyce's writing in his chapter on the author's early reception (110-11).2 But he contradicts himself when he maintains that "[f]or Joyce and so many other writers during this period, formal complexity and obscurity were considered literary virtues that ended up alienating readers" (19). While it is wrong to believe, as Bulson does, that Joyce pursued these as his chosen goals, it is true that a self-reflexive attention to design, form, and focused experimentalism is central to Joyce's work. Joyce himself appears to have valued the significance of his achievement in formal terms: "The value of the book is its new style," he told Arthur Laubenstein, an American organist with whom he was friendly in Paris, a year after Ulysses was published (JJII 557). In fact, the need for a new style was proclaimed by others, too, such as Virginia Woolf, who commented that life, or reality, could receive just treatment only in a medium that would have "something of the exaltation of poetry, but much of the ordinariness of prose,"3 while Joyce himself said, "[O]ne great part of human existence cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead prose" (LettersIII 146). Woolf additionally wrote, "On all sides writers are attempting what they cannot achieve, forcing the form they use to contain a meaning which is strange to it" (3:429), and Joyce too sought new ways to make "the modern world possible for art," as T. S. Eliot put it in "Ulysses, Order, and Myth."4

Bulson maintains that "[t]he difficulty of so many modernist texts created a conspicuous divide between intellectuals and the masses (19)," yet he does not take his readers into his confidence and explain this remark but merely refers them to John Carey's book on the subject.5 Similarly, in his short chapter on "Joyce the Modernist," Bulson does not define modernism in clear enough terms to serve his larger purpose. In the process, he deprives his intended readers of a useful line of inquiry that could run parallel to individual explorations of the Joyce canon.

Bulson divides his introduction to Joyce into three major segments—Joyce's life, the contexts within which he should be appreciated, and his works—and he begins with Joyce's early years in Dublin. He then goes on to recount the writer's life-long exile from Dublin in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. The descriptions of Joyce's early years in Dublin and the later years on the continent—marked by want, sickness, and the shadow of war—are vividly drawn with empathy and wit and make for fascinating reading. He exercises judicious control over [End Page 164] Joyce's biographical details and establishes their relevance to one's appreciation of his writings. Joyce's iconic reputation as a quintessential modernist writer and his work as journalist, translator, and lecturer are dealt with in...