“James Joyce” — James Huneker

“James Joyce,” a chapter from James Huneker’s collection of criticism, Unicorns (1917).

Who is James Joyce? is a question that was answered by John Quinn, who told us that the new writer was from Dublin and at present residing in Switzerland; that he is not in good health—his eyes trouble him—and that he was once a student in theology, but soon gave up the idea of becoming a priest. He is evidently a member of the new group of young Irish writers who see their country and countrymen in anything but a flattering light. Ireland, surely the most beautiful and most melancholy island on the globe, is not the Isle of Saints for those iconoclasts. George Moore is a poet who happens to write English, though he often thinks in French; Bernard Shaw, notwithstanding his native wit, is of London and the Londoners; while Yeats and Synge are essentially Celtic, and both poets. Yes, and there is the delightful James Stephen, who mingles angels’ pin-feathers with rainbow gold; a magic decoction of which we never weary. But James Joyce, potentially a poet, and a realist of the De Maupassant breed, envisages Dublin and the Dubliners with a cruel scrutinising gaze. He is as truthful as Tchekov, and as grey—that Tchekov compared with whose the “realism” of De Maupassant is romantic bric-à-brac, gilded with a fine style. Joyce is as implacably naturalistic as the Russian in his vision of the sombre, mean, petty, dusty commonplaces of middle-class life, and he sometimes suggests the Frenchman in his clear, concise, technical methods. The man is indubitably a fresh talent.

Emerson, after his experiences in Europe, became an armchair traveller. He positively despised the idea of voyaging across the water to see what is just as good at home. He calls Europe a tapeworm in the brain of his countrymen. “The stuff of all countries is just the same.” So Ralph Waldo sat in his chair and enjoyed thinking about Europe, thus evading the worries of going there too often. It has its merit, this Emersonian way, particularly for souls easily disillusioned. To anticipate too much of a foreign city may result in disappointment. We have all had this experience. Paris resembles Chicago, or Vienna is a second Philadelphia at times; it depends on the colour of your mood. Few countries have been so persistently misrepresented as Ireland. It is lauded to the eleventh heaven of the Burmese or it is a place full of fighting devils in a hell of crazy politics. Of course, it is neither, nor is it the land of Lover and Lever; Handy Andy and Harry Lorrequer are there, but you never encounter them in Dublin. John Synge got nearer to the heart of the peasantry, and Yeats and Lady Gregory brought back from the hidden spaces fairies and heroes.

Is Father Ralph by Gerald O’Donovan a veracious picture of Irish priesthood and college life? Is the fiction of Mr. Joyce representative of the middle class and of the Jesuits? A cloud of contradictory witnesses passes across the sky. What is the Celtic character? Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun? Or isn’t the pessimistic dreamer with the soul of a “wild goose,” depicted in George Moore’s story, the real man? Celtic magic, cried Matthew Arnold. He should have said, Irish magic, for while the Irishman is a Celt, he is unlike his brethren across the Channel. Perhaps he is nearer to the Sarmatian than the continental Celt. Ireland and Poland! The Irish and the Polish! Dissatisfied no matter under which king! Not Playboys of the Western World, but martyrs to their unhappy temperaments.

The Dublin of Mr. Joyce shows another variation of this always interesting theme. It is a rather depressing picture, his, of the daily doings of his contemporaries. His novel is called A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a title quite original and expressive of what follows; also a title that seems to have emerged from the catalogue of an art-collector. It is a veritable portrait of the artist as a boy, a youth and a young man. From school to college, from the brothel to the confessional, from his mother’s apron-strings to coarse revelry, the hero is put to the torture by art and relates the story of his blotched yet striving soul. We do not recall a book like this since the autobiography En Route of J.-K. Huysmans. This Parisian of Dutch extraction is in the company of James Joyce. Neither writer stops at the half-way house of reticence. It’s the House of Flesh in its most sordid aspects, and the human soul is occasionally illuminated by gleams from the grace of God. With both men the love of Rabelaisian speech is marked. This, if you please, is a Celtic trait. Not even the Elizabethans so joyed in “green” words, as the French say, as do some Irish. Of richest hue are his curses, and the Prince of Obliquity himself must chuckle when he overhears one Irishman consign another to everlasting damnation by the turn of his tongue.

