Grappling With James Joyce

Grappling with James Joyce at the beginning of the 21st Century is similar to reading Shakespeare’s tragedies or even working your way through the Old Testament—you recognize immediately you are knee-deep in cultural source material. It feels less accurate to call Joyce a modernist than to say he was modernism, for it’s clear how much of our contemporary sensibility can be traced back to this peculiar Irishman.

I recently dug into the 1959  Richard Ellmann biography James Joyce. It needs little introduction: many people consider it the greatest literary biography of the 20th Century. I recently came across a David Foster Wallace essay on Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky biography where Wallace alludes to Ellmann’s great achievement.

James-Joyce-1918-photo
James Joyce in 1918.

And though I’m still reading about the young, unknown Joyce at this point, the book is still thick with memorable anecdotes.

In 1902 a young Joyce met the grand poet of Irish letters, W.B. Yeats, who was then 37 years old. Joyce was cocky during the meeting and reportedly talked back to Yeats, which both impressed and upset the poet. At one point Yeats mentioned the French novelist Honoré de Balzac:

“When Yeats imprudently mentioned the names of Balzac and of Swinburne, Joyce burst out laughing so that everyone in the café turned round to look at him. ‘Who reads Balzac today?’ he exclaimed.”

 

Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.  --- James Joyce
Creative Commons License photo credit: UggBoy♥UggGirl [ PHOTO // WORLD // TRAVEL ]

 

Joyce, rather famously, was not a believing Roman Catholic from his adolescence onward, but he was (modestly) respectful of the Church’s traditions and a great admirer of the Jesuit order, whom he studied under as a boy. He once corrected a friend who labeled him a Catholic:

“You allude to me as a Catholic. Now for the sake of precision and to get the correct contour on me, you ought to allude to me as a Jesuit.”

There is also Joyce’s experience in Paris, where he was literally starving while failing to make ends meet with book reviews and English lessons. This is a letter from 1903 to his mother:

“Today I am twenty hours without food. But the spells of fasting are common with me now and when I get money I am so damnable hungry that I eat a fortune before you could say knife. I hope this new system of living won’t injure my digestion.”

David Foster Wallace & Lit’s Thematic Poverty

There will probably come a time when our current appetite for insight about David Foster Wallace ebbs, but I don’t see that coming any time soon. I just got around to reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s fascinating review of Wallace’s The Pale King in GQ. Sullivan is a first-rate essayist and it’s great fun to see him write about Wallace.

In reviewing The Pale King, Sullivan got my attention by focusing on something Wallace wrote in his essay on Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoevsky (which is collected in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays.) Wallace wrote:

“[This new] bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit. Part of the explanation for our own lit’s thematic poverty obviously includes our century and situation.”

I believe this “ironic distance” has become something of a default habit for many talented writers today.It is a shame that the “really urgent stuff” concerning the human condition is often pushed to the margins of novels today.

I recently went back to Wallace’s Dostoevsky essay and he mentions spending two months immersed in the world of Dostoevsky while preparing for the essay. I can only imagine what a delight a book-length treatment of Wallace thinking about Frank and Dostoevsky would be.