A review of James Joyce: A Short Introduction by Michael Seidel

One who has long been acquainted with the works that Seidel discusses will enjoy the book most. Despite the title and despite the titles of books like it, there is really no introduction to Joyce. The only introduction to the works of Joyce is the works themselves.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

James Joyce: A Short Introduction
by Michael Seidel
Blackwell Publishing
2002, ISBN 0-631-22702-4
$19.95, ix + 162 pages

Michael Seidel is a professor at Columbia University, the author of many books on Joyce and others. He is also on the editorial board of The James Joyce Studies Annual.

This is one of a series of short general survey books on a variety of literary topics. There are fourteen such books listed in the front matter and they range from individual authors to literary types and periods.

Appropriately to such a short book, the tone is brisk and the area to be covered marked out firmly. Seidel commendably depends heavily on Portraits of the Artist in Exile, itself an excellent book. The author promises little for the complex last work by Joyce, Finnegans Wake, but he sets out to cover the arc of creativity that culminates in the Wake. His quotations show that he is well acquainted with the Wake and he begins on an incidental basis to do more than he proposes. He also points out that “It is one of the more powerful paradoxes in Joyce’s work that he sometimes says things more clearly in Finnegans Wake than he does elsewhere because he can get away with saying almost anything in Finnegans Wake”

Seidel begins with Joyce’s fascination with language and observes that this fascination -an obsession – exercised Joyce’s creative genius throughout his life. Much the same can be said of his obsessions with Ireland and its church. The many obstacles of his youth became the fixtures with which he recreated the world. Inner conflicts, once acquired, are not easily dissolved and Seidel describes convincingly the way that Joyce nurtured these conflicts in order both to commemorate and transform them.

Rivalry and betrayal, the other springs of Joyce’s creative motions, get ample treatment in proportion to the brevity of the book. The difficulty in writing about Joyce is not to go on forever. In so brief a book the most that the author can do is to describe the ‘how’ of things but not the ‘why’ for this would take not pages but volumes.

But what we have so far read are the indispensable preliminaries to the consideration of the individual works and subsequent chapters concern themselves with the works in the order of their composition. There is a chapter each for Dubliners, Exiles and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. With these three chapters and the two introductory chapters we have reached the middle of the book. The rest of the book is about Ulysses.

Seidel refurbishes Dubliners, dimmed for many modern readers by the similar effects of many later writers. The stories, extraordinarily Chekovian in spirit although the evidence is strong that Joyce did not know Chekov’s stories at the time that he wrote Dubliners, are intricately connected and carefully constructed. Seidel develops this splendidly and adds important observations that are as fresh and original as the stories themselves.

Some minor errors of small importance occur -the use, for example, of ‘drawing’ instead of ‘drawling’ -but the reference to Brother Michael (infirmarian at Clongowes) instead of to the dean of studies at University College Dublin is an error of a serious and inexplicable sort. Otherwise Seidel’s account of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is vigorous and sustainedly interesting although the excessive preoccupation with the villanelle is curious.

Joyce’s one play, Exiles, is the ugly duckling that never became a swan but remains the focus for valuable study. Seidel manages in a fittingly brief discussion to indicate the importance of Exiles without allowing it more virtues than it deserves.

The first Ulysses chapter concerns narrative strategies. Seidel finds that there are four: customary third person narration; conversational narration; interior monologue; and, Joyce’s specialty, fourth estate narration to give it Seidel’s name. The last presents the most difficulties as it contains the book’s musings upon itself. It is mainly seen as eruptions of text only tenuously connected with the more customary narrative levels. In his examination of mixed modes Seidel may be rowing into a fogbank. One of the perplexities of Joyce’s method regarding direct quotation -the use of the dash rather than conventional quotation marks -is that the reader can never be altogether certain that direct speech has ended and another voice begun. To interpret, as Seidel does, that a closing phrase may be a thought rather than a spoken utterance is doubtful at best. Joyce, a connoisseur of ambiguity, would have loved this confusion. The deficiencies of the dash over the quotation marks are especially marked in Finnegans Wake.

In an otherwise successful effort to illustrate the fourth estate narrational device, Seidel again gets caught up in poor editing. The text gives us ‘Beniobenone’ for ‘Beninobenone,’ ‘Martha’ for ‘Marta,’ and ‘Karmelopulos’ for ‘Karamelopulos.’

Seidel next examines the Homeric structure of Ulysses. He admits that this can be transparent for most readers but that they will be the poorer for ignoring it. He has further the good and rather rare sense to modify the too easily made assumption that Stephen is searching for a father and Bloom is searching for a son. However true this may be its truth is more metaphoric than real. Seidel could have pushed the matter yet more: Homeric parallels are often ironic.

The idea of commenting on Ulysses by a study of each of the three main characters is original and, although brief, has merit. It asserts the humanity of Joyce as we look closely at Stephen, Bloom and Molly.

Much of the same line of thought continues in the chapter on the reflexive nature of Ulysses. Much of the book is turned in on itself. Much of the book is turned outward to the reader. This is in both cases part of the novel’s problems but even more of its charm. Seidel illustrates the reflexivity of Ulysses in a brilliant coda of alternative possible titles for Ulysses, all drawn from phrases used in the book itself.

The final chapter considers the relationship of Bloom and Molly. To what degree did Bloom connive at Molly’s affair with Boylan? The answer is equivocal and much in the same area as the troubled relationship between Richard Rowan and Bertha in Exiles.

One who has long been acquainted with the works that Seidel discusses will enjoy the book most. Despite the title and despite the titles of books like it, there is really no introduction to Joyce. The only introduction to the works of Joyce is the works themselves. This book enhances the experienced reader’s enjoyment of Joyce and will work very well for the new reader but it undertakes to deliver more than it can perform if one imagines it in the hands of a reader not at all familiar with Joyce. Despite this reservation, I would not hesitate to recommend this as one of the better examples of general surveys.

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