Stephen, the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, tells his student friend about his father. These were his attributes: “A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a story-teller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt, at present a praiser of his own past.” He could talk the devil out of the liver-wing of a turkey—as they say up Cork way. The portrait is well-nigh perfect. The wild goose over again, and ever on the wing. Stephen became violently pious after a retreat at the Jesuits. From the extreme of riotous living he was transformed into a militant Catholic. The reverend fathers had hopes of him. He was an excellent Latinist, but his mind was too speculative; later it proved his spiritual undoing. To analyse the sensibility of a soul mounting on flaming pinions to God is easier than to describe the modulations of a moral recidivist. Stephen fell away from his faith, though he did not again sink into the slough of Dublin low life. Cranly, the student, saw through the hole in his sceptical millstone. “It is a curious thing, do you know,” Cranly said dispassionately, “how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” A profound remark. Once a Roman Catholic always a Roman Catholic, particularly if you are born in Ireland.

Mr. Joyce holds the scales evenly. He neither abuses nor praises. He is evidently out of key with religious life; yet he speaks of the Jesuits with affection and admiration. The sermons preached by them during the retreat are models. They are printed in full—strange material for a novel. And he can show us the black hatred caused by the clash of political and religious opinions. There is a scene of this sort in the house of Stephen’s parents that simply blazes with verity. At a Christmas dinner the argument between Dante (a certain Mrs. Riordan) and Mr. Casey spoils the affair. Stephen’s father carves the turkey and tries to stop the mouths of the angry man and woman with food. The mother implores. Stephen stolidly gobbles, watching the row, which culminates with Mr. Casey losing his temper—he has had several tumblers of mountain dew and is a little “how come you so?” He bursts forth: “No God in Ireland! We have had too much God in Ireland! Away with God!” “Blasphemer! Devil!” screamed Dante, starting to her feet and almost spitting in his face. “Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!” The door slammed behind her. Mr. Casey suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain. “Poor Parnell!” he cried loudly. “My dead King.” Naturally the dinner was not a success. Stephen noted that there were tears in his father’s eyes at the mention of Parnell, but that he seemed debonair enough when the old woman unpacked her heart of vile words like a drab.

There is no denying that the novel is as a whole hardly cheerful. Its grip on life, its intensity, its evident truth, and unflinching acceptance of facts will make A Portrait disagreeable to the average reader. There is relief in the Trinity College episodes; humour of a saturnine kind in the artistic armoury of Mr. Joyce. There is no ironist like an Irishman. The book is undoubtedly written from a full heart, but the author must have sighed with relief when he wrote the last line. No one may tell the truth with impunity, and the portrait of Stephen in its objective frigidity—as an artistic performance—and its passionate personal note, is bound to give offence in every quarter. It is too Irish to be liked by the Irish; not an infrequent paradox. The volume of tales entitled Dubliners reveals a wider range, a practised technical hand, and a gift for etching character that may be compared with De Maupassant’s. A big comparison, but read such masterpieces in pity and irony as The Dead, A Painful Case, The Boarding-House or Two Gallants, and be convinced that we do not exaggerate.

Dublin, we have said elsewhere, is a huge whispering gallery. Scandal of the most insignificant order never lacks multiple echoes. From Merrion Square, from the Shelbourne, to Dalkey or Drumcondra; from the Monument to Chapelizod, the repercussion of spoken gossip is unfailing. The book Dubliners is filled with Dublinesque anecdotes. It is charged with the sights and scents and gestures of the town. The slackers who pester servant-girls for their shillings to spend on whisky; the young man in the boarding-house who succumbs to the “planted” charms of the landlady’s daughter to fall into the matrimonial trap—only De Maupassant could better the telling of this too commonplace story; the middle-aged man, parsimonious as to his emotions and the tragic ending of a love-affair that had hardly begun; and the wonderfully etched plate called The Dead with its hundred fine touches of comedy and satire—these but prove the claim of James Joyce’s admirers that he is a writer signally gifted. A malevolent fairy seemingly made him a misanthrope. With Spinoza he could say—oh, terrifying irony!—that “mankind is not necessary” in the eternal scheme. We hope that with the years he may become mellower, but that he will never lose the appreciation of “life’s more bitter flavours.” Insipid novelists are legion. He is Huysmans’s little brother in his flair for disintegrating character. But yet an Irishman, who sees the shining vision in the sky, a vision that too often vanishes before he can pin its beauty on canvas. But yet an Irishman in his sense of the murderous humour of such a story as Ivy Day in the Committee-Room, which would bring to a Tammany heeler what Henry James called “the emotion of recognition.” Ah! the wild goose. The flying dream.

2 thoughts on ““James Joyce” — James Huneker”

  1. Funny, I always thought that Milan Kundera had invented the interpretation that Joyce was the last Realist (in Flaubert’s line), but clearly that way of thinking is pretty old, judging from Huneker’s opening lines. Romantic bric-à-brac, that’s a good one, by the way…


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