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The Rhetoric of Modernist Fiction (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 383-385 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0069

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At the outset of this book, Morton Levitt raises the issue of influence, addressing what will likely be the first question to strike readers upon picking up his volume. Levitt’s study takes its title from Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, first published in 1961,1 and Levitt purports to pick up where Booth left off—namely on the cusp of modernist fiction, with whose innovations, Levitt claims, Booth was never completely comfortable—either critically or morally. But Levitt’s tone here is far from combative. Reminding us, just a year after Booth’s passing, of how much we remain indebted to the critic for the impact his work has had upon contemporary understandings of narrative and the history of the novel, Levitt argues that, whether looking back to Booth or encountering him for the first time, “we recognize how masterfully [he] completed his task, as he understood it. Our task today is not just to apply Booth’s lessons—but to extend them to the one significant area inaccessible to Booth: the Modernist novel” (5). According to Levitt, our departure from Booth begins more or less with Joyce, whose narrative innovations constituted both an “update” and a break from the Jamesian models which marked the limit of Booth’s comfort zone (13).

Indeed, though his work ranges across an impressive array of texts—some modernist and some not, but all bound together by Levitt’s energetic exploration of narrative—it is with Joyce, and to a lesser extent with Virginia Woolf, that Levitt makes the strongest case for the value of his study. Among readings of novelists as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Drabble, and Don DeLillo, Levitt returns most insistently to Joyce, whose innovations with narrative point of view are patent on the first page of Dubliners, where “[e]verything that we need to know about the break between the Victorians and Modernism” is manifest (39). Leaving behind the world of Henry James and less influential predecessors, Joyce eschews all the vestiges of authorial intervention in the face of his “surprising discovery,” an epiphany worthy of his characters, which Levitt claims “will prove the key to all of his work, from the remaining stories of Dubliners all the way through to Finnegans Wake” (38). For Joyce, and for us as his readers, this discovery lies in “what he does not tell us, what he does not say at all, what he knows well enough even at this early stage of his development to leave out” (38). In other words, Levitt tells us, “[t]he great master of the vast, encyclopedic Modernist narrative is distinguished most by what he omits; and we, his readers, must not only note in the text what is absent, but be wary about filling in too fully these gaps, for the gaps themselves, the absences in the narrative, may be the point” (38). In refusing to cover the tracks of his omissions, Joyce breaks one contract with his readers even as he offers up another, though the assertion seems to beg the question of what would truly constitute “authorial absence.”

Nevertheless, Levitt’s emphasis upon Joycean lacunae and ambiguity serves him well as he takes us through a series of cogent readings, first, of Dubliners, then of the “Telemachus,” “Calypso,” and “Circe” episodes of Ulysses and on into the Wake. Throughout, Levitt finds evidence of what he simply calls “[t]he [c]reation of [c]onsciousness on the [p]age” (102). Freed from the intrusive tyranny of even the most limited variety, we, as Joyce’s readers, find ourselves implicated “in a world of which we know more and more details,” but of which we “have less and less certainty” (40). Reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s literature of complexity for an age of complexity,2 Levitt’s view of the relationship between modernist narrative and what he calls “worldview” devolves upon the reader a kind of interpretative and moral power that is as troubling as it is liberating (40). But if the stakes are heightened for the reader of modernist texts, Levitt quickly dispels the most persistent myths surrounding Joyce’s putative inaccessibility. Though he and his fellow modernists make...

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