Ulysses: Annotated Students Edition by James Joyce (Penguin Classics 2000)
Last month saw an article in the Guardian regarding some comments made by Gabriel Josipovici, former professor of comparative literature at Oxford University. The thrust of his argument was that the works of the current batch of lauded English novelists are the hollow works of 'prep-school boys showing off'. To quote him in full he said "Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation -- Martin Amis, McEwan -- leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world'.
Josipovici argues that Lawrence Sterne is still far more avant garde than the current self-proclaimed avant garde are. 'An author like Salman Rushdie takes from Sterne all the tricks without recognising the darkness underneath. You feel Rushdie's just showing off rather than giving a sense of genuine exploration'. For all the knowledge of technique they produce books that follow established plot-lines and in the end leave us unaffected because at heart they really have nothing to say.
You can choose whether to agree with Josipovici and it probably wouldn't surprise you to hear that he has a book coming out and so would profit from some timely but controversial words however I will say that there is nothing around now that can challenge Joyce for his ingenuity or inventiveness. Take David Mitchell's much lauded 'Cloud Atlas' for instance, for all his quoting of Nietzsche, his episodic structure and his thin and ultimately trivial connections between the unconnected he cannot offer up the dish of intertextuality or inventiveness of the narrative form that takes place in Ulysses.
Joyce too was frustrated with the state of literature in Ireland at the time he wrote, so much so that it drove him to continental Europe, to Paris and Trieste. He left a country, the servant of two masters (England its colonial master and Italy, its spiritual master), a country trying to muster up some semblance of national pride with a rebirth of Celtic ideals; Joyce also saw the dangers of the new nationalism inspired by people like Yeats and Synge and these ideas are parodied throughout Ulysses.
It is interesting to note that in the current batch of books longlisted for the booker prize that there is no place for Amis or McEwan or Rushdie so perhaps Josipovici is correct but I will also bet you that within the Booker's dozen there will be no author who breaks ground like Joyce did and I think we are all the worse off for it.