Sunday, 15 February 2015

Edwin Muir on James Joyce

I agree with you about every work of art being too long, even those of Stendahl, which I adore. Lawrence’s are certainly all too long, except perhaps some of his short stories … Ulysses is certainly far too long, I think, even admitting that its bulk in itself has a sort of aesthetic value. Joyce, it seems to me – my opinion of him is always changing – is au fond a very meretricious artist, a getter of effects, and quite incapable of attaining the simplicity which is the condition of the most real and great art. (I don’t mean simplicity of mind, but of spirit, singleness, rareness.) I think I have made quite a valuable discovery regarding him – that he is primarily an artist in words, that he is more interested in language than in his subject matter, and that his interest in the one gets between us and the other – a very fundamental sin against art, it seems to me. I hope by the time I come to write at length about him I shall cease to be astonished by him, for at the other side of that astonishment (which he exerts all his histrionic genius to arouse) I fancy I shall find a great amount of sham work …

Edwin Muir, in a letter to Stephen Hudson, October 6, 1924, first published in Encounter, Vol. XXVI, No. I, January 1966. 

Is Ulysses too long? Thus we enter the reader-response world of the 1920s and one of its attentive practitioners, the Orkney poet Edwin Muir. Muir is famous for his poetry of spare language and memorable images, a survivor of the Edwardian old school style. He is the translator of Franz Kafka, someone who never wrote a long novel, whose stories are amongst the most concentrated works of psychology in literature. So it is worth reading someone with such a different set of aesthetic expectations to James Joyce coming to terms, so early in the day, with Ulysses. For indeed the novel had only been out two years, a work with a massively original structure and a use of English that overrode the very conventions of the authorial voice. No wonder Muir’s opinion was changing all the time: there was a lot to absorb and comprehend. When he labels Joyce “a getter of effects” we are reminded of how new were the Flaubertian methods of subjective and objective presentation in the English novel; indeed, Joyce is the one who makes them come alive. If they were simply effects we would have stopped reading the book years ago, but it is the cumulative networking of effective meaning through the whole book that pushes our appreciation of the lived experience of the characters. An object or event described one way early in the account reappear with telling and moving effect in say the brothel scenes or Molly Bloom’s monologue, and it is the memorable “effect” that catches our imagination in order to strengthen our picture of that one day in Dublin. That Joyce is an “artist in words” is immediate and extravagantly apparent on every page; Muir’s criticism reveals the surprise that Joyce’s readers felt, and still feel, confronted everywhere with such rich English. That this therefore means he is less interested in his subject matter is an argument hard to sustain. We know, for example, that Muir’s own list of values (“spirit, singleness, rareness”) are the very words that the literary artists in the Martello Tower argue about at length, each caught inside their own drives and expectations. Joyce’s sensitivity to the desire, as well as the ironies, inherent in such words is at work all the way through the novel. What is the most effective way of getting “spirit, singleness, rareness”? From the proximity of 1924 Edwin Muir is astonished by Ulysses, while his critical mind is suspicious of his astonishment and cannot avoid feeling that the book may not be all that other readers are claiming it to be. Another reader at the time was the iconoclastic Englishman Wyndham Lewis. Three years after this letter, Muir writes again to Hudson after taking in Lewis’s views of Joyce’s novel. It is almost comical, from this distance in time, to find that Muir now thinks parts of the book are “atrociously written”, given what we know about Joyce’s scrupulous attention to every detail of the work, right up to the day of publication in Paris. Even more so is the accusation of sentimentality, which Lewis wanted to find and expose, if not blast out of existence, at every opportunity, wherever it raised its pretty head. That Ulysses is one of the most extended exercises in literature on the questions of sentiment and sentimentality is today a commonplace. However, it is Edwin Muir not Wyndham Lewis who can see that the main character is a sustained and original portrait of one human being over hundreds of closely written pages. He rejects Lewis’s narrow views about Leopold Bloom. He thereby accidentally seems to be saying that the novel’s length may even be a virtue.      

The criticism of Joyce [by Wyndham Lewis] is certainly far and away the best thing I have read upon him; it is a brilliant and decisive piece of work. It has set me reading Ulysses again, and I find that it has cleared up a great number of things for me; has shown me that a large part of the work is atrociously written, for one thing, and that it is packed with sentimentality, for another. About Stephen I agree entirely, but I feel that Lewis is altogether wrong about Bloom, who I still think is the greatest character in contemporary fiction. Lewis takes him as a Jew, but I never think of Bloom particularly as a Jew, but as a human being, like Shylock, who is much more human than Jewish. One must always do that finally, I think: we know that the Karamazovs are Russian, but it is because they are human that we understand them and they move us. And if Lewis says that there has never been a Jew like Bloom, the only thing one can reply is that there have been quite a number of human beings like him.

Edwin Muir, in a letter to Stephen Hudson, April 18, 1927.