Author of Finnegans Wake and Ulysses, among other notable works, James Joyce (1882–1941) was an Irish novelist and poet best known for his avant-garde, experimental literary style, as well as an innovative language and narrative forms he created.
James Joyce scholar Margot Norris is Chancellor’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. She is also the author of four books about James Joyce’s works.
Simply Charly: You’re an acclaimed Joyce scholar and the author of such publications as The Decentered Universe of Finnegans Wake (1976) and A Companion to James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1998). How were you first exposed to Joyce’s works, and what was it about them that captured your interest?
Margot Norris: I first read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in college, at a time when I was struggling with my own conflicts with Catholicism. A year or two later, the Joseph Strick film of Ulysses was shown at an art theater in Gainesville, Florida. This was the age of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, so I expected a dark and moody foray into existentialism. Instead, I was charmed and amused by the droll Leopold Bloom as acted by Milo O’Shea, and captivated by the haunting, endearing voice of Barbara Jefford’s Molly Bloom. I immediately bought the book and began reading Ulysses on my own during the next year. By the time I began graduate school I had already decided I would do a dissertation on Finnegans Wake, even though I had not yet read the book. I was completely confident that anything Joyce wrote would surprise, challenge, amuse, and delight me. I was absolutely right!
SC: James Joyce is remembered today as a key figure in the modernist movement of the early 20th century. What aspects of Joyce’s novels embody the modernist ideal? Did Joyce himself identify with the movement?
MN: This is such a complex question that I will narrow my answer to three features of modernism: impersonality, multiple voices, and classicism.
T. E. Hulme argued that modernism should follow the path of classicism rather than romanticism in order to turn literature away from the personality of the poet. In Portrait, Stephen Dedalus articulates this same principle when he tells his friend Lynch that the “personality of the artist passes into the narrative” and that “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork.”
One way of assuring impersonality in the literary work is to introduce multiple voices. T. S. Eliot’s original title for “The Waste Land” was “He do the Police in different voices”—a gloss on Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. The chapters of Ulysses offer a multitude of voices: the silent thoughts of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, a romance novel narrative voice telling the events of “Nausicaa,” an un-named barfly giving us his version of what happened in “Cyclops,” and, of course, Molly Bloom’s inimitable voice in “Penelope.”
The return to classicism was intended to bring back such features of the poetic tradition as formal restraint, discipline, and concrete imagery to the literary text. But it also resulted in a return to themes found in classical literature. The distinctly un-Irish name of Stephen Dedalus is derived from the mythical figure of Dedalus, the builder of the labyrinth in Crete, who tries to flee the island with his son Icarus. And Ulysses, of course, invokes the epic journey of Odysseus returning to his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War.
SC: Joyce and his wife Nora left Ireland in 1904, yet Dublin remained a steadfast fixture in nearly all of Joyce’s works. He once famously remarked that “if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world.” How successful do you believe Joyce was in this regard? Can the themes contained within works like Dubliners and Finnegans Wake be applied universally, or is the Irish context surrounding them too specific to be applied to other cultures?
MN: Here’s an example of how Joyce internationalizes his allusions to Dublin in his later work. Finnegans Wake begins with a voice describing the river Liffey running through the city, “past Eve and Adam’s” (Adam and Eve’s Church), up to “Howth Castle and Environs.” We clearly see the geography of Dublin in Ireland here, as though from a vision in the sky moving over its land and seascape. In the next paragraph, we are given a reference to Sir Tristram, the first earl of Howth, having just returned from “North Armorica” or Brittany. However, this is also an allusion to North America, the site of “Laurens County’s gorgios,” that is, Laurens County in the U.S. state of Georgia, which was founded by a Dubliner named Peter Sawyer. It turns out that Laurens County, Georgia, was settled by Irish immigrants, and its capital is therefore named Dublin. Joyce himself documented these references in a November 15, 1926 letter to his patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver. As a result, we can see how—right at the beginning of Finnegans Wake—he first lifts our vision over the city of Dublin, Ireland, and its environs, and then moves us across the planet to North America and another city of Dublin founded by an Irishman.
