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“Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake”: The Eleventh Annual Trieste Joyce School, 1-7 July 2007

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2007
pp. 432-436 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0014

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If anybody with the pataphysical sympathies and atavistic horror about literary conferences possessed by the hero of Julian Barnes's short story "Gnossienne" had ended up at this year's 11th Trieste Joyce School, s/he might have concluded that literary scholars may not, after all, be a bunch of horrendous bores and "bladderbags." Indeed, those attending the School were a group of amiable persons unlikely to scare the student and average reader away with their "high-falutin' talk." One of the main issues raised rather rambunctiously by Irish Supreme Court Justice Adrian Hardiman on the fifth evening of the School during the debate on "Ireland at the Bar: Ireland and Joyce Today and Yesterday" was whether Joyce's texts have indeed benefited from almost one hundred years of scholarly exegesis or whether all that scholarship has merely succeeded in making them more obscure, more distant from the "common reader." Drawing heated replies from a variety of speakers, this provocation did lead the School to ask where Joyce criticism might be heading now. One route no longer to be traveled was that of postcolonial criticism which, though it has contributed much, was thought to have run its course, rapidly worn itself out, even in its last outpost, Ireland. The follow-on question about what use Joyce criticism might serve (the good judge thought little) was more satisfactorily settled, with skeptics turned enthusiasts after participating in the Ulysses seminar where the benefits of sharing knowledge and approaches were evident. Perhaps the most welcome answer to the charges brought against Joyce scholarship—of being ideologically limiting and inhibiting to readers—came from one of the minority of participants at the School not to come from some department of English but from law school. Donna Mannion spoke for many when declaring that the panels, readings, seminars, and discussions were mind-opening and had won her over to the idea of (re)reading Joyce's texts. A further response was given by David Spurr in the preliminaries to his talk on architecture in Ulysses the next day, when he argued that literary theory, as opposed to ideology, is at its best never fixed but supple, liberating, and always liable to rewriting and questioning its own framework; and that Joyce himself was a thinker fully conscious of the importance of criticism, who directed the first critical exegesis of his Work in Progress.

The School, to be sure, did not set out to provide any easy answers for its sixty-odd participants. The opening reading by Fritz Senn—"Paradox Lust: One Way of Positioning Joyce"—set the tone by refusing several positions. The doyen of Joyce studies studiously avoided arriving at conclusions at all. He demonstrated, for example, that, with Joyce, even the most seemingly realistic texts are on the borderline of self-reflexive, self-parodying writing. The reader, it seemed, can never tell, any more than Joyce himself could tell, where Joyce was going. Similarly, John Bishop's reading of "The Tale of the Prankquean" ("Child's Play: A Finnegans Wake Primer"), delivered at an astonishing pace on the last day of the School, showed how the Wake can be read by construing and then shedding one interpretive framework after another. Bishop started with medieval Irish history based on a legend of kidnapping, turning it into a psychoanalytically oriented reading of the infantile unconscious centered on syntagms for wetting the bed (kid napping/kid's napkins) and so on, in a practical demonstration of how the Wake text comes to resemble the Chi-Ro page of the Book of Kells made up of ever-metamorphosing animal figures, which Joyce frequently compared to his own work.

The School's undeclared protagonist was the Trieste Joyce or the "Tergestine Exul" and the city of Trieste itself. John McCourt, the author of the most comprehensive study to this date on Joyce's years in the city, was the first to introduce the complexities of Joyce's other empire, "Old Auster and Hungrig" and its vital mitteleuropean cultural interface. The city that gave such a notorious welcome to the Joyces on their first arrival constituted for Joyce a Europe in miniature, "un piccolo compendio dell'universo," without which the...

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