- The Cambridge Companion to “Ulysses” ed. by Sean Latham
Joseph Brooker points out in his contribution to this volume of new essays on Ulysses that a large proportion of the published commentary on Joyce’s great novel is inevitably both repetitive and doomed to early redundancy. For the Joyce critic, this is “an occupational hazard in an industry so heavily staffed” (27). Nevertheless, as editor Sean Latham underlines here in a concise and witty preface that surveys Ulysses as a literary-cultural monument with few if any counterparts, all readers of the text require a great deal of contextual information in order to help them negotiate its complexities and obscurities. At the same time, “reading Ulysses” is for many readers a cultural aspiration or achievement unlike any other. In the words of the jacket note for this volume, Ulysses is “a work that at once entices and terrifies readers with its interwoven promises of pleasure, scandal, difficulty, and mastery.” And happily, almost all the contributions collected here are unusually lucid and intelligently-argued, and together they add up to a smart and genuinely useful “companion” to the novel.
Latham debates the question of “why read Ulysses?” rather than taking the value of Joyce for granted. Of course, the indisputably canonical status of the book is by now part of its importance. So reading Ulysses—which also means reading about Ulysses—gives us access to a community that encompasses generations of other readers and thinkers. Latham identifies the celebration of everyday life in Ulysses as central to its appeal. However, through this preoccupation with common experience, Joyce opens up important perspectives on “some of modernity’s most confounding concepts: race, nation, gender, class, and sexuality” (xv). This understanding of the relationship between detail and the “ethical and political questions” (xv) posed by the text has clearly influenced the arrangement of the Companion.
The volume is framed by introductory essays on “the career of the cultural object we call Ulysses” (xvi) covering questions of textual scholarship and reception, and by concluding essays on key theoretical issues in Joyce criticism such as discussions of his representation of the body. The two central sections encompass essays organized around key [End Page 352] narrative features and thematic issues, including beginnings, difficulty, interruption, and memory. This arrangement both facilitates some superb textual analysis and provides an overview of the text that avoids an episode-by-episode or issue-by-issue run through. The line up here is impressive and includes numerous leading critics of Joyce. Many of the essays, most especially perhaps the contributions from Scarlett Baron, Maud Ellmann, and Marjorie Howes, feature some coruscating close readings, together with fresh and suggestive reflections on broader issues that arise from the experience of Ulysses and our attempts to understand its effects and significance. Some of the pieces, including Brooker’s and Michael Rubenstein’s, reprise or summarize earlier monograph publications. But these too are likely to prove useful for students, as they are of interest either for their comprehensiveness (as with Brooker) or their novelty (in relation to Rubenstein’s account of “infrastructural modernism,” an innovative reading of Joyce’s depiction of the urban environment in relation to his narrative experiments). Enda Duffy presents a different style of polemical, historicist argument in his piece on “Setting: Dublin 1904/1922.” He emphasizes that the crowd in Ulysses is representative of a thwarted colonial bourgeoisie and that the raucous humor of this class lends much of its sense of fun and carnival to the novel. Duffy is unusual, however, in his stress on Joyce’s own sense of middle-class identity and on the fact that, even though Joyce transforms the conventions of the novel, the form here retains its fundamentally bourgeois worldview. Thus he argues that “Joyce’s suspicion of Celticism in Ulysses, like his suspicion of Catholicism, was an amplification of the basic instincts of the middle-class Irish, rather than a lone-voice rejection of the middle-class’s conventional wisdom” (90). Such a reading of the politics of Ulysses...