James Joyce in Padua
Afterjoyce: Studies in Fiction After Ulysses
“In the wake of the Wake”
The Consciousness of Joyce
In April 1912, hard up as usual, tired of eking out a precarious living in Trieste, James Joyce went to Padua to take a series of examinations which would qualify him as a teacher of English in Italy. He received very high marks for his performance—421 out of a possible 450—but his scheme for settling down foundered when the Italian government refused to recognize his Irish degree. In the course of his examinations, Joyce wrote two essays, one in Italian on “L’influenza letteraria universale del rinascimento” and another in English on “The Centenary of Charles Dickens.” Louis Berrone, a professor of English at Fairfield University, has found these essays in the archives of the University of Padua and now prints them for the first time, adding an introduction, a translation of the Italian essay, a letter from Joyce saying he intends to appear when he is supposed to, a record of Joyce’s marks in the separate examinations, a great deal of desultory and pedestrian commentary, and a note on the examiner’s squiggles and corrections on Joyce’s Italian script. James Joyce in Padua is not so much a book as a sequence of (unsuccessful) strategies for making seven or eight lightweight pages look like an archaeological find.
It comes as no surprise that Joyce should do well on such an occasion. He was good at fulfilling requirements and enjoying himself at the same time, and we might even describe his books as severe tests which he set for himself, and passed. But his academic success, in Padua and elsewhere, has more to do with his character and the cast of his mind than with his gifts as a “master prose stylist,” as Berrone calls him. Berrone is following Richard Ellmann here, who found Joyce’s passing these examinations “an achievement not altogether astonishing for the major prose stylist of his century.” Ellmann’s irony is engaging, but all the same one shudders to think of Flaubert or Henry James presenting himself in Padua. Berrone in any case misses Ellmann’s irony entirely, and the level of his discussion of these essays is well indicated by his finding “strength of mind” in the fact that during the examinations Joyce could more or less remember the gist of a lecture he himself had given a month earlier.
The essays are not in any way “seminal,” as Berrone says they are, but they are charming. The Italian piece is a bold rhetorical number full of epigrams and exclamations. “Strana cosa davvero!” Joyce writes, “A strange thing indeed”: the whole Renaissance was really a secret lament for the medieval world that was lost. This is not quite such a strange thing as it seems, since the Renaissance, in Joyce’s view, appears to take place mainly in the nineteenth century. Its major representatives are Turgenev, Wagner, and Maeterlinck, and its major consequences are progress, the theory of evolution, and “il materialismo“—“che discende in linea retta dal rinascimento.” Modern man, Joyce says, has skin instead of soul (“Si potrebbe dire infatti dell’uomo moderno che ha un’epidermide invece di un’anima“), and we have replaced the monk by the journalist (“Il rinascimento, per dirla in poche parole, ha messo il giornalista nella cattedra del monaco“). “Shakespeare e Lope de Vega sono responsabili, fino ad un certo punto, per il cinematografo.”
This is heady stuff, as you see, and Joyce’s ambition, evidently, was to knock his examiners over with his brilliance. They were not knocked over, and gave him only thirty points out of fifty. For the Dickens essay, on the other hand, Joyce assumes another character, that of the elegant and judicious Edwardian man of letters, who is drawn to words and phrases like “nay” and “not a little” and “pending such final judgment” and “unless my memory misleads me.” Joyce has little to say about Dickens, except that his reputation, although probably undeserved, is probably unshakable (“And yet is not Thackeray at his finest greater than Dickens? The question is an idle one. English taste has decreed to Dickens a sovereign position…”), but the impersonation is well done and seems at times to anticipate some of the very funny parodies in Ulysses:
Dickens, in fact, is a Londoner in the best and fullest sense of the word. The church bells which rang over his dismal, squalid childhood, over his struggling youth, over his active and triumphant manhood, seem to have called him back whenever, with scrip and wallet in his hand, he intended to leave the city and to have bidden him turn again, like another Whittington, promising him (and the promise was to be amply fulfilled) a threefold greatness. For this reason he has a place for ever in the hearts of his fellow-citizens….
In such sentences we can almost hear the slightly older Joyce delighting in the plod of clichés down well-worn paths, but Joyce’s examiners appear to have perceived only a fine old English manner, and they gave him full marks, fifty out of fifty.
Today’s topic in Padua might well be “L’influenza letteraria universale di James Joyce,” and the discussion, if it were not too serious, could do worse than start with the crucial word itself. Is it possible for a reader of Joyce to contemplate the topic without thinking of a literary ‘flu, “a bad influenza,” as Joyce himself says in Finnegans Wake, and what is happening to our language once a major writer not only endorses this sort of erratic association but spends his last years and his failing eyesight concocting such things and putting them in a book? Or to take another simple tack, how many times do we have to read the passage I have just quoted from the Dickens essay before we feel it to be full of clichés? And once we feel this, is there a way to get rid of the feeling, and aren’t we likely to find clichés skulking in the most respectable pieces of prose? Joyce’s impeccable assemblies of platitudes in the later parts of Ulysses make even the most strenuous of modern writers seem half-hearted by comparison—it is as if they worried less about the right words than Joyce does about the wrong ones.
Joyce’s legacy, then, or part of it, is a double vigilance, both playful and strict. He encourages us to look for jokes and banalities everywhere, and our wits and our stylistic scruples are sharpened by knowing him. Of course, we don’t have to make all the jokes we see, or reject all the clichés we find, and curiously enough, Joyce’s example doesn’t seem to be daunting. My own response to reading Proust, for instance, is usually to feel I ought to spend the rest of my life writing a commentary on him. My response to reading Joyce is to want to write a very good book that has nothing at all to do with him. But perhaps we should step back on to what looks like firmer ground.
Robert Martin Adams’s Afterjoyce, in spite of the disagreeable intimations of its title (aftermath, afterthought, aftercare, afterglow, afterbirth), is a lively and sensible discussion of Joyce and his influenza, and it has useful things to say about Broch, Gadda, Pynchon, and Lezama Lima, as well as the more predictable cases of Beckett, Nabokov, Faulkner, and Woolf. Adams has a vivid (if rather lugubrious) sense of the pain that mixes with the fun at Finnegans Wake. “Hahahaha, Mister Funn,” as Joyce says, “you’re going to be fined again!”
Opaque and elaborately contrived though it is in general, the language of Finnegans Wake reflects lucidly the agony that went into its creation—the sense of a priestly vocation missed, fouled and corrupted by the dirty tools of a dirty language, under the direction of a weak and dishonest mind.
We should add, no doubt, that it also reflects, with equal if not greater lucidity, the pleasure of play and the joy of catching manifold realities in comically crowded words. Writing on Beckett, Adams manages a similar eloquence and a rather more delicate balance, and the following comment on The Unnamable, with its abrupt shift of values between the sentences, actually imitates Beckett’s performance while describing it:
In these closing passages the counters get fewer and more familiar, the moves are shorter and bump more abruptly into their own contradictions, the transitions blur, and the pace quickens, as the prose seems to slide irresistibly under its own momentum toward the last, utterly simple, impasse. It is a supreme imaginative achievement.
As these two quotations indicate, Adams writes very well indeed, but at times the desire not to be caught out being pompous saps his prose a bit. The notion of trying to “paddle down the stream of a character’s consciousness” is funny, I think, in a rather gawky way, but “shrink-time,” “the pedantry-shtik, “the yin and the yang” of the comparison between Joyce and Beckett, the “odd-ball narrators” of Nabokov, and the realization “that Joyce had started a whole new ball game” seem to take the casual tone to the point of actual laziness. Indeed, the book as a whole, for all its considerable virtues, does not seem to have been anxiously meditated, and its principal argument shows that Joyce’s stature is a good deal more evident than his influence.
It may well be, as Adams says, that posterity will decide “that one of the major systems of [our] literary weather” turns on Joyce. But the metaphor begs the question. Joyce certainly influenced Eliot, Beckett, Faulkner, and Woolf—they would not have written quite as they did had they not read him. For Nabokov, Queneau, and a few others he seems to have been mainly a grand example, something like an illustrious literary uncle. And for the rest, as Auden said of Yeats, he has become his admirers. He might be anywhere; can be shown to be in only a very few places.
Adams knows all this, of course. “In the simplest chronological terms, what novel of the last fifty years is not a post-Joycean novel?” More:
Any post-Joycean novelist in the loose chronological sense is also a post-Kafkan, a post-Freudian, a post-war novelist…. Every novelist who lived after Joyce is no doubt a post-Joyce novelist, but none is simply that.
But even when the question is narrowed to “specific technical or spiritual debts,” there are still snags, and the basic, disappointing strategy of Adams’s book is to dance up to what looks like a connection, and then decide it isn’t one. With Joyce and Woolf, Adams says, we should speak of “congruence, perhaps, not influence.” For Lezama Lima and Broch, he offers “the loose formula of affinity”: “There is very little question of influence, but in the hazier fields of affinity one might wander widely for a long time.” But this is a way of saying that nearly anything goes, and Adams has to keep roping his authors back into his book by means of a trick which recalls Groucho Marx setting up one of his watertight contracts. Between the Acts, for example, “does not overtly resemble anything in Joyce,” as Mrs. Dalloway does. Nevertheless, it is “the most essentially Joycean of Mrs. Woolf’s books.” “By abandoning Joyce in order to pursue himself, Beckett rediscovered Joyce.” “The Sound and the Fury, which shows fewer traces of direct influence or imitation [fewer than Soldier’s Pay or Mosquitoes], is in fact much closer to the techniques and structural energies of a Joycean novel.” These are thoughts that would not occur to anyone who had not decided to find Joyce wherever he looked, and one expects better of a critic with the nerve and intelligence of Robert Adams.