Thursday, October 16, 2014

Belated Bloomsday 2014: They Do Joyce in Differant Voyces

The commodious vicus of time's recirculation sped me past this year's Bloomsday without a blogpost, so here's this year's delateful Joycean ejaculation, exactly four months late.

This year I'm thinking about the vast diffusion of Joyce's influence over the literature of the last hundred years. Let's take our cue from T. S. Eliot's early title for The Waste Land and imagine a survey of the past century's literature under the title "They Do Joyce in Different Voices." Consider the Joycean debts owed by these landmarks of the modern literary mind:

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. The most influential English-language poem of the first half the 20th century was decisively influenced by Joyce's deployment of mythology in Ulysses, which Eliot read chapter-by-chapter in little magazines before its 1922 book publication. Of course, if we wish to take the ironic, deflationary deployment of myth and history as the defining rhetoric of Modernism, we should gaze back behind Joyce and seek Modernism's genesis in two paintings by Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia. In the spring of 1863, Manet was painting the latter in his studio while hordes of philistines were savaging the former at the Salon. Accordingly, I arbitrarily cite May 1863 in Paris as the time and place of Modernism's birth.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf leveled a few unimpressive and snobbish criticisms at Ulysses, but that didn't stop her from ripping off Joyce's central idea (a day in the inner lives of urban characters) when she wrote Dalloway. Woolf's novel, read from our present distance in time, seems as much a complement/compliment to Joyce's novel as an implicit (if rather obvious) critique.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. By the time she wrote this later work, Woolf had internalized Joyce's techniques, combined them with Proust's, and made them her own.

The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien. In this monument to one Irish writer's monumental anxiety of influence, O'Brien imagines a Joyce who survived the war and lived on to absurdly disavow his literary achievements.

At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien. Joyce liked and praised this proto-postmodern work that rises directly from the soil of the 'Cyclops' and 'Circe' episodes in Ulysses.

Murphy by Samuel Beckett. Joyce reportedly memorized the closing lines of this, Beckett's first and most clearly Joycean novel. Beckett once said that in fiction Joyce tended toward omniscience and he, Beckett, tended toward ignorance. The impressive range of reference in Beckett's early prose suggests he was still decisively under the Joycean influence when he wrote Murphy. It is arguable that he never really fought free of the influence, that he spent his entire career dialectically propelled by Joyce, like a moth repeatedly approaching then fleeing from a dazzling flame.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Miller was merely the most audacious of the American expatriates who learned from Joyce's work. The urban stream-of-consciousness style of Miller's horny-man-on-the-street rhapsodies descends directly from the early chapters of Ulysses.

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. It's probably not too much of a stretch to call this an American answer to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. Faulkner's representation of Benjy's fragmented consciousness would have been impossible without Joyce's experiments in the first half and last chapter of Ulysses.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. The darkest of the Dubliners stories lie somewhere behind much of Hemingway's best work. To take just one example, read "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" in the light of Joyce's "Counterparts."

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. The best parts of Barnes' experimental novel (which seems stranger to me with every re-reading; it's that rare book that becomes more difficult the better you know it) are the chapters dominated by Dr. Matthew O'Connor, an Irish-American monologuist who sounds like Joyce's Buck Mulligan on a roll.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. No writer more clearly desired to be dubbed the 'son of Joyce,' and this is perhaps the only novel in English that has succeeded in doing something both original and interesting with the linguistic techniques pioneered in Finnegans Wake.

Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Joyce's reduction of narrative point-of-view to the thoughts in a single mind, his consequent expansion of the representation of individual consciousness, his epiphanic elevation of the mundane to the level of the symbolic--all of these characteristic Joycean strategies fed into the radical reductions of the French nouveau roman.

Night by Edna O'Brien. Directly influenced by Molly Bloom's monologue, this is the next generation's and the other gender's reply to Ulysses. Every Irish writer must wrestle with James Joyce (if only, like Roddy Doyle, to petulantly dismiss him), and O'Brien did so at length in her very good, concise book on Joyce for the Penguin Lives series.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. In his most formally original work, that noted Humbutterfly Hunter Professor V. Nabokov (AKA several sirenical pseudonyms), who taught Ulysses to undergraduates at Cornell, twisted Joycean formal experimentation to his own comically obsessive ends.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. The definitive Californian queering of Ulysses. Isherwood takes the original idea for Ulysses--the thoughts of a single man on a single day--and creates a pioneering masterpiece of what I suppose we must still call 'gay fiction.' I'd prefer to call A Single Man 'great fiction.'

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. In his greatest and most difficult book, Pynchon rewrites Ulysses for the age of aerial bombardment and nuclear warfare. Tyrone Slothrop is what happens to Stephen Dedalus after the Bomb.

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney. Joyce is a spectre haunting Irish poetry. Heaney evokes him beautifully in the last section of "Station Island."

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Joyce's influence on Borges might almost be called 'spiritual.' Joyce showed Borges that the transcendent might reside at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin and suggested to him that an Aleph might exist on an ordinary basement stair, that infinity might be found among the dusty volumes of a library, that a book might be the most dangerous labyrinth of all.

