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Joyce’s Disciples Disciplined: A Re-Exagmination of the “Exagmination of Work in Progress” (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 1, Fall 2010
pp. 174-179 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0031

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Although advised from a young age not to judge a book by its cover, I was favorably impressed, on receiving this one, by the intriguing black-and-white cover photograph of an egg-whisk next to fourteen eggs—a dozen chicken and two quail eggs—in reference to the twelve essays and two shorter letters of protest in the original Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of “Work in Progress,”1 to which this collection offers the responses of fourteen outstanding Joyce scholars. Having now broken open all their surprise eggs and whisked in my own opinion of the volume, I can confirm the wisdom of the old saying: the book is, in fact, even better than its cover—a truly tasty, haute-cuisine omelette of Joyce criticism.

As Tim Conley underlines, the relationship between Finnegans Wake and the Exagmination is indeed “a chicken and egg problem for literary historians and critics” (xvii). The twelve apostles of Joyce’s “Work in Progress” produced their explanatory essays from limited, discrete chapters of a book that would only be completed ten years later, and they eventually found themselves mockingly drawn into the very matter of this book, as “the twelve deaferended dumbbawls of the whowl abovebeugled to be the contonuation through regeneration of the urutteration of the word in pregross” (FW 284.18–22).

To those perfectly at ease with Finnegans Wake and the critical literature surrounding it, the need for a reappraisal of Our Exagmination was obvious.2 Those who are not completely at home in the hospitable house of Joyce’s last opus, however, may wonder whether a book of criticism about a book of criticism should be their priority in approaching the Wake. To them, I will say that Conley’s collection offers a stimulating introduction to the context that produced both the Exagmination and the Wake. Starting from Eugene Jolas’s transition journal where the chapters from “Work in Progress” were first published, as well as most of the essays in Our Exagmination, it situates Joyce’s aesthetic project in relation to the great literary, cultural, and political debates of late modernism.

After Conley’s witty general introduction and presentation of the project, the collection opens with Jean-Michel Rabaté’s reading of Samuel Beckett’s “Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce.”3 Interlacing brilliant close readings and informed contextualization, Rabaté examines Beckett’s weaving of the four great names in his title, revealing how this foreshadows the questions of his later work. In keeping with the food metaphor from the cover, and with Giordano Bruno’s coincidence of contraries, he succeeds in turning Beckett’s original image of a “carefully folded ham-sandwich” (3) into a Philadelphian mouth-watering Italian “‘hoagie’” (14), all the time retaining the elegance of a John Worthing eating the cucumber sandwiches meant for Lady Bracknell. This stimulating opening is followed by Sam Slote’s contextualization of Marcel Brion’s essay on “The Idea of Time in the Work of James Joyce,” in relation to Wyndham Lewis’s attacks against Joyce in Time and Western Man.4 Though it nods to Monty Python in the title (“The Life of Brion’s ‘Idea of Time in the Work of James Joyce’”), Slote’s analysis is far from flippant, as he establishes how, beyond its “[g]randiloquent claims,” Brion’s emphasis on temporality and flux teaches us to read the Wake “always as a work in progress, a work whose examination will always need to be re-examined” (19, 23).

Dirk Van Hulle next approaches Frank Budgen’s essay about Old-Norse poetry via genetic criticism, examining Joyce’s directions to Budgen and the latter’s sources. The result is a remarkable evocation of Joyce’s “craftsmanship” (28), which Budgen, as a fellow artisan, appreciated perhaps better than anyone. Van Hulle offers in conclusion an image in keeping with the food metaphor but at the digestive stage: he names “‘peristalsis’” the “indirection” and “‘wrapping around’” of words that, inspired by Old-Norse kennings, Budgen identified as the power of “Work in Progress” (32). This leads Van Hulle to a fascinating insight into the writing of the Wake and its relation to the Exagmination: “When that system...

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