James Joyce and the Irish Revolution: The Easter Rising as Modern Event, by Luke Gibbons. University of Chicago Press, xix + 317 pp, €35, ISBN: 978-0226824475
‘James Joyce and Paul L. Léon: The Story of a Friendship’ Revisited, Alexis Léon, Anna Maria Léon and Luca Crispi (eds), Bloomsbury Academic, 244 pp, £130, ISBN: 978-13501333839
The Reader’s Joyce: Ulysses, Authorship and the Authority of the Reader, by Sophie Corser. Edinburgh University Press, 232 pp, £85, ISBN: 978-1474481434
The books under consideration here are testament, in their diversity, to the huge range of interests and approaches now covered by the rubric ‘James Joyce’. The range extends from political and historical dimensions, to theory, to poignant personal suffering and endurance in a biographical context and offers further evidence that ‘James Joyce’ is by now a kind of floating signifier, a name that can cover a multitude in terms of an opportunity and an occasion for all kinds of interpretations and critical attitudes.
Part of the fascination of involvement with this author is exactly the wide spectrum of the challenges and the opportunities – the highways and the byways – of an ever-expanding Joycean universe. No one person, by now, can cover all these dimensions, but it may be at least possible to sample some of them in one hopefully comprehensive review.
The appearance of Luke Gibbons’s James Joyce and the Irish Revolution signals an important development in the understanding of the Irish relationship to Joyce’s work – and of his relationship to his native country. Gibbons brings into closer juxtaposition than has ever been managed before two epochal events that occurred around the same time: the writing and publication of Ulysses – a span going from roughly 1914 to 1922 – and the succession of events that could be called the Irish Independence struggle, starting in 1916 and culminating also in 1922.
In this endeavour, Gibbons is not without precursors. His book takes its place in the array of works that can broadly be called Irish postcolonial studies: an attempt to reinterpret Irish literature of the early twentieth century in terms of the effects on Irish society and on the Irish psyche of a long colonial history and of the Irish effort to free itself from that burden, both emotionally and intellectually.
It is probably Declan Kiberd, barely mentioned in the text, who has come nearest to a project such as this, especially with his Inventing Ireland (1995), but Kiberd’s study, which is of much wider scope, has nothing like the granular detail of Gibbons’s intensive interaction with some of the key figures of the independence struggle in their relationship to their great contemporary, then mostly living far away in Zurich. (Kiberd’s book of course covers much more than Joyce.) It is this that makes Gibbons’s work so valuable – itself, in fact, revolutionary – in its grounding of its argument in such a rich array of historical detail. The work will certainly have implications for the historiography of the period, prompting a different kind of revisionism from the one to which we have become accustomed.
It is dangerous to pick out a sentence or two as an epitome of a book’s argument and aims, but it is hopefully fair to take the following statement from the preface as a reasonable outline of goals: ‘This book … attempts to reclaim what was radical in the Irish revolution for a modernist project akin to that of Joyce’s, both of them responding to Ireland’s position on a fault line in the imperial world system of the early twentieth century.’
Before discussing some of the wider implications of this programme, it is necessary to give a fuller account of what Gibbons does in this remarkable book. He takes such figures, in roughly descending order of historical importance, as Roger Casement, Ernie O’Malley, Desmond FitzGerald, PS O’Hegarty, Desmond Ryan and Thomas Pugh (that does not exhaust the list) and examines their interactions with Joyce and his work. This sometimes involves personal acquaintance (Pugh, FitzGerald, Ryan), sometimes a very deep engagement (O’Malley, Ryan, O’Hegarty), sometimes, as with Casement, an awareness on Joyce’s part of their work and an incorporation of it into his own writing.
Just listing names does not do justice to what Gibbons has achieved here. Only O’Malley and Ryan receive chapters to themselves; the other chapters have more general themes, such as ‘Modern Epic and Revolution: Montage in the Margins’ and “‘Through the Eyes of Another Race”: Ulysses, Roger Casement and the Politics of Humanitarianism’. This latter, in addition to dealing with Casement and his well-known work in the Congo, discusses the theory of the Phoenician origin of the Celts, which so interested Joyce, and links it to the figure of the Cyclops, as represented by the Citizen in Ulysses.
Another important chapter examines, very ingeniously, the multiple meanings of the term “spatial form”, familiar in criticism of modern literature, to the planning of the Easter Rising and other revolutionary events, thereby creating an unexpected juxtaposition of different modernities and bringing them under the aegis of a wider concept of space and its potentials. As Gibbons aptly titles one of the sections of this chapter: ‘Time Transfixed’.
