Monday, 19 July 2010

Talking of Joyce by Umberto Eco and Liberato Santoro-Brienza

Talking of Joyce by Umberto Eco and Liberato Santoro-Brienza (University College Dublin Press 1998)

As of now I am only a third of the way through my elephantine edition  of Ulysses which stands at over 1,200 pages so I decided to fit in this small and rather interesting volume of literary criticism on the works of James Joyce.'Talking of Joyce' is a collection of lectures one by Umberto Eco on Joyce's search for the perfect language given at University College Dublin on 31st October 1991, on the anniversary of that institutions conferral upon Joyce of his Bachelor of Arts and one given four years later by Liberato Santoro-Brienza on Joyce's position in the Italian literary tradition.

Umberto Eco's lecture entitled 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Bachelor' argues that the unique seminal idea of Joyce's career was to pursue  grammar as 'the primary science. The rest of his life was devoted to the invention of a new grammar, and his quest for artistic truth became the quest for a perfect language'. He draws upon the Book of Kells, an example of the labyrinthine Hisperic aesthetics, as an influence on Joyce. "The book is a luscious vegetation of interlace, of stylised animal  forms, of small simian figures amidst impossible foliage that covers page after page...the book is the lucid vertigo of a language that is trying to redefine the world while redefining itself, with the full realisation that - in a dark and uncertain age - the key to the revelation of the world is not to be found in a straight line but rather within the labyrinth".

Umberto Eco suggests that, for Joyce, the key to his aesthetic theory is not trying to find some pre-Babelic language, the language with which Adam spoke to God but pursuing a language that delights in imperfect complexity. 'To understand that human languages are open,  imperfect and capable of begetting that supreme imperfection that we call poetry,  constitutes the only aim of any quest for perfection'.

Liberato Santoro-Brienza views Joyce's literary output as a dialogue between Joyce, Aquinas, Dante, Bruno, Vico and Svevo and he traces all the veiled and not so veiled references to these authors in his works, most interesting are the links to Vico and Svevo. Giambattista Vico, the Italian philosopher, traced historical development in his Scienzia Nuova as a series of cycles, the Divine, the Heroic and the Human.When Joyce wrote Finnegan's Wake he divided it into four cycles, three long and one short, three representing each of Vico's cycle and the fourth being a reflux that draws the book back to the beginning again. Finnegan's Wake is essentially a dialogue between Joyce and Vico and demonstrates 'Vico's and Joyce's treatment of language. Joyce was acutely aware of living in an age which had witnessed the abnihilsation of the etym and he believed it was the job of the artist to build a new world of language out of the ruins of the old'. And so when the Danish author Tom Kristensen needed help with Finnegan's wake, Joyce instructed him to first read Vico.

Joyce's relationship with the author Italo Svevo is enlightening when it comes to understanding the character Leopold Bloom from Ulysses. A 25 year old Joyce met the middle-aged Svevo when the latter required English lessons to help him with some business venture that had led him to open up shop in the UK. The Jewish Svevo had two published novels already but to little renown or praise and Joyce was able to use his connections in Trieste and Paris to greatly increase his reputation and Svevo was to remain Joyce's only true author/friend. The relationship between the two closely echoes the relationship between the mature Jewish Leopold Bloom and the naive, fresh from university Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses with 'Svevo's maturer, objective,  peaceable temper reacting upon the young man's fiery mantle'.

The lectures are by two Italians in English about an Irish author who preferred speaking in Italian and speaking as someone with Italian heritage it was rather charming reading about Joyce's relationship with Italy by two people who with a sense of camaraderie refer to him as Jim. Reading Joyce is a mixture of pure joy at such ingenious structure in the face of chaos and frustration as one attempts to see the wood for the trees. Reading books like 'Talking of Joyce' both act to increase one's wonder at the genius of Joyce's creation and give me a keen sense of my own ignorance for all that I don't see in his works. However Joyce probably wouldn't be so hard on me because in recognising the complexity of his own text he said that to understand it fully you would need to be an 'ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia'.

This is a small book so don't expect to find all the answers to help you unlock the secrets of Joyce's labyrinthine texts but it will give you an italianate slant on the Irish hero.

Definitely worth a read.



Heather said...

first Proust, now Joyce. All the while supplementing with Eco. I can't decide if you're admirably brave or just completely insane. What mountain is next on your list? who is Everest?

Paolo said...

Hey Heather,

When I first started reading seriously in my late teens there was a few books that defeated me, that as interesting as I found them I could never seem to get through them. Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game beat me a few times before I finally made it to the end but Joyce was just on another level.

I took Ulysses one holiday to Italy and managed only few pages before giving up and reading some John Irving instead. The second time I made a lot more progress, I got about half way through but just came to the realisation that I wasn't getting anything out of it. I wasn't understanding a small fraction of what the book was trying to say and trudging through for the sake of it. This time I have the students annotated edition and it makes all the difference. There is about one page of notes for every three of text, there are chapter introductions, translations of all the Latin, Greek, Italian and French passages, the whole thing is slightly more transparent. I'm also trying to read as much literary criticism as I can find and I'd love to get a volume of Joyce's letters because I bet they'd be full of insight.

I want to read it again once I'm done partly because Joyce was a crafty bugger who makes slight references to things that happen later in the text which you wouldn't understand unless you either had an annotation pointing it out (which I doubt he intended) or you had read it and reread it so already knew what lay ahead that it could refer to. I also want to have a better understanding of Homer and Dante before I try again.

I'm not sure if there is an Everest. Joyce excites me because he does more with language than tell a story and I love the intertextuality that both he an Eco use. Finnegan's Wake intimidates me a lot, perhaps that will be one complexity too many? But it's always good to feel challenged.

Ossiandog said...

Hi Paolo
Just came across your words on Joyce and feel you have a very good take on his work, or should I say, good approach. I am a confirmed Joyceomaniac and currently on my 50th or 60th book on the maestro: if you are interested I would be very happy to send or post a (much shortened!) list of books on Ulysses I have found particularly enlightening.
If not, keep at it anyway for untold riches, though I suspect you are already hooked & this prod superfluous!
Best wishes