“Who are the modern heirs of James Joyce?”

Amit Majmudar
January 29, 2014
Comments 1

The New York Times Book Review has instituted a new feature recently, in which they pose a question to a pair of writer-critics. Generally the answers are constrained by the word-limits imposed by the newspaper-article format and pervasive historical nearsightedness. The pool of pre-selected critics has very little working knowledge of literature before 1800 A.D., and it shows in their answers, and sometimes in the questions themselves. A recent question, for example, characterized our “age” as being somehow peculiarly given to “remakes,” as if the near-entirety of Shakespeare, all of Virgil, Goethe’s Faust, French neoclassical tragedy (and the Greek tragic drama on which it was based), all Arthurian romances including Le Morte D’Arthur, and, oh yeah, the Homeric epics themselves weren’t overt and unabashed remakes of pre-existing material, stories already familiar to their audiences whose “new” versions maximized their effectiveness by exploiting that familiarity.

The most recent question concerns the present-day heirs of James Joyce. Joyce, we must remember, was everything at once, and it is precisely this all-at-onceness that is Joycean. A partial list of traits a present-day heir of Joyce would have to display (and mind you, this is Joyce, so the traits would have to be exhibited with in-your-face excess):

A total command of a contemporary, highly local vernacular and a willingness (eagerness?) to sacrifice comprehensibility by the very people whose vernacular he transfigures.

An obsessive love of folkloric/mythopoetic/religious material and the habitual forcing of these motifs into quotidian settings and contexts.

An ability to write men (Stephen Dedalus); an ability to write women (Molly Bloom).

A wish to transcend mere nationalism and locality, either linguistic or cultural (Finnegans Wake), and a simultaneous wish to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

An ability to use the word soul and mean it. An ability to use the word smithy and mean it.

To write not Britons, not Irishmen, but Dubliners—and yet to pun in the tongues of aborigines from lands he’d never visited.

To create a large work about minutiae without its becoming trivial (Ulysses); to create a small work on a Big Theme without its becoming diffuse or overblown (“The Dead”).

Poetry and prose. Short story and novel.

Irish English and language itself. Political chatter and mythopoeisis.

One day in Dublin and the whole history of the whole world.

To be arch-classical (in the sense of Greeks-and-Romans classical); to be utterly of the moment.

You can find other writers, living and dead, who demonstrate one or two or three of these Joycean traits—but few dead writers and no living writers who demonstrate all. This kind of writer happens at a specific historical moment, at the end of something and the beginning of something else. This is why I think of Dante Alighieri and James Joyce, for all their surface differences of form and subject-matter, as fundamentally similar writers; Joyce wasn’t Dante’s “heir” so much as Dante’s uncanny second coming. But there is no living writer we can place in their company. To call any living writer Joyce’s heir is to define Joyce down, to focus on one or two details of Joyce and ignore the whole of him. Unlike most literary questions, this week’s NYTBR “Bookends” question resembles a word problem from mathematics. Accordingly, “Who are James Joyce’s modern heirs?” has a mathematical solution: {Empty set}.

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