Tuesday, June 13, 2006

James Joyce is the colossus of 20th Century English Literature; his grandson, Stephen James Joyce, subject of a recent New Yorker profile, appears to be a bit of a prick: an imperious gatekeeper of the family archive, bent on controling gramps' reputation against the neverending on-slaught of Joyce scholars.

Academics, he has said, are like “rats and lice—they should be exterminated!”; failing that, he seems to be doing everything to keep them from getting anywhere near the Joyce letters or quoting at length from the work.

Some of his concern is understandable, particularly when you're protecting the life and reputation of someone who he remembers tenderly and who left such an intimate record behind. He also comes off as mean-spirited and (despite the fact that he has the law on his side) rather out of touch with his grandfather's art.

Take the following for example:

At a 1986 gathering of Joyceans in Copenhagen, he explained that “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” can be “picked up, read, and enjoyed by virtually anybody without scholarly guides, theories, and intricate explanations, as can ‘Ulysses,’ if you forget about all the hue and cry.”

Can it? It's a question people -- from Anthony Burgess to Jonathan Franzen -- never tire of wrestling with: whether the great cathedral of modern literature should be open to everyone or off-limits to all but the papacy.

Personally, I think Joyce wrote the book with both an eye on the street and one on the classroom, as it's deeply humane, extravagantly vulgar and extraordinarily dense. It is pure literature and it is a tough nut to crack. It's a deeply human story about (to boil it down) two lives that intertwine over the course of a single day in Dublin: one is Leopold Bloom, who has lost his son and whose wife is screwing another man; the other is Stephen Dedalus, who has long since lost his faith and recently lost a mother. The book is full of both melancholy regret and great roaring life, and there are so many rich, perfectly evocative scenes whose genius is evident to everyone.

At the same time, who but a devoted Joyce scholar can sit through all that endless "agenbite of inwit" nonsense without dozing off, or gives a rat's ass about the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter -- which is nothing but one belabored literary parody after the next?

It is a great, even heartbreaking book to read aloud, and it is a book, as Joyce himself knew, that is clearly meant to be broken down, reassembled and reassessed for all eternity. It's a democratic novel and an absolutely shameless ego trip that set a bar for pure self-indulgence, inspiring ham-handed nerds (William Gass soars to mind) ever since.

As someone who has connected with the book on a purely emotional or literary level, I sympathize with anyone who wants the book liberated from academia. At the same time, I do believe that -- Stephen James Joyce or no Stephen James Joyce -- this is a dog will still wander back to the classroom in which it has so long been nurtured and fed.

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