James Joyce, a collection of essays edited by Sean Latham, is the latest entry in the “Irish Writers in Their Time” series being issued by the Irish Academic Press. The series advertises itself as being “indispensable for students and specialists alike,” which usually means that veterans and newcomers will be respectively bored and baffled. This is not the case here: with perhaps one exception, all of Latham’s contributors are seasoned Joyceans (yes, I’m getting tired of that word too) who often can’t restrain themselves from going into relatively uncharted territory.
Assuming, that is, that they were asked to. Probably they weren’t. Although arranged in standard sequential order, the collection as a whole has an appealingly ragged, free-for-all quality. It’s a good sign, I think, that the chapters sometimes contradict one another, that, for instance, one writer can assume the validity of “epicleti” and the next, much more convincingly, argue that the word is a misreading of “epiclet” (24, 49). On the negative side of this shaggy-doggedness, [End Page 365] the volume sure could have done with more scrupulous proofreading and fact-checking.
Latham’s introduction, much in the spirit of the whole, is itself less concerned with m.c. duties than with putting forth its own perspective. When it does introduce the volume’s contributors, it is (sometimes with predictably Procrustean results) mainly in terms of how the essays to come square with its own argument.
That argument is that Joyce’s work is a product of a range of “modernities”—conditions of the modernist era that, in Latham’s view, conduced to the disjunctive and discontinuous. Call the approach aporia-oriented historicist. Thus Stephen’s trip with his father to Cork is a personal displacement that ought to remind us of some of the wrenching displacements of Irish history, especially the Famine and the resulting mass emigration, which Cork witnessed; that the Famine, though discernible “just beneath the surface,” is not “directly recorded in the narrative” makes it not irrelevant but, if anything, the opposite, the signature of a “barely repressed” historical memory too painful to face (10, 11).
I have some problems with this line of argument, especially with its absence-is-presence component, which, though to be sure not in itself dismissible, can sometimes be hard to distinguish from rhetorical maneuvers of the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose sort.1 Still, no doubt: in Joyce, there’s always surface, and there’s always subsurface. That Bloom never voluntarily thinks of Boylan’s name doesn’t mean that Boylan isn’t on, or in, his mind.
More problematic is what seems a degree of compressed-thesis hurriedness that doesn’t have time to consider that which ought to be considered—plausible alternatives, for instance. Latham argues that Stephen’s train-trip sight of “‘unpeopled fields and the closed cottages’” signals the legacy of the Famine (10—P 87). Maybe, but it also occurs in the “cold light” of dawn, when one would normally expect fields to be empty and homes to be shut (P 87). Of course, it might be both—a private aperçu summoning a collective-unconscious ancestral memory—but the case would be stronger if both readings were considered.
Anyway, on with the roll call. Bruce Stewart’s elegantly limned “A Short Literary Life of James Joyce” reads effortlessly, in part because, as W. H. Auden said of Adrienne Rich’s poetry, it doesn’t tell fibs.2 That’s not quite the same story when it comes to errors, however: as with others in the collection, it could have done with some more attentive revision. Stewart is the one who takes “epicleti” at face value (24); he also mangles a quotation from Samuel Beckett, mistran-scribes Joyce’s “individuating rhythm” as “individualising rhythm,” misspells “Elkin Mathews,” miscounts the number of Exagmination contributors, and makes a hash out of an Honoré de Balzac source [End Page 366] cited in Richard Ellmann’s biography (37–38, 28, 30, 39, 41 n4). A few assertions are either questionable...