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Surveying Joyce
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Aside from its terrifying price for the hardback, Lee Spinks's James Joyce: A Critical Guide offers little for this reviewer to complain about. It is a survey of Joyce's life, work, and critical reception. I have, probably, read about twenty books of the sort, and this one is clearly at or very near the top of the pile. Its greatest virtue is its style. Spinks is a deft writer whose special gift is for the precise but unfussy mot juste. An example, picked almost at random: "In a sentence such as 'Stephen's heart began slowly to fold and fade with fear like a withering flower' the narrative voice is pitched equidistantly between Joyce's exterior perspective and Stephen's poeticizing sensibility: the artful, but somewhat studied alliteration maintains the type of self-conscious poise Stephen mistakes for self-assurance." "Pitched equidistantly" is quite good, I think, and the final clause couldn't be bettered. Every word is made to count, and every word is the right one. Much of the writing in this book approaches or achieves that level.

Of course the problem with such projects is that one is not supposed to shine. The passage just cited comes perilously close to saying something original. Several moments in Spinks's book convince me that he could, if called on, produce an extremely interesting work on Joyce, especially on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Original, arresting readings do occasionally crop up, but as it were accidentally. They are not the main show. The main show is the business of introducing Joyce to people reading him for the first time. If you are an accomplished Shakespeare scholar teaching Romeo and Juliet to freshmen, one thing you do not want to do, at least until later, is to suggest that Romeo and Juliet, being kids, may have been just plain stupid to put their fates in the hands of Friar Lawrence. Spinks traverses many comparable issues of Joycean controversy, and his instinct is to finesse them. Usually this is the right move, but not, I think, always. For example, when it comes to the decades-old question of whether Frank, the romantic lead of "Eveline," is to be trusted, Spinks has this to say:

The disquieting impression that Frank's nature is somewhat more banal than Eveline's idealization of him suggests is augmented by his clichéridden banter: he had "fallen on his feet" in Buenos Aries [note: a computer error here, I suspect, probably from a spell-checker that has heard of neither the Buenos Aires on the map nor the Buenos Ayres of "Eveline" but has heard of the Greek god of war] and then returned "to the old country" for a holiday. Ultimately the question of what Frank's genuine qualities are ceases to be of real significance. He stands in for a profound absence in Eveline's life by personifying a dream of self-invention that she will never have the strength to realize.

Deliberately or not, this misses the point. The main question about Frank is not whether his words are witty but whether they are true, whether he intends to marry Eveline and take her away or whether he intends to sell her into the white slavery trade whose headquarters at the time was in fact Buenos Aires. Surely that matters more than how clever he is with words. It's a complicated and contentious issue, too much so for a book of this sort. So why bring it up at all?

Spinks's survey of the other Dubliners is brisk and efficient. As per orders, it offers little or nothing new. In fact its one weakness is a tendency to sign on too readily to established readings. Like generations of critics before, Spinks assumes that the reason no one in "Clay" tells Maria that in singing a sentimental song she has mistakenly skipped a verse is that "the missing lines treat of marriage … a vital connection to life that Maria is never to share." Well, perhaps. But the reason she is asked to sing it in the first place is that everyone wants to get rid of her...



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