SC: The latter half of Finnegans Wake was written during a highly tumultuous period in Joyce’s life: his own eyesight was failing, his daughter Lucia was suffering from mental illness, and his earlier work was under fire from literary critics. Do you think that the troubling atmosphere surrounding the book’s 17-year composition had, in any way, informed its content?
MN: Possibly, but if so, in a contrary way, by having him shy away from realism and focusing on a global perspective, ambiguity, multiplicity, and endless play with language. We might almost think of Joyce transcending his personal afflictions by traveling to a higher plane of imagination, from which he could look down and see all the rivers of the world, human beings transforming into creatures or other natural forms, conflicts, and war in all periods of human history, and words of countless languages shifting and blending into other words at almost every moment. And, as always, he found humor everywhere. Perhaps that large and generous perspective made his daily travails manageable.
SC: Finnegans Wake is notorious for being highly difficult to read; another Joyce scholar, Lee Spinks, has stated that Wake may be “the least read major work of Western literature.” How would you recommend that students and new readers approach this challenging novel? When reading Wake, what are the most important things to keep in mind?
MN: My first recommendation would be for readers to find a group with whom to share the experience of reading Finnegans Wake—a class, if possible, or a reading group, of which there are many all over the world. These reading groups generally consist of non-academics who meet regularly and work their way slowly through the chapters, sharing what they’ve learned, what they’ve noticed, what they think is going on, laughing at the comic effects of the language. My second bit of advice is to approach the Wake initially as poetry rather than fiction, focusing first and foremost on the fabulous, rich language and only secondarily, on the stories, such as they are.
SC: Several of the characters in Dubliners later appear in Ulysses, and you noted in the introduction to Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners that you found reading Dubliners to be a key tool in understanding Finnegans Wake. Would you say that Joyce’s works are best read together as parts of a greater continuity, or do their themes lend them better to being considered separately? What role does Dubliners play in interpreting Joyce’s later works?
MN: I actually tend to think of Joyce’s works separately rather than as intertwined, not because of the themes, which certainly do recur, but because they each have such a unique narrative and stylistic construction. This is where their significance lies for me, and what I would emphasize if I were teaching more than one Joyce work in a class. But the interesting contribution Dubliners makes to the later works is its emphasis on ordinary, even insignificant, characters. A figure like Freddie Malins, a 40-year old drunkard who nonetheless appreciates Julia Morkan’s singing while everyone seems to make light of it, and who defends the merits of black singers, is a good example in the story “The Dead.” Another is Maria, the former domestic who now does scullery work in the Protestant laundry for reformed prostitutes in “Clay.” Stephen’s little story, “The Parable of the Plums,” is introduced with reference to “Dubliners” in Ulysses. He then tells of two middle-aged spinsters who make a holiday out of going to the top of Nelson’s pillar to look down over the city of Dublin from on high. The two women precisely echo the lives of so many of the figures in Dubliners.
SC: The Decentered Universe of Finnegans Wake was first published in 1976, over 35 years after Finnegans Wake itself was originally published. In the introduction to the book, you noted that many of Wake’s motifs and intricate details were still being discovered, and that “the intellectual orientation of the work remains largely obscure.” Are these statements still true today? Is there still more for scholars to discover about Finnegans Wake?
