"Also I enfold there the hope that it will not be long before everybody comes to Joyce, seeing in him not tortuous puzzles, dirt, and jesuitry gone mad, but great comedy, large humanity, and that affirmation of man's worth that more popular writers stamp on in order to make money."
To the First-time Reader
So you want to read James Joyce?
Ahhh, so you want to read James Joyce, eh...? Well, you came to the right place. Give me a moment to I tuck up my sleeves and loosen my talktape, while you duck out and grab yourself a pint. (Well, I may have selected a Pub for the guiding metaphor of this site, but I can't do everything yet!) Oh, and if you haven't read the "Artfull Eye" essay first, you might want to do that, too. Please forgive its excesses; its intentions are good, though its prose purples on occasion. ("Joyce is reading us?" Really! What was he thinking?)
Back? Good. Ready? Good. In the next few paragraphs I'll do my best to give you a basic orientation to the weird and wonderful world of James Joyce; just bear in mind that Joyce is, after all, my favorite writer, so I can hardly be considered an impartial commentator. I'll try to keep this as simple as possible, but forgive me if I occasionally sound like I'm testifying in a revival tent: welcome to Quailigans Quake, brothers and sisters, and let me tale all the tellagain take!
Ah, but where to start?
First of all, people who want to experience Joyce always seem eager to jump right into Ulysses. The book is, after all, pretty famous, and wouldn't it be nice to finally one-up that snide English teacher? Or maybe you have a few Joycean friends, and you're getting tired of being confused every time they start babbling on about Molly and Bloom and that snotgreen scrotumtightening sea of theirs. Stately plump who? Met him pike what? Yes. Or maybe you just finally figured that it's about time you actually listened to Robert Anton Wilson or Anthony Burgess or the whole host of other authors who can't seem to fill out a parking ticket without making a reference to James bloody Joyce. Well, whatever your reason, whether curiosity, duty, or guilt; whether you have a professed jones for classic Irish literature or just Professor Jones' Irish Lit class, I say, Wonderful! Push aside the piles of arcane analysis and highbrow criticism weighing down that front cover, and welcome to the greatest and most delightful! book ever written. Let me raise my glass and we'll toast your decision! (Oh, wait that other guy in the corner wants to start with Finnegans Wake? Um...someone collect his keys and give his wife a call, please. I run a respectable establishment.) Sláinte! Clink!
Ah, so let's get to it. Coming to the decision to read Ulysses is indeed commendable, but I would be remiss if I sent you in without a little preparation first. I love Ulysses, and yes, you can certainly jump into the water cold but if you are going to swim the English Channel, I suggest you first learn to wade across the Liffey. If you want to read Joyce for the first time, I recommend that you start with his earlier works before you set out to tackle his masterpiece. Not all his early-early stuff, mind you you can safely skip the poems and plays for now but the wisest approach is to focus on his four most important works, reading them in the order of their writing: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.
There are two main reasons for this. The first and more pragmatic reason is that of simple continuity. Joyce employs a cast of regular characters that remains fairly consistent throughout his writing characters you meet in Dubliners return to wander the pages of Ulysses, and the Stephen Dedalus who returns home to Ireland in Ulysses is the same jejune jesuit who departed a few years earlier in Portrait. And though a sense of character continuity is definitely important, there is a second and more compelling reason that Joyce's works are best read sequentially. Joyce's narrative style underwent an amazing evolution throughout his career, and that progression is best understood when followed in sequence. It is also worthy of a few paragraphs of further elaboration, and since you've been kind enough to listen to me so far, I suppose I might as well bend your ear a little more. But before I launch into a discussion of Joyce's narrative technique, allow me a few words on some general preparation.
That Irish thing (quickly)
Joyce was a writer who was profoundly affected by his environment, and his works are crammed with references to the everyday events and social forces which helped shape his life. To really get the most out of Joyce, you may wish to acquire a basic knowledge of Irish history (particularly the rise and fall of Charles Stewart Parnell) and a general understanding of Roman Catholicism and the Jesuits. These subjects and themes occur repeatedly in all of Joyce's work, and a basic understanding of them will greatly enrich your reading experience. I don't think you need to take Irish History 101 or anything, but at the very least have access to an encyclopedia, or check out a library book on basic Irish history and keep it handy as a reference. In the "Essential Canon" section, I try to highlight some of the more important themes related to each work.
OK, so now that we've established that Joyce reuses stock characters and can't stop prattling on about God and Parnell, it's time to address the real thing that makes people get nervous about reading his books: his writing itself. I'm about to slip into my best semi-scholarly mode, so you may want to take a few quaffs from that pint now. (I drained my own glass back at "sequentially.")
"...life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration and complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?"
