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  • Editor's Introduction:Joyce, Beckett, Coetzee
  • Jean-Michel Rabaté

The sequence of names heading this issue's thematic clusters—James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and John M. Coetzee—embody an ideal modernist lineage. Indeed, Beckett began his career as Joyce's unofficial secretary, and he always named Joyce's devotion to his art as influencing his decision to pursue a literary rather than academic career. Coetzee, who started out as a computer expert and an English professor, wrote an excellent dissertation on the style of Beckett's Watt, as well as important essays on Beckett. Beckett offered both a repertoire of literary techniques and a model of ethical integrity. This sequence of names suggests that modernism has not yet lost its purchase as an umbrella term. Modernism has not been replaced by the "posts" that have been tried and petered out, one after the other.

If such a regrouping testifies to the resilience of the term, however, we should not forget that modernism has been shaped from the start by a reversible concept of history. Indeed, the modernism label was retroactively applied to different works, functioning as if impregnated by Freud's Nachträglichkeit, a retrospective arrangement of events that in themselves cannot be accessed directly because of their traumatic nature. As Freud noted in his book on Moses, such traumatic patterns affect history itself. If history is marked by erasures and displacements, we should not trust the linearity of official chronicles and thus should read texts and documents symptomatically. This point should lay to rest the old critical cliché that modernism was ahistorical. As an historical event, it shared preoccupations with the modernist crisis in Catholic theology at the turn of last century. What could be more "modernist" in this sense than Coetzee's imagination of the childhood of a contemporary Jesus presented as a difficult schoolboy reluctant to learn spelling or to master conventional arithmetic?

The issue's first two essays reopen Joyce's dealings with history, especially what can be called a family myth of Irish politics, the allegorical fall of Parnell. In "Trials of the Letter in Joyce and Proust," David Spurr compares the impact the Dreyfus affair had on Proust (the dominant political theme woven throughout the volumes of La Recherche) with the way Parnell's fall affected Joyce. Spurr points out the role forged letters played in both cases. Forgery had important [End Page 1] consequences for both authors as they meditated on the written status of historical documents. Like Spurr, Neil Davison considers the fractured nature of Parnellite nationalism reflected in the form and subject matter of "Ivy Day" in Dubliners. In "'Ivy Day': Dublin Municipal Politics and Joyce's Dubliners," Davison gives preeminence to Albert Altman, an Irish-Jewish politician whose ambivalent position throws new light on post-Parnell Irish nationalism and the complex position of the "Jew" in colonialized countries at the end of British imperialism. Altman's career influenced Joyce's interest in labor and offered a model to envision colonial independence.

Tackling another site for labor in 1904 Ireland, Georgina Binnie's "'Photo girl he calls her': Re-Reading Milly in Ulysses" pays attention to the social reality of a new task-force, the growing group of young Irish women working as technical assistants in new technologies like photography. Binnie explains how Milly Bloom's career as "Photo girl" in Ulysses is structured in terms of gender and social differences and echoes with Joyce's relationship with his daughter, frequently mediated by photography.

Moving on to the later work, Elizabeth Bonapfel in "Joyce's Punctuation and the Evolution of Narrative in Finnegans Wake" analyzes Joyce's stylistic innovations in terms of decisions about punctuation. Bonapfel shows that Joyce developed an increasingly experimental punctuation system. She highlights the technical means by which the boundaries between thought, speech, and voice are erased in the Wake in order to create a new epic voice underpinned by specific narrative modes.

Beckett began his career as Joyce's disciple, friend, and a potential son-inlaw, a possible partner for Lucia Joyce, who was a dancer. Through Lucia and his dancer cousin (and love interest) Peggy Sinclair, Beckett was thus exposed early on to modern practices...


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