MN: There have been so many fascinating studies of Finnegans Wake since the Decentered Universe was published, that our understanding and appreciation of the work has simply bloomed. Kimberly Devlin’s Freudian approach greatly expanded my own in 1991. John Gordon’s earlier Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary gives us a basic and solid understanding of the text’s grounding in the everyday events in the lives of ordinary characters. John Bishop, of course, does just the opposite, by exploring the Wake as a dream work. Vincent Cheng explores the specialized effect of Shakespeare on the work, and Finn Fordham’s Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake traces specific themes, scenes, and motifs in the text back to their sources in Joyce’s notebooks and other archival material. I could go on and on, but clearly, these works and so many others once again give testimony to the book’s infinite variety. Finnegans Wake can be explored from many different perspectives, using a variety of theoretical orientations, new tools of research, and always contemporary interests such as the current focus on ecology and ecological criticism. The result is that the work becomes richer and richer in the meanings and pleasures it yields over time with no danger that it will ever be exhausted. I have not yet caught up with any studies that use current new media explorations, such as cybertexts and game theory, to approach Finnegans Wake. But if they are not already out there, it will be only a matter of time before they open up a whole new decentered universe of Finnegans Wake.
SC: Part of what makes Joyce such a captivating writer was his ability to create human, compelling characters; after all, very few writers can claim to have a holiday named for the central character of one of their novels! Are there any characters throughout Ulysses or Joyce’s other works with whom you can identify, or do you have any particular favorites?
MN: It is simply impossible not to love Leopold Bloom, although if we track him very carefully throughout Ulysses, we find that he is not without faults and quirks that actually help to make him very human. But my favorite Joyce character is without question, Molly Bloom. To write my chapter on “Penelope” in Virgin and Veteran Readings of ‘Ulysses,’ I went through Molly’s monologue and thoughts, section by section, and found her to be incredibly complex and interesting. She is sharp-tongued and critical, a total realist about the people in her life, but she is also very fair, giving credit where due and respecting admirable qualities in her husband and others. Her adultery with Hugh Boylan has complex foundations in her marital problems with Bloom: he blamed her for the loss of their newborn baby boy 11 years before. Her life has its challenges, but she confronts them bravely and with considerable humor. She is an artist with aesthetic and cultural appreciation, and offers a magical response to the beauties of nature. There are many figures to love in Joyce’s works, but Molly Bloom is my favorite.
SC: In Finnegans Wake, Joyce takes experimental stream-of-consciousness to a level rarely attempted by any author, resulting in a 17-year composition process and a final product that divided critics. When Joyce first set out to write Wake, did he originally plan to write it in this fashion? Why did he feel it was important to eschew traditional prose?
MN: Since Ulysses displays a great deal of experimentation in its prose, the seeds of Joyce’s play with narration and language are already evident before the actual writing of Finnegans Wake. The nightmarish fantasy experiences of Bloom and Stephen in the brothel of “Circe” set the stage for the dream world of the Wake, where dialogue and situations will elude realism in the interest of expressing suppressed desires, and fears and anxieties. Joyce is writing in the age when the work of Sigmund Freud entered the intellectual and public consciousness along with its emphasis on the unconscious world of human dreams. In addition, Joyce could refer to such earlier models of dream narrative as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and such nonsense poems like Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” as the inspiration for his neologisms and portmanteau words. If Joyce wanted to enter even more novel, uncharted literary territory than he had in his earlier works—and he did—the universe of dream, something every living person experiences virtually every night, was the place to go. And this new world required a new kind of language.
SC: Scholars from around the globe had much to celebrate recently as Joyce’s major works have passed into the public domain. How significant will this be for scholars such as yourself?
MN: The community of Joyce scholars endured a copyright nightmare for many years as a result of the hostile control over Joyce’s work by the Joyce Estate when many ordinary practices were threatened with legal action. During my term as President of the International James Joyce Foundation, I was very thankful to appoint a prominent Joyce scholar and intellectual property attorney, Robert Spoo, as General Counsel to the Foundation to advise the Joyce community on how best to deal with copyright issues. It was, therefore, a wonderful moment when many of Joyce’s works passed out of copyright at the beginning of 2012. My own scholarship, which has always relied more on theory than on archival sources or materials, is not much affected by this change. But the condition and future of Joyce scholarship, in general, has undergone and will continue to undergo, an absolutely vital emancipation.