Alphabetical portrait of the artist

James Joyce A to Z
May 3, 1996

From the size of this book I can only assume it is destined for the coffee table. As with a dictionary, the first dip-in involves heading straight for expletives: how a reference book approaches its most contentious and provocative definitions is the best measure of its credibility. The f-word here is Finnegans.

The context for this entry is as follows. James Joyce's writing up to and including Ulysses was crucial to the development of the (modernist) novel, its experimentation with narrative and related novelistic concerns. Finnegans Wake, at the tail end of modernism, shifted this experimentation to an overwhelming concern with a narrower understanding of language. The result for most people is that Finnegans Wake is readable only as a collection of crossword clues. Rather than expand the world of narrative, as his previous work had done, Joyce's last offering closed down possibilities. In its attempt to formulate and articulate an understanding of the modern world, it took one aspect of the novel to an unwarranted extreme. To force language to take on a (supposedly mimetic) dream-like polysemism, as if normal language does not already have this quality, is to reduce the scope, not just of narrative, but of language too. The argument against the novel is therefore that it is the dead end of modernism. How would Nicholas Fargnoli and Michael Gillespie deal with the more damning commentary on Finnegans Wake?

Tangentially. They provide a lengthy "synopsis or plot summary", as well as other supporting material, items that are clearly written and informative. But what about Finnegans Wake's unreadability and status as a high-modernist cul-de-sac? Very little: "Reading Finnegans Wake takes patience"; "reference works, dictionaries and studies of the Wake can greatly aid the reader". Then this interesting suggestion: "Reading it aloud by oneself or with others can also facilitate enjoyment". Maybe it is just that I am too shy, but reading Finnegans Wake aloud is not my idea of entertaining friends.

The book is intended as a primer: it wants to provide "the basic information needed to understand and enjoy reading Joyce", and it does this well enough. It is also intended as a reference tool, but, as the book itself acknowledges, much of the material would already be familiar to such an audience. I like the zest and clarity of the book. But an A to Z is not an innocent guide, even if it aims to be a neutral explanation of an index, and I would have preferred a greater critical insight integrated into its desire to inform. It is fine as a book to browse, but as a scholarly reference book it rarely gets beyond themes and plot descriptions.

Steven Earnshaw is lecturer in English, Sheffield Hallam University.

James Joyce A to Z

Author - A. Nicholas Fargnoli and Michael Patrick Gillespie
ISBN - 0 7475 2409 2
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £25.00
Pages - 304

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