That narrative thing (longly)
Joyce's narrative technique evolved significantly as he matured, growing increasingly more experimental with each book, ultimately resulting in a body of work that is more comprehensible and more rewarding when read chronologically. Joyce felt relentlessly compelled to push his instrument to its limits, and he was never complacent to rest upon the laurels of an established style. Each new work demanded a radical expansion of his technique, a complete revisioning of his craft as he forced it to bear the burden of his increasingly complex desires. And interestingly enough, as each successive work increased in thematic scope and physical size, the actual time frame covered by its pages contracted. Dubliners, for instance, spans a great length of time at least if we look at the children who begin its pages and the sadder, wiser adults who conclude them; whereas Finnegans Wake, which is a much longer book, "takes place" during the course of a single night. (You will hopefully understand why I placed quotes around "takes place" later on. For now, just trust me.) To Joyce, existence was like a fractal pattern, and every iteration inward could uncover a deeper level of meaning and complexity; and yet within the depths of every level lurked the entirety of the Whole. Therefore Dublin could symbolize all cities, a single day could contain all days, and the entire historical and mythical cycle of human existence could be wound into the recursive spirals of a single night's dream.
I'll now touch upon each of his major books, briefly discussing how his technique evolved with each successive work. A further analysis of each book is given in the "Essential Canon" section, which also includes plot summaries and specific advice for the first time reader. Consider this an appetizer. (And wouldn't one of those big, split-onion things be really good right now?)
Generally considered Joyce's most accessible book, Dubliners is a collection of related short stories that all take place in, near, or around well, Dublin, of course. Here, at least, we find a conventional writing style; a style that perhaps belies the unconventional nature of these stories. Although the narrative is highly readable, we will find little action, no real plot to speak of, and certainly no climax or resolution of a typical sort. Each story seems to develop along the lines of an impressionist painting, but Joyce denies us access to the total canvas until the last moment, when he asks us to step back and let the work come suddenly into focus. And there, then, we receive the epiphany: that moment of revelation that catches our breath and sends a chill down our spine. The picture is revealed, and it is an image of of what? Of the act of revelation itself. Of a moment of disillusionment, paralysis, self-loathing, lost faith. The most mercurial of emotions, not as experienced by great men, but as experienced by all men. The bittersweet awareness that we are just one soul in an unbroken chain of millions, dead, living, unborn...this is life not as Joyce envisioned it, but as we actually live it.
Even if Joyce had stopped there, had vanished mysteriously in Mexico or waded into the Liffey with his pockets full of stones, Dubliners would have assured him a place in literature, sitting perhaps at the right hand of Chekov. But that was not enough; not for Joyce. In Dubliners he purposefully limited his palette of words, images, emotions a "style of scrupulous meanness," he called it. The effect was a timeless series of connected portraits, faded photographs of missed opportunities and eroding faith. But what about life in full color? In panoramic sound? And as experienced in the presence of onrushing time?
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
His next work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, narrows its focus to the life of one Stephen Dedalus, a thinly veiled fictional edition of Joyce himself. Stephen enters the book as a small boy and leaves as a brooding young man on the verge of realizing his genius. It was a very different book than Dubliners; and it called for a very different style. Here we are given a window into Stephen's consciousness, and the whole world must come to us through that single aperture. Therefore Joyce could not allow the prose to merely tell what Stephen was doing; that would too easily reveal the mature artist behind the words. In Portrait, Joyce employs a revolutionary technique, and he forces the narrative to emerge directly from Stephen's experience of the events at hand. The prose follows and reflects the stages of his intellectual development, whether imitating the childlike simplicity of his earliest memories, or the thrilling awareness of his artistic awakening. It swoops when Stephen is high; it crashes when he is brought low. It congeals in the murky muddle of a Jesuit lecture, and it skips and stutters and swirls when chasing the thoughts of an awakening poet. Like Stephen, it can be beautiful and bombastic, witty and self-pitying.
While all this makes for a very exciting reading experience, it also has another effect, a deeper impact that is not felt until one is well into the book. In most novels, the prose style remains essentially consistent. This allows the reader to generate a subtle image of the author, a ghostly persona haunting the spaces between the text and our comprehension of the text. (In literary theory, this is known as the "implied author.") But in Portrait, Joyce begins the process of removing himself from his work. As Stephen remarks, "the artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." The narrative of Portrait attempts to banish the authorial personality: it is never expository, never judgmental, and never willing to assist the reader it exists only for Stephen. We are given no clues how to feel or react; we have no privileged position outside of the narrative Stephen's environment is just Stephen's environment, Stephen's thoughts are just Stephen's thoughts. Most authors allow us to perceive the water that shelters their fish; but Joyce places us directly in the stream of consciousness. This direct exposure to a character's interior world takes some getting used to; and may even require a little effort on our part to assimilate but once sampled, once understood and enjoyed, it sets a new standard for what literary writing can actually accomplish. A standard that Joyce was to meet, exceed, and utterly explode a few years later in Ulysses, that Blue Book of Eccles.
A much larger book than either Dubliners or Portrait, Ulysses takes place during the course of a single day from Stephen's ritualistic awakening by the Irish sea to Molly's dreamy descent into sleep, the entire action of Ulysses unfolds in less than twenty-four hours. So how can the book be so damn long?
