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Proust, Mann, Joyce in the Modernist Context (review)

From: Comparative Literature Studies
Volume 43, Number 1-2, 2006
pp. 203-205 | 10.1353/cls.2006.0040

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Comparative Literature Studies 43.1-2 (2006) 203-205

Proust, Mann, Joyce in the Modernist Context. By Gerald Gillespie. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003. xi+324 pp. $64.95.

In one of his book's best chapters, "Afterthoughts of Hamlet: Goethe's Wilhelm, Joyce's Stephen," Gerald Gillespie remarks, "we can endlessly spin variations upon the textual status of Ulysses and its arts and its characters. Our critical preoccupation with the book as a multitext of subtexts is not some latter-day or independent ferment; it reflects and continues the centrality of issues of interpretation within the novel itself" (153). This excellent observation holds equally well for Gillespie's second main author, Thomas Mann, though perhaps to a lesser degree for the third one, Marcel Proust. Both Joyce and Mann have spun a world-wide web (a cosmic one Gillespie may say) of quotations, paraphrases, and allusions, challenging the reader (who must be a competent one) to decipher them and to savor their multiple interconnections.

This is indeed what Gillespie does. With stunning erudition and inventiveness he spins a comprehensive historical and cultural cocoon around his novels (I could detect only one glaringly absent strand: Robert Musil). Doing so, he is consistently modest in ascribing the network to the authors in question: not for Gillespie the arrogant postmodern critical pose of "constructing the text," as if the reader was a co-author. Like George Steiner, he believes that the glory belongs all to the "Real Presences."

Nevertheless, pace Gillespie, authors are unable to control the referential range of their texts—and this applies both to Gillespie's own book and to the books he discusses. Especially in the case of authors like Joyce and Mann, it is all but impossible to establish a line of demarcation that would separate which allusions they deliberately intended and which are produced by critical readers. Without doubt, Gillespie does not merely reconstruct what his authors put into their works but continues their allusive method, thus both tightening and extending the web. Such an enterprise is congenial, for it adopts what it considers the author's method, and extends it for critical purposes—instead of applying to it criteria that are foreign to it. And Gillespie's urbane and sophisticated style is excellently suited for the task of extending the text examined.

The method works best in this book when Gillespie takes his departure from a particular aspect of one of the books, for instance in the mentioned chapter on Hamlet's afterlife in Joyce and Mann, in the chapter on the hieroglyphics of Family Talk in Joyce's fiction, or in the chapter on Hermes in the works of Mann. In such instances the critic's weaving starts with textual passages and intermittently returns to them, however extended the contextual landscape becomes as a result of excursions into the web of allusions. The method works less well in Part I of the book, where Gillespie's point of departure is usually not a Joycean, Mannian, or Proustian text but rather the historical and cultural "context," whose relevance the book does not always make clear. The result in such cases may be an endless series of vignettes on a very large number of authors and works that threatens to become a grand tour of Western literature. In the first chapter, for instance, entitled "The Spaces of Truth and Cathedral Window Light," Gillespie passes through Goethe's Faust and Wahlverwandtschaften, Byron's "Elegy on Newstead Abbey" and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes," George Herbert's "The Windows," Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Caspar David Friedrich's paintings, Stendhal's Le rouge et le noir, the Nachtwachen von Bonaventura (whose author is uncertain), Hawthorne's The Marble Fawn, Hérédia's "Vitrail" and other poems, Rilke's poetry, and, of course, Mallarmé's "Les fenêtres" and Kafka's parable on the gate keeper, told in the cathedral. Such surveys do not deal with allusions in the works of Joyce and Mann; they apply what Novalis has called Zauberstab der Analogie (the magic wand of analogy), which threatens at times with a leveling of differences...

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