restricted access James Joyce: A Critical Guide (review)
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James Joyce: A Critical Guide, by Lee Spinks. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. 233 pp. £65.00.

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but, with its image of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses at a playground on the front, Lee Spinks’s James Joyce: A Critical Guide might well attract an audience comprised mostly of younger readers. Experts in the field are unlikely to unearth any surprises here, but those coming to Joyce for the first time may find Spinks’s book a good initial reference point. The encyclopedia-like guide, which provides a comprehensive, if necessarily limited, overview of Joyce’s life and literary production, is divided into three sections: “Life and Contexts,” “Work,” and “Criticism,” a design similar to that of The Cambridge Introduction to James Joyce.1 Spinks’s guide also includes a chronology, a brief introduction, and a bibliography. This arrangement allows for an organized presentation of the subject matter, and the subdivisions within each chapter make the book easy to navigate.

In his single-page introduction, Spinks presents Joyce as “perhaps the greatest and most enigmatic literary figure of the twentieth century” (1). The verbal equivalent of hitting the accelerator and the brake simultaneously, this modification of superlatives with the qualifier “perhaps” inaugurates a strain of uncertainty about the magnitude and nature of his subject’s achievement. The origins of that achievement, however, become clearer in Spinks’s instructive account of Joyce’s life and of the historical, literary, and cultural contexts that informed it. He illustrates how historical accident benefited Joyce’s work and aptly characterizes the author’s writing process as “a blizzard of revisions and proof-reading” (42). Although the “Life and Contexts” section already (and self-admittedly) draws heavily upon the biographies of Herbert S. Gorman and Richard Ellmann,2 closer attention to these sources could have prevented a few inconsistencies and minor inaccuracies. For instance, Spinks’s chronology records the birth of “James Augustine Joyce” (x), while his “Life and Contexts” reports the birth of “James Aloysius Joyce” (2). As Ellmann records, the author was actually baptized as “James Augusta” (JJII 21), a corruption of “Augustine,” and only added “Aloysius” at his confirmation (JJII 30), thus making his full name, as his marriage documents indicate, “James Augustine Aloysius Joyce” (JJII 638). Furthermore, Ezra Pound could not have “refused to accept extracts of Work in Progress for The Egoist” (38) since that journal ceased publication in 1919; similarly, Samuel Roth could not have been “compelled to cease publication” of Ulysses “by a judgement of the Supreme Court in October 1928” (38) when he had already issued the last number of Two Worlds Monthly in October 1927.3

When Spinks begins his discussion of Joyce’s “Work,” he constructively [End Page 184] reminds us that modernism’s great novelist issued his first book as a poet. As in most other companions and introductions, however, the majority of textual space is reserved for Joyce’s prose. In the section on Dubliners, Spinks gives a lively account of Joyce’s trouble with printers, and he delivers a particularly detailed and convincing reading of “The Sisters” as a gnomonic narrative poised delicately between innocence and experience. While the Critical Guide is generally well informed, some of its interpretations bypass recent developments in favor of stubbornly conventional readings. Thus “Eveline” is described as a story about paralysis, and we are told that “the question of what Frank’s genuine qualities are ceases to be of real significance” because the story is ultimately about Eveline’s “failure of nerve” (59). More nuanced readings by critics like Margot Norris, Hugh Kenner, and Katherine Mullin have shown how risky it is to deliver such judgments about a narrative that is, in fact, richly ambiguous.4 On a similar note, Spinks lucidly describes how A Portrait’s opening is “infiltrated by the questioning consciousness of a barely comprehending child” (79), but this discussion could have been further enriched if he had known that “green” in “O, the green wothe botheth” should actually read “geen” (79, P 7).5

Persuasively composing a narrative of Joyce’s artistic development, Spinks intriguingly approaches Exiles as...