- Ambivalence at a Crossroads in Literary Modernism
In James Joyce and the Act of Reception, John Nash includes an amusing anecdote about the first edition of Ulysses owned by Virginia Woolf. After Woolf loaned the book to the poet Edward Shanks, who vowed to hide it from the local rector, Katherine Mansfield later stumbled across the same copy, hidden in a drawer at Woolf's house (102). Woolf recalled this curious circulatory exchange and noted in her diary that she then picked up Ulysses and "began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But theres something in this" (cited in Nash 102). Like William Butler Yeats, whom Nash calls a hypocrite lecteur, Woolf may also be a duplicitous reader of Joyce, fluctuating between private and public interpretations of his work. The circuitous subversiveness of Woolf's edition, surreptitiously passed around and perhaps only partially read, [End Page 116] also underscores the complicated readership and reception that attended Joyce's recursive oeuvre. In a monograph that superbly elucidates Joyce's responses to his own reception, Nash argues for a historical and cultural contextualization of Joyce's work and reception, even as he analyzes how Joyce incorporated the voices of contemporary readers within his fiction, guaranteeing that later readers would be forced to consider the responses of an earlier readership. Nash's nuanced discussion of the complex relationship between Yeats and Joyce emerges as a particularly perceptive illustration of Joyce's reciprocal interaction with the readership of his experimental narratives. Yeats's divided voice that both praises and critiques Joyce's work, inviting him privately but not publicly to be a "guest of the nation," "illustrates the internal divisions within a potential audience" as well as the internal divisions within the Irish Free State (25, 148-49). The contrarieties and divided reception that Joyce figured in Finnegans Wake thus reveal the text to be "an oddly fitting book of the Free State" (25).
While some critics have considered Joyce an iconoclastic outlier to the Irish Literary Revival, Nash helpfully contextualizes Joyce's work in relation to the Revival and usefully resituates "The Dead" in juxtaposition to the Playboy riots, which occurred at the same time Joyce was composing his famous short story. In his short story cycle, Dubliners, Joyce reveals Synge's audience writ large, an audience that misunderstood Synge's genre as deeply as Gabriel Conroy misunderstands his wife Gretta (53). Neither audience responds in an appropriate fashion to the performance they witness, an act that reflects back upon Joyce's reception of his current work and prefigures his later ground-breaking narratives, narratives that exploded conventional generic expectations (54-56).
Nash examinines the "Scylla and Charybdis" chapter of Ulysses, which dramatizes Joyce's "contrary address to and denial of" a "Catholic middle class readership whose intellectual tradition was inscribed within his work but for whom he refused to write" (22). He next offers an impressive investigation of the archive of critical responses to Ulysses that Joyce fictionalized and transformed in Finnegans Wake (24). Nash's innovative argument and insightful analysis avoids the ahistorical pitfalls of both formalism and poststructuralism, even though he remains indebted to the paradoxical "both/and" rhetorical maneuver of deconstruction, which perhaps too easily deflects counterarguments. Yet Nash's masterful contribution to Joycean studies in particular and reception theory in general revises stale assumptions about literary modernism, revivifies Joyce's interaction with mass culture, and demonstrates how rich can be the interplay between text and context, how invaluable the critical conversation between exegesis and historicism.
A different methodological focus, primarily on textual explication, appears in Lisa Coughlin McGarry's Orts, Scraps, and Fragments: The Elusive Search for Meaning in Virginia Woolf's Fiction. Contending that the traditional...