A review of Joyce’s Voices by Hugh Kenner

Any reader could multiply critical strictures, but this short book is in the Joycean’s path, may not be avoided, is constantly entertaining, and in many ways as enlightening as the more considered pronouncements of more conservative critics.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Joyce’s Voices
by Hugh Kenner
Dalkey Archive Press
2006 (reprint of a 1978 publication), ISBN 1-56478-428-2, $13.50, 120 pages

Hugh Kenner (1923-2003) was a brilliant writer and a gifted teacher. His works are both entertaining and excellent examples of literary criticism.

As with Shakespeare, the number of books and articles on Joyce constitute an enormous quantity of printed matter. And as with Shakespeare, the number of really useful books can be counted on the fingers of one’s hand. Although this book would not be one that I would name, it has demands on our attention and a felicity in the writing that makes it an agreeable experience.

Kenner is the only writer to have noticed that Joyce himself, when he had to produce prose not securely tied to an overriding creative intention, was uninventive and flat. Readers of The Critical Writings (edited by Mason and Ellmann) will especially appreciate the truth of this insight. An awful example of how badly Joyce could write is found in ‘From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer’ in that collection. Written in the idiom of Finnegans Wake, it tortures the language to little purpose and has none of the music or magic that appears in the Wake.

But when Joyce was properly wound up, there was no stopping him and although his work contains sections and passages that fail to dazzle, he easily equaled or surpassed in the bulk of his work anything that had been done in the English language. Although Kenner does not attempt to explain the phenomenon, he has many interesting insights to offer. Joyce, for example, reversed the trend towards a fully objective narrative stance. He allowed a character to enter the narrative with his or her own voice, to speak within the area previously sanctified solely for the use of the narrator. It is now a commonplace of narrative technique although today the reader must often wonder if it is a conscious device or the result of authorial ignorance.

This innovation is described as the Uncle Charles Principle after one of the characters in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man although, as Kenner points out, Joyce used the device freely throughout Dubliners, a predecessor of A Portrait.

Joyce used voices beyond that of narrator and narration influenced by character. In Ulysses, for example, the source of the voice is sometimes impossible to determine. It would be pleasant to believe that there is some constructive principle involved, but it is feasible – and indeed likely – that Joyce confronts us in these difficult passages with his own mischievous sense of humor. Kenner gets into trouble in these areas. He concludes, for example, that the apparition at the conclusion of the Circe section of Rudy, Bloom’s dead son, is apprehended solely by the reader. Bloom, he claims, does not see Rudy. He bases this on the absence of any reference or effect in the section that immediately follows. This is wayward. Bloom speaks Rudy’s name. And there is no carry-over of any of the fantasies from Circe to Eumaeus. The fantasies within Circe are real for the duration of Circe and are real for the characters affected as well as for the reader. As with many brilliant writers, Kenner might have been the better for less brilliance. In this example he certainly uses his own light to go badly astray.

When he applies to Joyce himself a voice of unmodified narration, however it might be mixed with the style of Bloom or some other character, and another of a kind of trickster god like Baron Samedi or Coyote, one may wonder if this luxuriance could resist Occam’s Razor. It is a too much that exceeds necessity.

Any reader could multiply critical strictures, but this short book is in the Joycean’s path, may not be avoided, is constantly entertaining, and in many ways as enlightening as the more considered pronouncements of more conservative critics.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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