Couples by John Updike. As soon as the novel's first couple sexlessly hits the sack, Updike shifts into a few pages of Joycean pastiche. Joyce's influence on Updike was huge, and he may not have successfully assimilated it until Rabbit got rich.

The Tunnel by William H. Gass. Gass's prose owes much to the musical stylings of James the Joyous, and Gass's formal experiments and titanic streams of consciousness clearly descend from the Joycean precedent. It would be a mistake, though, to call The Tunnel a 'stream' of consciousness novel; this is no sibilant stream, no burbling brook; it's a Mississippi River of consciousness roaring toward its oceanic mouth. Don't drown in it.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. Sal the Man takes Joycean linguistic exuberance back to Bombay. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Joyce's languages derive ultimately from Indo-European.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin. Doblin's best-known work is the Berliner Ulysses. It exercised a decisive influence upon Gunter Grass, among many other writers.

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Bloom uses the Viconian structural paradigm of Finnegans Wake to organize this collection of insightful, idiosyncratic essays on Western literature.

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth. The freedom claimed by Joyce and enlarged by Henry Miller and Jean Genet bears strange, darkly comic fruit in Roth's greatest (and probably funniest) novel, a book that explicitly references Ulysses.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. After 40 years, it's time for this book to start receiving the respect it deserves. Forget anything you might have heard about it and read it. It's a major, serious and seriously funny work of literary fiction in the long comic tradition that begins at Aristophanes and reaches one of its peaks on Mount Joyce.

Saturday by Ian McEwan. This post-9/11 'one day in a Londoner's life' novel contains multiple Joycean allusions that are much more subtle than the book's obvious structural debt.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace. Even James Wood is sometimes capable of astute criticism. When he remarked that Wallace deliberately threw open his prose instrument to the degraded languages of the American present, he identified the deepest debt Wallace owed to Ulysses (especially the strategies of the 'Eumaeus' episode and the first half of 'Nausicaa'). The bandannaed one seems to have gotten his Joyce at secondhand, via the American academic postmodernists (Barthelme, Barth, Coover) who hoed their various rows in the satirical-pastichey ground broken by Auld Blind Jim.

The House of Ulysses and Larva by Julian Rios. If Joyce had not existed, would Julian Rios have a career? Would he be known, even ever so slightly, outside a tiny Spanish-reading coterie?

The Surrealists. Joyce's relation to Surrealist literature closely parallels Picasso's relation to Surrealist visual arts: he was an older, already accomplished master who both influenced and was influenced by the artists of the Surrealist group.

Ulysses Gramophone: Two Words for Joyce by Jacques Derrida. And just for the hell of it, let's throw the Old Derridadaist into the mix. (For anyone interested in the critical connections, all of Derrida's writings on Joyce have been collected in English in the book Derrida and Joyce, edited by Andrew J. Mitchell and Sam Slote.) It seems to me that one of Derrida's unacknowledged projects was the introduction of Joycean linguistic play into philosophico-critical discourse. Regardless, Joyce remains the more entertaining philosopher--by far. (Readers of Derrida will understand why the penultimate word in this post's title is not misspelled.)

Slacker and the Before films, directed by Richard Linklater. And just for the unholy Joycean hell of it, let's end this post at the movies. Richard Linklater's deeply Bunuelian film Slacker signals its Joycean influence with a reading from Ulysses, but the Ulyssean influence is more subterranean (and thus more effective) in the wonderful series of Before movies starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Joyce and Eric Rohmer seem to stand side by side somewhere behind all three of these conversation-driven, single-day tales.


Corey said...

Have you read up in the old hotel by Joseph Mitchell?

BRIAN OARD said...


Yes, several years ago. The Joe Gould essays and the piece on Mohawk skyscraper workers stick in my mind. Good book.

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

Borges was more than likely influenced by Kafka, whom he read in German when he was a teenager living in Switzerland. Surely that's where the mingling of the ordinary and the fantastic and his objective, sober report of the wondrous come from.

BRIAN OARD said...

@Miguel (St. Orberose):

True, the influence of Kafka on Borges is like the influence of the Sun on the Earth. It's huge and obvious. But Borges was also a very early and enthusiastic reader of Ulysses, of which he wrote as early as 1925. His breathless response to the reading is included in the English-language edition of his Selected Non-Fictions (Penguin 1999). Of course, Borges's influences are legion; they fill Babelian libraries. One might remark that the essayistic form of many of his fictions owes much to Thomas De Quincey and the British Romantic essayists. And I'm intrigued by the Borges-Bierce connection evident in "The Secret Miracle" vis a vis Bierce's "Incident at Owl Creek Bridge," a connection critics have noted.

Simon said...

An intriguing post; I wouldn't have thought of some of these texts as owing a debt to Joyce, but now I see they do. Thanks.

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

Yes, I know he was an admirer of Ulysses, although I also know he had an ambivalent relationship with Joyce; his thoughts on Finnegans Wake were less warm, in fact his putdown of it is hilarious.

But I think there's a great difference between admiring one particular novel and being influenced by it. In fact I'm not sure his admiration of that particular novel remained intact into old age. Talking to Osvaldo Ferrari in the 1980s, he shows a total lack of interest in Joyce's verbal games and stands up for Kafka's simplicity. In case you're interested: