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 …
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