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Joyce and Company (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 363-365 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0067

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Years ago, I knew a musician who in her youth had picked up a copy of Ulysses and had read it on her own, taking great pleasure in its sounds and cadences; she spoke wistfully of the moment, some years later, when an academic told her that since she had not made recourse to any scholarly materials she could not have gleaned very much. At around the same time, I had another friend, a graduate student, who told me about his having read Finnegans Wake with no aid other than selected hallucinogens. Those are the only two people I can think of who might disagree with the assertion that “Joyce is best understood in the company of others,” the ostensible thesis of David Pierce’s nevertheless very worthwhile collection of essays.

The “others” in whose company Pierce reads Joyce here are mostly writers, ranging from Laurence Sterne to Jamie O’Neill. Yet a great virtue of Joyce and Company is its implicit indication of the variety of communities that have influenced Pierce in his engagement with Joyce’s works. And, in fact, the book’s greatest merit is the way it suggests what good company Pierce himself is as a fellow reader of Joyce. He gives a sense of how he has come to produce a certain kind of Joyce criticism and of the capacities of that strain of scholarship; he is more interested in informing us than in persuading us. Like a good edition or set of annotations, the chapters offer a wealth of material that could be the stuff of interesting continued work.

Pierce typically assembles a set of quotations, analogues, or allusions, then gestures towards the multiplicity of Joyce’s achievement and towards some claim about that multiplicity. But he readily and repeatedly confesses to being inconclusive and even vague. “How we interpret this,” he writes at the end of the Sterne chapter, which lists various examples of tactility, “returns us to ‘all that’” (27)—”all that” turning out to be the many different associations prompted by Stephen’s recollection of the sensation of Cranly’s arm in “Telemachus.” “Like Rabelais,” Pierce writes, “Joyce is a gatherer, an orderer” (34). The same could be said about the Pierce of Joyce and Company. His second section begins with a three-and-a-half page numbered inventory of “Examples of Reading Matter in ‘Wandering Rocks’” (57–60); his fourth and final section begins with a three-page “Overture on Walls in Ulysses” that lists instances ranging from Stephen’s sojourn near the south wall in “Proteus” to Molly’s “promiscuous wall” (139). The discussion immediately preceding on “Sirens” mentions what “a strong reading” of nationalism in the episode might argue, “[b]ut,” Pierce writes, “I wouldn’t go that far” (132). His procedure is epitomized by the conclusion of his chapter “The Issue of Translation,” in which he offers multiple translations of particular phrases in order to generate a series of questions. “I raise all these issues here without resolving them but as my remarks above suggest I am clearer in my own mind how I would go about resolving them” (115).

Such inconclusiveness might be frustrating, even irritating, if the book did not demonstrate, in two very different ways, that we should care a great deal about Pierce’s resolutions. First, Joyce and Company includes autobiographical passages that are, at their best, delightful and illuminating. In the introduction, Pierce remembers his teenage resistance to “the fallen, apostate writer” who threatened to come between “my soul and my creator”: Joyce was at that time “company I could do without. So I left Joyce on one side and read other writers who allowed me space to enter the world on my own terms” (4). (This is not really such a different response from those of my two friends who chose to read Joyce on their own terms.) Later, in the essay “On Reading Ulysses After the Fall of the Berlin Wall,” his reminiscences about visits to the former German Democratic Republic include historical gems like “I was cautioned by my hosts not to refer to Yeats’s pro-fascist attitudes since this might jeopardize ever mentioning him again at future...

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