- The Necessary Fiction: Life with James Joyce's Ulysses by Michael Groden
From one point of view, Michael Groden's The Necessary Fiction might appear a victim of the Holy Roman Empire problem, in that it is not fiction and, at first glance at least, also not necessary. While Groden is an eminent scholar in James Joyce studies, especially when it comes to Joyce's manuscripts, he is hardly a famous public figure. The details of his life of course might be interesting to those directly acquainted with him (a group that includes myself, as Groden supervised me during my ma at Western [End Page 120] in 2012/13, shortly before he retired), but what about people who have no idea who he is? And what about people who know his name exclusively through the byline on his books and articles? This sort of question is inescapable when reading a memoir, and to a great extent a reader's enjoyment of The Necessary Fiction will depend on how good they think its answer is. Thankfully, to a large extent the memoir meets this challenge.
The book justifies itself in three ways, one I think more successful than the others. As its subtitle, Life with James Joyce's Ulysses, implies, its focus is not just on Groden's life but rather his life as it intertwined with the novel he has spent his career studying. After encountering Ulysses in an undergraduate course he took while a student at Dartmouth, Groden changed his major from math to English, and eventually he moved on to graduate school at Princeton to study under the great A. Walton Litz. After abandoning an unpromising influence study tracing Joyce's impact on later modernists, Groden, on Litz's recommendation, made the fruitful decision to base his dissertation on the (at the time) under-analyzed Joyce manuscripts at Cornell and suny Buffalo. This thesis would eventually become his first monograph, Ulysses in Progress (Princeton, 1977), a landmark in the study of Joyce's manuscripts and still a necessary guide to the composition of Ulysses. The research also led to his position as editor of the James Joyce Archive (Garland, 1977–79), a sixty-three-volume facsimile edition of Joyce's then-extant manuscripts. (Unusually, Groden was given the general editorship almost immediately out of graduate school. As he describes, the job was first offered to Litz, who suggested Groden when he turned it down.) Although this period of extreme productivity preceded, by Groden's own account, a significant fallow period in his publications, it was enough for the University of Western Ontario, expecting another school to poach him, to offer him early tenure: after finishing his doctorate in 1975, he was made an associate professor in 1978 and a full professor in 1983. Although Groden, wanting to live closer to New York, applied to several other universities, he would remain at Western until his retirement in 2014.
The tale of a highly successful academic career, beginning with a promotion to tenure at an improbably early stage, would not on its own be enough to sustain one's attention (although he enters a creative slump at one point, it happens after he has already secured a job for life, and so offers little narrative tension). Wisely, Groden focuses the memoir instead on the intertwinings of his life, his mind, and his work with Ulysses. The story here has obvious appeal to those who have felt the gravitational pull of Joyce's novel, and while Joyceans do have a tendency to over-sentimentalize [End Page 121] both Joyce and his protagonist Leopold Bloom, Groden's story speaks to the undeniable value that both have for those who have taken the time to get to know them. Groden, of course, has spent more time with Joyce than virtually anyone else, and in that sense his time with Ulysses wavers between the typical and the exemplary—in the first sense, his encounter with the complex, contradictory interiority recorded in Ulysses resembles what many, I suspect, find so powerful...