Fascinating in a different way are the notes which are all that remain of Ernie O’Malley’s lectures on Joyce, which he delivered in the US. They show a strong engagement with Joyce’s work. As Gibbons remarks, for someone who never showed any remorse for his actions during the War of Independence and Civil War (where he took the anti-Treaty side), it is intriguing to see the emphasis he put on the theme of remorse – ‘Agenbite of inwit’ – in the reflections of Stephen Dedalus. It is regrettable that the actual lectures he delivered have not survived.
Where one would question Gibbons’s reading, however, is the suggestion that part of Finnegans Wake alludes to O’Malley and especially to his arrest by Free State forces who surrounded a house on Ailesbury Road. Joyce’s notes from The Irish Times are notoriously random and the possibility that some of them may refer to O’Malley’s arrest is far from certain.
And the fact that Joyce adapts in Finnegans Wake the standard folk tale conclusion ‘Put on the kettle now and make the tay, and if they weren’t happy that you may’, which also features in O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound, is not sufficient to prove an ‘allusion’ by one to the other. The formula is very widely distributed. Joyce certainly influenced and affected some of these people; that they influenced or affected him is much less likely.
The sheer wealth of detail that Gibbons provides on the interactions of some of the War of Independence generation with Joyce is perhaps the most impressive thing about this volume. Sometimes it works the other way: people who are best known as Joyceans turn out to have War of Independence links of their own. Eileen McCarvill is quite well known to Irish Joyceans as an early pioneer, active from the 1940s to the 1970s; how many of them knew that under her own name of Eileen McGrane she was ‘a key figure in Michael Collins’s intelligence network during the War of Independence’ or that she was imprisoned in Mountjoy and in Liverpool, or that she was active again on the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War?
So this work certainly opens new horizons for the understanding of the role of Joyce in the insurrectionist imaginary of the period, deepening and widening our sense of how his ‘revolutionary’ modernist methods reflected a revolutionary sensibility that was in places operative in his native country just as it was operative in his writing.
My one reservation concerns the unquestioned use of the term ‘Irish Revolution’ in the title and throughout the work. Gibbons is quite ready to concede that the upshot of all these years of frenetic activity was, for many would-be revolutionaries, disillusionment and disappointment: the horrors of the Civil War were followed by a new state that was, to put it mildly, an extremely bourgeois construct, much as its predecessor had been, incorporating also a harsh and repressive Catholic church-dominated social control. There is a general consensus on this reading. Indeed, Gibbons’s important last chapter, called ‘Beyond Disillusionment’, suggests that Desmond Ryan’s suggestively titled radical memoir, Remembering Sion, was partly an antidote to the depression and disappointment that the new Irish state had engendered in him.
The book’s thesis, however, necessarily requires that what happened in those pivotal years was indeed a revolution; otherwise, the analogy with Joyce’s and other modernist procedures loses much of its force. But was it, really? Genuine revolutions – the French, the Russian, to some extent the English – involve genuine and radical social change, which, as we have seen, was not the case here. It is true that the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, most of it never carried out, contained radical elements, but even these fell well short of revolutionary upheaval.
This somewhat dubious quality of the book’s central premise does nothing to lessen the value of the individual case histories and more formal Modernist affinities outlined here. They at the very least disclose a largely unsuspected and unexamined relationship between certain radical elements of the Irish independence struggle and the radical innovations being undertaken by another Irish independence struggler far away in space, but not in thought or time. And for this superb, transformative undertaking the author deserves our gratitude.
Paul L Léon was, as Luca Crispi writes in ‘James Joyce and Paul L. Léon: The Story of a Friendship’ Revisited, Joyce’s closest friend and adviser in the last decade of his life. Léon’s subsequent fate was a terrible one: rounded up in Paris in August 1941 as part of a group of Jewish lawyers that the Nazis had targeted, he was first interned at the notorious Drancy camp and then in the even worse Compiègne, before being moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was murdered on April 4th, 1942. Léon, born in Russia, was survived by his wife, Lucie Ponizowsky, and their son, Alexis. Lucie, under the name Lucie Noel, subsequently pursued a successful career in journalism, mostly on fashion, and became an American citizen in 1959. Her memoir, James Joyce and Paul L. Léon: The Story of a Friendship, was first published in 1950. Long out of print, it is reprinted here in its entirety. Much of her account of this relationship – and of course she was very close to it – is fascinating and enlightening. Particularly touching is her description of the attempt to re-create, among the few Joyce disciples left in Paris in 1941, Joyce’s February 2nd birthday dinner – just a few days after he had died. Samuel Beckett and of course the Léons were among the number, testimony again to the devotion Joyce inspired, both as a person and as a writer.
