On Michael Chabon’s Version of James Joyce

June 16th is Bloomsday– an anniversary celebrating all things related to James Joyce, especially the novel Ulysses.  Since its initial publication, and with the obscenity trial that followed, Ulysses has garnered widespread attention.  However, Joyce believed that his last novel, Finnegan’s Wake, was his true legacy.  Apropos of  Bloomsday, in “What to Make of Finnegan’s Wake,” (The New York Review of Books, July 12, 2012, Vol. 59, No. 12) Michael Chabon offers an account of his lifelong reading experience of Joyce’s classics.  Rather than rehash biographical details, which is typical in discussing Joyce (e.g., Louis Menand’s New Yorker article), Chabon admits his own arduous, even heroic engagement with one of Joyce’s great classics, Finnegan’s Wake.  In reading Chabon on Joyce, we empathize with his dedication as a passionate, if not slightly neurotic, reader.  His Grail legend adventure with Finnegan’s Wake is all in good fun, but he makes a mistake about Joyce’s most important early novel–a landmark of modernist fiction.

Finnegan’s Wake is rarely reviewed or discussed in broad daylight.  It’s one of those books more likely discussed in solitary corners of  pubs, half-lit seminar rooms, rarefied academic conferences, or in therapy sessions with a literary savant.  Critics often presume that the book was Joyce’s joke on critics everywhere, because it invites critical interpretation as much as espionage code invites code-breaking; it seems to be an Irishman’s barroom challenge to the world.  Thus, Finnegan’s Wake is not a book for the weak or weary, those accustomed to airport lobby page-turners or any reader with a constitution built for immediate gratification.  It’s a book that requires the kind of maturity of a curmudgeonly gentle scholar or someone like Chabon with a whole lot of patience.  Finnegan’s Wake offers a limitless gauntlet of difficult language experiments–fused words, portmanteau words, lyrical run-on sentences with little or no punctuation–and words that refer to ambiguous images or make curious associations.  As with any literary masterpiece, rather than a proverbial walk in the park the reader should plan a journey equipped with a pickaxe, bedroll, and breadcrumbs–and plenty of warm clothing and water.

As Chabon suggests, Finnegan’s Wake does not provide a proper introduction to Joyce’s work.  It rarely appears on freshmen reading lists.  The beginner warms up to Joyce like preparing for a power-lifting competition in the distant future.  The novice does not attempt a 500 lbs. deadlift or squat if it’s his first time in the gym.  Thus, the reader develops a training regimen.  She works through Dubliners, perhaps the lyrical poetry, A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, then the desert island novel Ulysses.  The latter invariably shows up on many ambitious reader’s bucket lists.  If one has developed the mettle to complete Ulysses, then an initiate MIGHT be prepared to soldier the Special Ops mission involved with Finnegan’s Wake.

Unfortunately, Chabon slights one of Joyce’s great novels, A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man.  He says the following:

“Beyond Dubliners there was the unlovable A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which starts well, charting bold, clear routes, like “Araby,” through the trackless waters of childhood, then fouls its rotors in a dense kelpy snarl of cathected horniness, late-Victorian aesthetics, and the Jesuitical cleverness that, even in Ulysses, wearies the most true-hearted lover of Joyce. A stamp in the passport, Portrait, a place I must visit without ever feeling it necessary to return.”

Unlovable to whom?

Aside from it’s hasty devaluation of a literary classic, what’s particularly unfortunate about the above statement is its genuine misunderstanding of the genre.  The novel is often grouped with so-called “Coming of Age” stories, such as Goethe’s The Sorrows of the Young Werther and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.  As such, many people label it a Bildungsroman.  But Portrait isn’t quite that.  Relevant to Chabon’s own writing craft the novel is rather a Kunstlerroman–a narrative on the self-development of an artist.

Although Chabon is fairly skilled in turning a phrase, “fouls its rotors in a dense kelpy snarl of cathected horniness, late-Victorian aesthetics,” his prose never quite equals the master’s.  Chabon’s “cathected horniness” is what most Joyce scholars call an “epiphany,” and it’s more serious business than an adolescent’s lusting after an objet d’art.  Chabon attempts to capture Joyce’s style in referring to “kelpy snarl.”  Undoubtedly, he’s referring to the famous Sea-Bird Girl scene on Howth Strand, which follows:

“There was a long rivulet in the strand and, as he [Stephen Dedalus] waded slowly up its course, he wondered at the endless drift of seaweed. Emerald and black and russet and olive, it moved beneath the current, swaying and turning. The water of the rivulet was dark with endless drift and mirrored the high-drifting clouds. The clouds were drifting above him silently and silently the sea-tangle was drifting below him and the grey warm air was still and a new wild life was singing in his veins.