Because it is. Because it needs to be. Because Joyce didn't just want to set the action of a novel in a day; he wanted to capture a day. A real day, a day like any of us have, a day where we eat and drink, shit and piss, masturbate, make love and feed the cat, go to work, get drunk, tell jokes and sing songs, laugh, love, and hate; a day filled with a thousand little betrayals and wonders, disappointments and hopes, immediately forgotten revelations and compounding misunderstandings, false starts and premature endings. And yet a day where the miracle of birth and the enigma of death can still shudder their way through the layers of mundanity encrusted upon them by generations of routine acceptance. A day, yes; and to do that, Joyce was compelled to recast his instrument into a new form, a form that could slip into the stream of consciousness, weave together several different threads of thought and then unweave them if necessary, discard aborted ideas halfway and then resurrect them later; an almost musical form that could capture motifs and modulate them, invert them, rearrange them and recapitulate them.... And if that meant borrowing from the world of poetry, drama, rhetoric, technical writing, romance, journalism, and epic storytelling, then so be it. All were devices to be pressed into the service of the Artificer. But Joyce was not content to merely borrow styles, to smelt them into his own unique alloy; Joyce allowed the mettle of his prose to take the stage as a central character. Not himself, mind you again, Joyce the author is remote and unreachable, refusing to taint his creation with the superfluous residue of an author's persona but the prose itself is cannily self-aware, and goes about its task of creating a day with the cheerful eagerness of a jocoserious demiurge. And behind that demiurge sits the Creator himself, paring his nails, a perhaps disingenuously bland expression on his face but an irrepressible twinkle in his eye.
So what could possibly serve as an encore to Joyce's great Daybook? Well, what day is complete without a night? And indeed, his final work seventeen years in the making all "takes place" during the course of a single night. But the night is an elusive thing, and the logic of our wake-a-day world fades and dissolves as we "feel aslip." In dreams, an entirely different set of rules congeals from the fog, and since analysis is a tool of the waking mind, we are not granted immediate comprehension of these rules that is, assuming they can even be understood. In dreams, we are utterly complacent when the strange woman we are talking to suddenly becomes our mother, or a house we have never seen rings with all the familiarity of home, and then becomes a castle; or a tree becomes a stone. This confusion of identities could be depicted in standard prose, of course: but would that be fair? Wouldn't we then be merely reading a waking interpretation of the dreaming mind? It would be like painting a symphony, or, as David Byrne (or someone famous) has said, "dancing about architecture." And Joyce is a more honest and a far more gifted writer than to attempt to deceive us with so mundane an illusion. No, the Artificer had to create a new language, a dream language, a language that resonates with the dreamy, semi-lucid, miraculous, flowing interconnectivity of our sleeping minds. Still an illusion? Of course but a more suitably clever one, to be sure!
And so was born Finnegans Wake, a book about a single night, and in that night we see a man having a dream, dreaming of his life and family, and these dreamed characters dream that they are dreaming, and so on...and the whole dream flows through history, mythology, the cycle of life and death; absorbing, changing and recirculating countless elements and identities around a set of common themes: the whole mythopoetic cycle of existence. Identities are in constant flux, language is melted into allusive plasticity, and time is destroyed as the fractal pattern of life iterates itself into infinity; but every iteration is just another turn of the "velocopedal vicocyclometer." And that is Finnegans Wake, a grimoire of "stolentelling" spelled in a language of words borrowed from a cornucopia of races, myths, cultures, and epochs: all deconstructed and sifted for meanings, then rewoven over the matrix of English to form a new tongue, an impregnated language of Jabberwocky words that slip and slither through more allusions and illusions and elusions than...
...well, than a night of half-remembered dreams.
This book, Joyce's final work, at first glance may seem almost mad and a great many people have dismissed it as being incomprehensible. But it is not that difficult, yes, but not incomprehensible, and surely not insane. After Portrait, after Ulysses, what was left? All roads lead to this commodius vicus of recirculation, this retaling of the human tell. And in one book, one great, circular book, Joyce compressed the Tower of Babel into the Sphinx, and riddled open the gates of consciousness. In the words of Anthony Burgess, who puts it so perfectly that it would be vanity not to quote him: "The time had come for him literally to rival the primal creator by making something whose majesty and terror all men would perceive but would spend their lives trying to interpret. Finnegans Wake is as close to a work of nature as any artist ever got massive, baffling, serving nothing but itself, suggesting a meaning but never quite yielding anything but a fraction of it, and yet (like a tree) desperately simple. Poems are made by fools like Blake, but only Joyce can make a Wake."
So....how's that pint doing?
The "Joyceworks" Pages
Book through eternity junction Back to the "Joyceworks" main page.
The Artfull Eye "Why read James Joyce?" A somewhat fanatical essay on Joyce, his works, his importance, and why people write somewhat fanatical essays about him.
The Essential Canon Joyce's major works:
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The Minor Arcana A listing of Joyce's "lesser" works, including his poetry, Stephen Hero, Giocomo Joyce, and Exiles.