But that is only part of the rich materials that this work provides. It also contains a very valuable “Contexts” by co-editor Luca Crispi, associate professor in University College Dublin, which provides a full background to the Joyce-Léon friendship, in particular Léon’s rescue of much Joyce material from his last Paris flat, subsequently stored in the National Library of Ireland. (Its formal public opening in 1992 in the presence of Alexis Léon and of Joyce’s grandson was a deeply moving occasion.)
Crispi also provides a separate piece outlining how The Story of a Friendship came to be written and published. And there are two brief pieces by Paul himself, one some thoughts on the ‘Haveth Childers Everywhere’ passage of what was to become Finnegans Wake and the other a moving account of his friendship with Joyce, written shortly after the latter’s death.
But the most extraordinary and memorable part of the book is the letters, here collected for the first time and translated and edited by Mary Gallagher, professor of French at UCD, that Léon was able to smuggle to his wife from Drancy and Compiègne. To read of Léon’s Calvary in these places is almost unbearably painful. It’s not just the huge physical deprivations – the hunger, the cold – it’s the sense of a spirit being crushed that is so shattering. Léon himself writes of his intellectual interests – he had substantial intellectual engagements of his own – and of how if he loses them he will have lost everything. Yet even they don’t finally sustain him – nothing can. Here is a brief note of November 5th, 1941:
Every day, every hour adds to my suffering. I feel myself disappearing into the void. I place my hope in you.
In some of these letters, we are very close to the heart of darkness. They deserve a wider circulation than they can receive in this rather restricted volume. It would also be good to have the letters and passages in Russian translated. The Léon family are now donating this archive to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, a very welcome development. We all ‘know about’ and deplore the Holocaust. Some of us have even been to Auschwitz and Yad Vashem. But it is in passages such as these – the direct experience – that one is brought face to face with the unimaginable. As I said at the start of this piece, an interest in James Joyce can bring one to some strange and unexpected places. But to none darker or more harrowing than this.
Faced with its multiple perspectives, the long span of its time-frame – from a quite possibly never-existent poet of the eighth century BC to still living critics and writers such as (at random) Kevin Dettmar, Anne Enright and John Banville, and taking in writers of antiquity, the Middle Ages and the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, among many others – as well as the major issues of literary theory and reading practice that it raises – I am going to take the coward’s way out in giving a brief account of Sophie Corser’s The Reader’s Joyce: I will quote the author’s own summary of what she has done in the ‘Conclusion’ to her book. This will at least give us a way in:
The novel [Ulysses] encourages a reader to question the authority of an author by emphasising the reader’s activity and the text’s intertextuality and openness. It draws attention to the reader’s role through an intertext of Homeric scholarship, through the difficulties caused by the ways in which characters’ thoughts are narrated, and by ensuring that ‘how to read Ulysses’ is a constant query for both reader and critic.
Joyce studies is complexly and significantly involved in the upkeep of the genius author. This author-centric scholarly environment affects reading and criticism by undermining particular theory-aligned responses, keeping biography consistently important to criticism through a number of critical shifts, and providing critics with a god-like author with whom to authorise their own readings.
Does this programme sound vaguely familiar to anyone? Well, yes, it does resemble in some important respects the poststructuralist agenda of the 1970s, or rather, for most in the Anglo-American (still more the Irish) spheres, the early 1980s. Corser explicitly makes this connection in her first chapter, much of which is devoted to Roland Barthes’s famous (or infamous) text ‘The Death of the Author’ of 1967.
Among the many amazing things Corser does in this book is to trace, almost casually, almost as an aside, the history of the reception and effect of poststructuralism on Joyce studies since the 1970s. In retrospect, those effects have been very slight – they certainly have not resulted in any serious undermining of the role of the author. As Corser points out, Derrida’s reverence for Joyce almost exceeds that of the earlier critics; he is more questioning, it is true, of the Joyce institution. Barthes’s essay remains something of an outlier in the poststructuralist universe, despite its fame: he himself later disowned it, and never applied it in any systematic way, and certainly not to Joyce, whom I’m not sure he even mentions anywhere.
Joyce, then, well survived the ‘death of the author’, and refused to go anywhere. As Corser’s title makes clear, her own interest is in redressing the balance, in the author-text-reader triad, in favour of the reader, not of the text, which was the goal of poststructuralism, and is also the goal, in a somewhat different way, of the currently prevalent genetic textual studies. So her approach needs to be distinguished from both these schools. It also needs to be distinguished from the superficially rather similar-sounding reader-response school of Wolfgang Iser and Hans-Robert Jauss: their interest was in the way readers responded to texts, in how texts affected them; Corser would want, I think, to give readers greater autonomy than this programme would allow.
