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I Do I Undo I Redo: The Textual Genesis of Modernist Selves in Hopkins, Yeats, Conrad, Forster, Joyce, and Woolf (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 2, Winter 2010
pp. 313-315 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0000

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Reviewed by
I Do I Undo I Redo: The Textual Genesis of Modernist Selves in Hopkins, Yeats, Conrad, Forster, Joyce, and Woolf, by Finn Fordham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 281 pp. £55.00.

The latest work of Finn Fordham, an astute genetic critic of modern literature, deals with the relationship between the personality of the author and its development during the creation of his work. The title of the book, I Do I Undo I Redo, refers to the processes of self-definition before, during, and after this imaginative process. The authors treated—Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf—present different personalities and different modes of development in the genesis of their most characteristic writings.

Here, Fordham shows himself again to be a sensitive critic of literature and presents many valid insights into the works of these authors. He does not, however, proffer an effective definition of human personality, and the analogical processes in the creation of the works are sometimes not really relevant to the virtues of the works themselves. For example, in a chapter on Hopkins, Fordham analyzes "The Windhover" as an example of the "compression of sound" and finds a relationship between Hopkins's "compression" and his difficulty [End Page 313] in achieving an audience for his works (95).1 It is certainly true that Hopkins does not employ simple syntax, yet "compression" is not the most felicitous way of describing the poet's treatment of language. He is not, after all, Robert Browning, for whom syntactic compression was a feature of general style but not of an individual poem. Hopkins constantly tried to convey the essence of the objects and creatures in his poetry-their "instress"—by relevant linguistic structures in the poems themselves (109).2

In his treatment of some of the other writers, Conrad in particular, Fordham misses an important point of criticism. He notices, with great sensitivity, the emotional difficulties with which Conrad was wrestling in his writing of Heart of Darkness, including a monstrous writer's block deriving from his dreadful experiences in the Congo. Fordham should note, though, that Conrad derives benefits from his struggles with composition. In Marlow, the narrator of Heart of Darkness, Conrad creates for the first time a typically modern figure: the shattered narrator.3 Marlow has been so deeply shocked by his experiences in Central Africa that he cannot tell the story of what happened to him in any consecutive way. There are gaps filled with suffering that the reader must fill.

This is an innovation in literature. If we compare the method of narration of Heart of Darkness with that of, say, Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, we see immediately the novelty of Conrad's approach. Pip, the narrator of Great Expectations, has suffered a catastrophic alteration of attitude by the end of the book, a radical change of belief about all of his life. His prosperity is not due to Miss Havisham, as he thought, or to any rotting, wealthy source but rather to the convict Magwich, whom he had helped as a boy. This change of belief would be the equivalent of an emotional earthquake in any normal life, but we have no evidence of this from Pip's narration of the story. If Conrad had written Great Expectations, Pip's narration would have consisted of a series of shattered dazzling fragments resembling Marlow's narration of Heart of Darkness. Therefore, Fordham's point—that Conrad's writer's block derived only from his African experience and contributed to the narrative form of Heart of Darkness—could have been expanded into a general commentary on the nature of first-person as narration as changed by Conrad. This is, in general, the pattern of the book: Fordham's brilliant historical analyses of the lives of the writers he discusses and their relation to elements in the works themselves suffer from a lack of generalization and require expansion into other areas where they can elucidate larger critical areas of literature.

In his analysis of Joyce, Fordham finds a key between the multiple revisions of Joyce's Ulysses and the emphasis...