- The Value of James Joyce by Margot Norris
No scholar has contributed more to the ongoing critical project of reading James Joyce’s works than Margot Norris. Returning again and again to Joyce’s oeuvre during her long productive career, she has also used each new book as an occasion to rethink her own methodological approach in light of important developments in literary theory and criticism. Although Norris must have been a “virgin” reader of Joyce at some point, in her “veteran” criticism she has dedicated herself to guiding all sorts of readers, from first-time to recidivist, as they encounter his works. The title of her 2011 study, Virgin and Veteran Readings of “Ulysses,” highlights her pedagogic focus on the reading process and the meaningful interpretive differences that result depending on one’s familiarity with Joyce’s text.1
From Norris’s ground-breaking first book, The Decentered Universe of “Finnegans Wake,” which introduced a structuralist approach to the novel, through Joyce’s Web: The Social Unraveling of Modernism, Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s “Dubliners,” Virgin and Veteran Readings of “Ulysses,” and now The Value of James Joyce, her criticism has gravitated toward a consistent set of themes.2 First, Norris has trained us to focus on what is not said in the text, that is, to attend to its silences, omissions, repressions, unsolved mysteries, secrets, and lies. She counsels us to mind the gap between manifest and latent meanings in the Wake (Decentered Universe), to follow the misleading cues and omissions in Dubliners (Suspicious Readings), and to make visible the occluded social and political forces in Stephen Dedalus’s modernist doctrine of the autonomy of art (Joyce’s Web). Despite the variety of her critical approaches, Norris’s readings and re-readings share another feature: in them, the mysteries of Joyce’s texts are coaxed to yield their meanings through complication rather than annotation. Norris has insistently asked what it feels like for the Joycean reader not to know, probing the anxieties and ethical dilemmas that arise when we are in the dark.
In her many books on Joyce, this brave and honest critic has also taken on the implications of her own “not knowing,” as she rereads [End Page 346] her previous work along with Joyce’s. Particularly in Joyce’s Web, she looks back at her own methodological occlusions in The Decentered Universe, faulting its “ahistori[cal]” structuralist approach and admitting to insufficiently anchoring her readings in material, historical conditions (3). In retreading the ground of her earlier study, she now finds in Joyce’s texts what she calls a critique of the modernist myth of the autonomy of art, a myth that erases complex social and political forces at the text’s origin. It is in Penelope’s crafty weaving and unweaving that Norris locates Joyce’s powerful “counter-myth” (8) of artistic creation opposing the canonical image of the Dedalian artist, “paring his fingernails.”
In The Value of James Joyce, Norris brings to bear the considerable tools of her veteran readings, this time in the service of guiding the common reader to recognize the “democratic impulses” in Joyce’s works—from Chamber Music to the notoriously difficult Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (3). Norris leads this non-specialist, who might be “overwhelmed” by the aesthetic difficulty of his or her work, toward the discovery of the “remarkable generosity in his embrace of all that is human” (2). For Norris, this humanity resides as much in the diversity of Joyce’s subject matter as it does in his celebrated use of language and myth. While many critics have emphasized the “metaphorical qualities” of the city of Dublin at the heart of Joyce’s work, Norris instead insists that “the endless details of its ordinary materiality and activity . . . cannot be troped away” (9). The book argues that it is the very range and depth of these “ordinary” moments that make Joyce’s work so extraordinary.
In its attempt to expand Joyce’s readership to include more non-specialists, The Value...