Ghosts of Hamlet, Godot and co

Joyce - Shakespeare - Aeschylus - Chaucer - Beckett - Dante
May 27, 2005

Each of these volumes in Cambridge’s Landmarks of World Literature series is billed as a “student guide” and a second edition. My chief grouchs are that, with one exception - Vincent Sherry’s scintillating study of Ulysses - the claim to be a second edition is unconvincing, and that Sherry’s high-octane exegesis could guide only a student smart enough not to need a student guide. He alone seizes the opportunity of a new edition to rethink his book and thus improve it immensely. The best the rest can offer is a beefed-up “Guide to further reading”.

None of the books appends a list of websites, which should be de rigueur these days, and only the book on Beckett includes a list of videos and DVDs, whose absence from the Hamlet volume is especially regrettable.

Despite the gripes, it is hard to fault these introductions. The dream student guide to works of this calibre should inform and enthuse in relaxed, lucid prose, yet provide unexpected angles on the subject. All the books bar Sherry’s pull this off superbly, without disguising the difficulties these demanding texts present. The fact that those difficulties are formidable for the student of Aeschylus without ancient Greek leads Simon Goldhill, for example, to adopt an informal idiom that is just right for the job, but that does not stop him telling us something new.

The unique selling point of the series is that each volume addresses its subject not just as a classic of its native culture, but also as a trailblazing masterpiece of international significance. Whether all the works dealt with have had a truly global impact is debatable. That Th e Canterbury Tales is a touchstone of narrative virtuosity in Korea or that Waiting for Godot is a benchmark for avant-garde drama in Iran seems unlikely.

What the studies do demonstrate is that these seminal works have changed the landscape of literature far beyond the horizon of their world and time in ways they could not have foreseen. And they have done it by forging in the crucible of form and phrase visions that foreshadow a future world beyond our time.

All Western theatre, as Goldhill points out, springs from the Oresteia , whose “dramatic techniques, narrative development and dense poetry changed the course of Greek and hence European drama”. Aeschylus’s titanic trilogy played a vital role, too, in the thought of Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx, and was a source of theatrical inspiration to Wagner, T.S. Eliot, Sartre and O’Neill. Eliot’s debt to Dante’s sublime Divine Comedy was far greater and he shared it with generations of writers from Boccaccio to Heaney, including Chaucer. In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer in his turn created, in Winthrop Wetherbee’s words, “a radically innovative literary structure, a fictional world with no centre”, that inaugurated the art of the novel three centuries ahead of schedule.

Joyce’s novel to end all novels became, as Sherry observes, “a cryptoclassic before it was read, a subversive colossus” so outrageously original that the full measure of its influence has yet to be taken. The major English modernist novel to be sired by Joyce was Mrs Dalloway , whose stream of consciousness, manifold perspective and confinement to a single day Virginia Woolf lifted straight from Ulysses , undeterred by its seeming to her, as she infamously put it, the “illiterate, underbred book... of a self-taught working man”.

But it is to his countryman Samuel Beckett that Joyce’s legacy of exacting linguistic experiment passes. In Waiting for Godot Beckett invented, as Lawrence Graver shows, the grammar of modern theatre, without which the drama not only of Pinter and Stoppard, but also of Fugard and Mamet, would be unimaginable.

As for the work that towers above all other landmarks of world literature today, suffice it to cite Paul Cantor’s conclusion that “one could virtually write a history of the past four centuries of European literature in terms of the reception of Hamlet ”. Cantor contends that a conflict between the classical and the Christian ideal of heroism lies at the heart of the tragedy. But he has the honesty to admit that, when all is said and done, “a sense of mystery remains, that no explanation can cover all the questions Hamlet raises ”. That sense of impending revelation is a quality possessed by all these works, and what keeps us coming back to them to decipher their dispatches from the past. It is also the quality that mocks attempts to explain them historically as the products of their epoch. They defy such explanation because they are tuned to the frequency of what could be, not shackled to the matrix from which they emerged.

The signal virtue of these excellent introductions is that they keep the contextualising brief and focus on analysing the language and design of the work. For it is in the way it is shaped and the way it is worded that the work’s estrangement from its era and its contract with futurity find expression. They find expression on the understanding that Sherry eloquently imputes to Joyce, but that many immortals in the pantheon of world literature might acknowledge as their creed: “The really important things cannot be said directly, and so must be left on the edge of verbal consciousness, like intimations that vanish when looked at directly.”

Kiernan Ryan is professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Joyce: Ulysses. Second edition

Author - Vincent Sherry
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 125
Price - £.50 and £9.99
ISBN - 0 521 83209 8 and 53976 5

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