Reading Joyce

February 28, 2008

Challenging the academic truism that the best criticism avoids subjectivity, David Pierce weaves into his argument a kind of diary about his own book's becoming and his experiences as a teacher, treating us in the process to an intriguing collection of some 200 pictures of Joyce, his favourite haunts, illustrations of the texts and Joycean ephemera galore.

Great finds include contemporary pictures of the composing room of the Freeman's Journal (where the "Aeolus" episode of Ulysses is set) and Earwicker family documents from Bognor Regis (where Joyce penned the first experiments that were to become Finnegans Wake). One favoured medium is the picture postcard. The discursive captions are well worth the read.

Pierce has a gift for readability and a serendipity in his research. The book offers five full chapters on Dubliners that are unabashed in their reimagination of the local history of Dublin and Ireland at the time and of Joyce's place in it as a young man of 22, mixed in with the author's own experiences.

Imagination is a key word here. Of course, all good critics and teachers imagine things, particularly in exploring the many rich silences of which Joyce's stories are full. Pierce has a dig at commonplace approaches to "Eveline" offering, by contrast, a broad sweep of Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies and extended personal reminiscences about an "American Wake" (a party to mark the departure of an emigrating family member to the US) that he himself attended as a boy in County Clare in the 1950s. He even dares to rewrite Joyce's sparse dialogue into a more fully articulated mode.

The potential of Joyce as a catalyst for creative writing is glimpsed here - and a teaching method designed to draw out critical perceptions that might otherwise be hard to elicit. That Joyce's story is indeed a narrative of emigration "with a difference" undoubtedly comes across.

The chapter on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man examines language and growing up as a Catholic in Ireland at the time, the autobiographical impulse being one that Joyce, as Pierce says, "had to write his way through". Three grand perambulatory chapters on Ulysses tour certain of its urban settings, visiting in detail the domestic space of Leopold and Molly Bloom. From the chapter "Leopold Bloom at home and at work" we get a warm encounter with those everyday experiences that it was Joyce's contribution to have exposed. Pierce, though, is not so much shocking as rather cosy in his treatment of the private moments that were once thought so obscene but that the student of Ulysses may now explore at will.

Students' responses to Joyce's great final soliloquy are woven into a thoughtful Penelopean tapestry in chapter ten. "Don't panic" is the reassuring message that runs through the book, one that its author brings to bear in a finale on Finnegans Wake that combines the surprisingly disconsolate "If we're honest, most of us would agree that Finnegans Wake is simply unreadable" with the refreshingly disingenuous "What I like about Finnegans Wake is ... ".

Reading Joyce sets a steady pace but by the end has accumulated a wealth of new information and insight about Joyce and a good bit more besides.

Richard Brown is reader in modern literature, School of English, University of Leeds, and editor of A Companion to James Joyce

Reading Joyce

By David Pierce
Pearson Longman
ISBN 9781405840613
Published 5 December 2007

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