Indeed, to reminisce briefly, and granting myself the privilege attaching to someone who actually lived through it, one of the great attractions of the era of poststructuralism and deconstruction was the sense of putting into question many matters that had been taken as truisms – the authority of the author, certainly, but also that of certain institutions and individuals who were guardians and repositories of the ‘truth’ and of the necessary expertise to enable one to execute interpretations that would have prestige and power.
The strong reaction of certain institutions and individuals to what deconstruction was implying was proof enough of the power of this new, French-based oppositional force, itself to some extent an accompaniment or even an ingredient of 1968. Some of the freshness and openness of that experience is recoverable in this book, with its wide range of reference and its cheerful insouciance in regard to several literary shibboleths and eminences. It is also highly contemporary in its references and allusions, beginning as it does by discussing the huge reaction to the story ‘Cat Person’ after it appeared in The New Yorker only some short years ago.
Returning more directly to Joyce, the strongest and most original chapter in this multifarious work is that devoted to what Corser calls ‘The Homeric Question’. The title has a double meaning: there is firstly the traditional ‘Homeric question’, which goes back to antiquity itself: who was he? Did he exist? Did the same person write The Iliad and The Odyssey? (modern scholarship is inclined to think not). Both foundational texts of Western literature, Homer and the Hebrew Bible, have essentially unknown authors.
And then there is the internal Joycean ‘Homeric question’ – the place of The Odyssey in Ulysses, how the two works relate, what Joyce has staked in making his own work so interdependent on this great precursor text – intertextuality brought to a hitherto unknown pitch, especially, as Corser shows, in the cabman’s shelter episode, Eumaeus.
Again, I will have to have recourse to quotation to convey some sense of what Corser is up to here: ‘The presence of the Homeric Question in “Eumaeus”, in Ulysses, prompts ideas of reading without an author, reading in search of an author, and reading that creates an author.’ In this chapter, she explores the implications of those statements in a dazzlingly original way, and thereby reopens issues around the relationship of these two texts – matters that have been thought to be long settled – in a manner that should stimulate further enquiries and raise further questions. The relationship has been thoroughly rethought in this challenging but rewarding chapter.
It is only appropriate, given the work’s title, that readers would have different responses to it, depending on their own subjective background and experiences. For me, it represents the final working-out of poststructuralism as applied to Joyce, well après la lettre. Corser, research fellow in the Department of English in University College Cork, declares she is not a poststructuralist, but no one is any more, and that does not mean that its implications are not still around.
So this is a major study, one whose implications should be taken on board and contemplated by literary critics everywhere. It may come as a relief to Joyceans to know that Corser’s next work is to be devoted to contemporary Irish writing: it means they may have something left to write about.
Flailing desperately to say anything that does not sound like a rave, I will point out a couple of instances where, it is appropriate to say, Homer nods. This is not easy to do, since the scholarship is nearly as impressive as the ideas – the bibliography alone leaves one slightly dizzy. However: on page 62, Corser refers to Joseph Frank’s well-known essay on spatial form of 1945, and says that ‘five years later, Edmund Wilson compares the book’s [Ulysses] difficulty and our need to revisit it to “a city, where we come more and more to recognize faces, to understand personalities, to grasp relations, currents and interests”.’ In fact, Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle, from which this quotation is taken, was first published in 1931, so Wilson’s acute insight preceded Frank’s essay by fourteen years.
Again – and this is nit-picking carried to a fine art – Corser quotes Hugh Kenner referring to “Valery Larbaud”, and, being the scrupulous scholar that she is, changes this to “Val[é]ry”, while placing the change between square brackets. But in fact Kenner, a Modernist veteran if ever there was one, was right: counterintuitive as it seems, Larbaud did not take an accent on his “e”. (Fairness requires me to mention that Gibbons makes the same error, on page xix.)
That one is reduced to such desperate measures in order to find anything remotely critical to say about this book is testimony to its comprehensive quality. It is challenging, but the challenge it offers to all readers is intensely rewarding, a strong intervention in the discourse around this now 101-year-old work, which is very much our contemporary.
Terence Killeen is Research Scholar at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. He is the author of Ulysses Unbound: A Reader’s Companion to Ulysses, recently issued in a new edition by Penguin UK. He is also a former journalist with The Irish Times, for which he still writes on Joyce-related matters.