Where was his boyhood now? Where was the soul that had hung back from her destiny, to brood alone upon the shame of her wounds and in her house of squalor and subterfuge to queen it in faded cerements and in wreaths that withered at the touch? Or where was he?

He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and willful and wild-hearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the sea-harvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gay-clad light-clad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air.

A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.

She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither; and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.

— Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.

He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.

Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”

This is hardly a scene of “horniness.”  Chabon knows it’s much more than that–surely, it’s Pater and Newman combined in spiritual alchemy.  But the real question is: How many contemporary American novelists, Chabon included, can write as well as Joyce in the above passage?  That is, a writer free of jealous parody?

Joyce’s Portrait is many things, but to a writer it’s a textbook on writing craft.  There are no modern exemplars that match Joyce’s mastery of the pen–his ear for poetic rhythm and sound.  If Portrait is a stamp in a passport, then Chabon needs to linger longer in customs.  Because Joyce wasn’t merely a master writer, he was a master writing teacher.  He conveyed the time-honored “Jesuit” stylistics of literary art.

Here is another noteworthy passage in Book Five:

“Towards dawn he awoke. O what sweet music! His soul was all dewy wet. Over his limbs in sleep pale cool waves of light had passed. He lay still, as if his soul lay amid cool waters, conscious of faint sweet music. His mind was waking slowly to a tremulous morning knowledge, a morning inspiration. A spirit filled him, pure as the purest water, sweet as dew, moving as music. But how faintly it was inbreathed, how passionlessly, as if the seraphim themselves were breathing upon him! His soul was waking slowly, fearing to awake wholly. It was that windless hour of dawn when madness wakes and strange plants open to the light and the moth flies forth silently.

An enchantment of the heart! The night had been enchanted. In a dream or vision he had known the ecstasy of seraphic life. Was it an instant of enchantment only or long hours and years and ages?

The instant of inspiration seemed now to be reflected from all sides at once from a multitude of cloudy circumstances of what had happened or of what might have happened. The instant flashed forth like a point of light and now from cloud on cloud of vague circumstance confused form was veiling softly its afterglow. O! In the virgin womb of the imagination the word was made flesh. Gabriel the seraph had come to the virgin’s chamber. An afterglow deepened within his spirit, whence the white flame had passed, deepening to a rose and ardent light. That rose and ardent light was her strange wilful heart, strange that no man had known or would know, wilful from before the beginning of the world; and lured by that ardent rose-like glow the choirs of the seraphim were falling from heaven.

Are you not weary of ardent ways,
Lure of the fallen seraphim?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

The verses passed from his mind to his lips and, murmuring them over, he felt the rhythmic movement of a villanelle pass through them. The rose-like glow sent forth its rays of rhyme; ways, days, blaze, praise, raise. Its rays burned up the world, consumed the hearts of men and angels: the rays from the rose that was her wilful heart.

Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze
And you have had your will of him.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

And then? The rhythm died away, ceased, began again to move and beat. And then? Smoke, incense ascending from the altar of the world.

Above the flame the smoke of praise
Goes up from ocean rim to rim
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Smoke went up from the whole earth, from the vapory oceans, smoke of her praise. The earth was like a swinging swaying censer, a ball of incense, an ellipsoidal fall. The rhythm died out at once; the cry of his heart was broken. His lips began to murmur the first verses over and over; then went on stumbling through half verses, stammering and baffled; then stopped. The heart’s cry was broken.

The veiled windless hour had passed and behind the panes of the naked window the morning light was gathering. A bell beat faintly very far away. A bird twittered; two birds, three. The bell and the bird ceased; and the dull white light spread itself east and west, covering the world, covering the rose-light in his heart.”

Such is Chabon’s passport stamp.  Was he ever akin to Stephen the aspiring artist? Did he ever hear the hesitant wing-beat of an artist on the verge of flight?  Then Portrait would serve as his gifted tutorial, a manual of the artist’s conversion.  And Joyce establishes the terms of modern literary art.

Portrait is no bagatelle or painterly study of a future masterpiece.  It is a landmark of modernism that sets the bar of contemporary prose–of course, not the standards of the Pulitzer Prize.

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