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Archive for the ‘James Joyce’ Category

"James Joyce" by Edna O'Brien | Review  BiographyHypothesis: A genius is a person whose books we want to read and whose ass we want to kick.

That certain describes the James Joyce presented in Edna O’Brien’s brief, readable biography of the great Irish writer. O’Brien’s tone in James Joyce is more novelist than academic and that combined with the occasional Joycean flourish, the lack of footnotes, and the appalling bad behavior made me wonder, “Is this all true?”

In O’Brien’s biography, we see Joyce treating his family with contempt and his friends as servants and ATMs. Joyce’s marriage to Nora Barnacle seems to have been based primarily on erotic passion (their sex letters are monuments to skeezy) although they remained together for life and O’Brien does not tell of infidelities by either James or Nora.

O’Brien reports no evidence of Joyce having a relationship with his son Giorgio. Joyce is distraught over his daughter Lucia’s madness, although his insistence that her behavior was a sign of genius rather than insanity smacks of self-aggrandizement as much as denial. Joyce is devastated by the death of the father he ignored while the man was living. As far as we can tell from O’Brien, Joyce cared for no one else.

Through it all, Joyce carousels. And works himself to exhaustion and blindness creating the most significant works of English literature written in the 20th century. The books are worth the price of all this misery. But I’m glad I didn’t have to pay it.

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The copy of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I own was published by Compass Books (The Viking Press) between 1956 and 1960.

Inside the front and back covers are lists of additional books for sale from Compass which the publisher describes this way: “Reprints of outstanding fiction, drama, nonfiction, and poetry in handsome inexpensive editions.”

Here is a scan of the lists. You should be able to make it big enough to read by clicking on it.

Portrait Artist Joyce - books

The thing that struck me is the names I didn’t know. Many of the mid-century usual suspects among writers in English are here. Steinbeck. Greene. A lot of D.H. Lawrence (no thanks!). Amis. More Joyce. Kerouac. Bellow. Trilling.

But who is Malcolm Cowley? And Rumer Godden? Are they okay writers who have gently sunk into more or less deserved obscurity? Or have I just discovered more holes in my education, as if there weren’t enough already.

Here are details and a few other titles that grabbed me:

A Candle for St. Jude and An Episode of Sparrows and The River by Rumer Godden.

Exile’s Return and Writers at Work by Malcolm Cowley.

The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley

The Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch. (The Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, perhaps?)

Radiation: What It Is and How It Affects You by Jack Schubert and Ralph E. Lapp. (How I miss the Cold War.)

If anyone knows these authors and has an opinion about their work, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, I guess they are tidbits of trivia to start your weekend.

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James Joyce' A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManIs selfishness an obligation of genius? If so then Stephen Dedalus, the focus of James Joyce’s brilliant semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man meets his responsibilities in full.

The book follows Stephen as he grows from a young child to a sin-and-salvation obsessed teenager to an ambitious university student preparing to leave his home, country, and religion, and forge his own soul as a free artist.

Portrait deserves its acclaim as one of the founding works of modernism. Joyce uses his famous stream of consciousness technique to convincingly render Stephen’s inner voice, which he interweaves with dialogue, descriptions, sermons, and diary entries. The story is built on thematically linked episodes, rather than conventional plot and conflict, and rewards the attention required from readers to follow it.

Joyce regards Stephen Dedalus as the model of what a writer should be (an early draft of the novel was called “Stephen Hero”) but it is his character’s spectacular self-concern that stands out as much as the spectacular potential of his talent.

Stephen Dedalus thinks about no one but himself. He is indifferent to the poverty of his parents and younger siblings, while carelessly neglecting the university classes they struggle to afford. He values his friends largely as sounding boards for his ideas. And he refuses his pious mother the comfort of attending a service for a religion in which he no longer believes, holding his fine scruples higher than her single request.

Perhaps great artists need to ruthlessly commit themselves solely to the creation of their art. Perhaps this is an obligation of genius. But it is not a pretty one.

Related Content on James Joyce

You’ll find my review of Finnegan’s Wake (actually totaling 100 words) as part of this post.

Here is an interesting article on Finnegan’s Wake by Michael Chabon. Aside from trying a little too hard to out-Joyce Joyce, I like Michael’s thoughts quite a bit.

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The purpose of this post isn’t – of course – to convince you these books are bad. Most of them actually aren’t. They just aren’t a good fit for my taste and convictions. Only one book is frankly bad (that would be the Hemingway — sorry Ernest). And the Roth novel is an absolute must-read. Here goes.

Spenser: The Faerie Queene. An allegorical, epic poem written to compliment Queen Elizabeth the First of England and flatter the aristocracy for their fine taste in the appreciation of “Capital A” art. Spenser’s great technical skill as a poet cannot save a work in which scarcely a single line of genuine inspiration or human feeling can be found.

Hemingway: The Green Hills of Africa. In this non-fiction account of a month on safari, Hemingway turns himself into a bad imitation of one of his own characters, and his prose follows suit. Painfully mannered and false from beginning to end.

Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Bard dropped quite a few stinkers on the Elizabethan stage, and it can be hard to pick out the worst. I polled my group of advisors and Wives got the most votes. Coriolanus also made a strong showing, as did Titus Andronicus. (Pericles wasn’t on the ballot because the authorship is disputed.) None of these plays is really so bad that it deserves to be on a most-awful list. It’s their having fallen so far short of their father’s genius children that makes them infamous.

Joyce: Finnegan’s Wake. I may burn in hell for this one, and Finnegan’s Wake may actually be one of the best books every written, but it is just too much damn work. Finnegan’s Wake is like one of those monasteries at the top of a mountain, where after decades of constant study, hard work, self-denial, meditation, and no sex at all, you achieve total consciousness. Total consciousness sounds great, but I have kids to take to the park, and my wife is expecting me to cook dinner tonight, and I just don’t have the time. And, let’s be honest, I’m not smart enough to read this book, either.

Dante: Paradiso. Okay, I’m definitely going to burn in hell for this one, but that’s the problem. Hell is more fun. Inferno was a rockin’ good time. Purgatorio was pretty good, better in the beginning, then it got slow. But there’s simply no fun in heaven. What there is, instead, is Thomas Aquinas nattering on about Francis of Assisi and Peter Damian (I don’t even know who that is) chatting up Dante about predestination. And if you don’t read Italian, and I don’t, then you have to deal with the English translations, which do to Dante’s poetry what a cheap plastic transistor radio – that kind you could buy in 1973, with the little black wrist strap – does to Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

Stendhal: The Charterhouse of Parma. A thoroughly mediocre novel that engages the reader’s imagination on exactly one point: Why is this book considered a classic?

Lewis: Babbitt. A satire is supposed to make the targets of its ridicule look ridiculous, but Lewis’ satire is furious and implacable and, finally, a cheat. Lewis portrays George Babbitt as so vulgar and foolish that it’s impossible not to feel superior to him, which is the cheapest flattery a writer can offer a reader.

Roth: The Breast. Roth’s parody of Kafka’s Metamorphosis tells the story of a man who wakes up one day to discover that he’s turned into a giant breast. I’m not making this up! Perhaps no major writer has set out to intentionally write a bad book and succeeded so spectacularly. Transcendentally, fabulously awful!

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