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Franz Kafka: The Trial.

A few weeks ago by accident I stumbled across Orson Welles’ 1962 version of the Franz Kafka novel The Trial. Intrigued, and knowing next to nothing about Welles, I was next led to the 2015 documentary Magician: the Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles which, among other things, suggests that Welles had remade Kafka’s book in his own image. Finally, as my own real life abruptly spiraled into something approaching surrealism, I broke down and bought a copy of Kafka’s novel. The time was ripe to take the plunge.

kafka the trialThe copy I bought was Breon Mitchell’s 1998 translation. What struck me most was how little Welles had changed the story in his adaptation. In fact, I would say Welles presented a pretty straight-forward presentation of Kafka. Steven Soderbergh’s 1991 film Kafka has long been a favorite, and now so is the Welles film. If you’re interested in Kafka-the-writer, and/or the novel-version of The Trial, you should look for both of these films.

The book is so well known that a review at this point seems superfluous. Much of the time the reader senses that the book is probably occurring as a dream. The protagonist called K. often demonstrates a profound lack of comprehension of his own mind and psyche, and an insouciant willingness to rationalize away any dissatisfying recognition of his own foibles and unsympathetic propensities. Presumably the guilt of which he is accused arises from these unexamined blemishes on his soul.

In fact The Trial doesn’t gel as a novel. It is a fragmentary first draft of a novel, a work in progress that never found its plot line. It is apparent Kafka kept writing and writing loosely-connected scenes in able to build up settings and characters, but he never quite hammered it all together into a coherent story. The book’s conclusion, while probably inevitable in some form, occurs suddenly and without satisfaction. It is tacked on in a slipshod fashion, and one senses that Kafka composed it quite quickly, almost certainly intending to improve it considerably at a later date that never came.

Still, I have read many legitimate novels which are far more tedious than this unsteady draft. The Trial continues to raise questions about troubling social behaviors that arise in human cultures. Unspoken and unexamined paranoia and guilt are probably destined to be our companions throughout all human history, at least anytime more than two or three individuals interact. Kafka’s vision of that uneasy companionship is a telling one.

The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce (1st Ed.).


Facts are one thing; the language we use to mimic facts is another.

Communication requires translation. This is true whether we transpose one language into another or whether we merely receive information conveyed in the printed word and, in a complicated, cyclically reiterative and interpretive process, we recast it in more familiar patterns which snap into place more decorously within our own unique mental worldviews, all independently construed.

ccjjWith great anticipation I’d looked forward to The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce (Cambridge University Press 1990, Derek Attridge, editor, First Edition). Other volumes in the series which I’d previously read were deserving of their prestigious reputation. I was surprised and disappointed to find many of these eleven essays more lackluster than luminous. However, as Attridge envisioned an ambitious book that would fluently contextualize every aspect of James Joyce the writer as it delivered original insights from all of his published writings and workshop material, the First Edition of this Companion perhaps succeeds better than might have been foretold.

This book addresses Joycean attributes of biography (Who is James Joyce?), text (What happens in his works?) and literary theory (Why should we be impressed?). The biography section, comprising the first four essays, is the least engaging, adding little fresh insight into Joyce’s life. Unfortunately, this consumes a full third of the book.

If you’re still reading, the next four essays ― the text section ― are far more interesting. John Paul Riquelme efficaciously splices together three different essays as he plumbs the inter- and intra-stylistic mutations informing Dubliners, Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Although in Dubliners the focus is always (except in “The Dead”) on the external, on gritty and mean realism, the concrete elements of this world seem to thinly veil a suggestive symbolic significance that lingers a heartbeat away. Riquelme emphasizes alternating rhythms in Joyce’s texts. An oscillation between this realistic external materialism and an internal fantasy-vision serves as a tool for character depiction in Stephen Hero and as stylistic molding in Portrait. Stephen Hero unfolds in the moment, while much of Portrait develops as Stephen Dedalus continuously reassesses his memory, modifying his responses to and interpretation of events and ideas. Riquelme helpfully illuminates subtle, yet critical, shifts in Stephen’s character in Stephen Hero. The revolutionary evolution of style within Portrait, signaled by the tremors at the end of each section of that novel, points the way to more radical tectonic displacements that will rock Ulysses.

Jennifer Levine tackles that particularly illustrious slab of Joyceana, considering whether it is better approached as a poem, as a novel or as “text.” Inevitably arriving at the predictable answers of “Yes,” and “It depends,” she does give us much insight to ponder along the way. Likewise, Margot Norris nicely handles her discussion of Finnegans Wake, emphasizing Joyce’s plundering and rewriting of his previous texts, just as he has always done, always changing his point of view and his expression of his expanding sphere of observation and reflection. Norris also stresses the vying reactions to the Wake embraced by two camps of readers: those who wish to control the text, to pin down meaning, and those who celebrate its literary revolution, its liberation from self-imposed limits. Of course the same binary classification applies to those interested in any and all of Joyce’s works. Somewhat contra-chronological, an essay by Vicki Mahaffey follows, taking up Joyce’s shorter and less-sung works, and a fine source for consideration of these it is.

Reading Joyce, studying him, we can’t help reflecting on how the polyvalencies enwombed in words allow for subjective, parallactic and gestalten interpretation only with a view to their positional relations. This is equally true within a sentence, or a story or chapter, or with reference to a whole book, or to his entire fractal oeuvre. We may require a new kind of psychological calculus, or spectral analysis, to finally grasp Joyce, for no other writer ever evolved so continuously and over so many orders of magnitude during his career. To decode a text word order and context are critical, of course, but so are our personal histories as readers. The variables of personal memory and comprehensive ability, our grip on reality and a willingness to continually reassess everything, including our own conclusions, are essential tools brought to bear. As we turn each page, the ground of apprehension trembles beneath our feet. We must question our answers today, and interrogate yesterday’s verdicts anew tomorrow.

What is it to read Joyce, or anyone? All text is serially reconstructed within the singularly wrought chambers of evocative vision of he who encounters it. What makes our minds so variant? Our ages, experiences, time spent in serious and critical reflection and study, time spent watching sit-com reruns, our needs and desires, our longings, our opinions and beliefs, our biases and prejudices, the things and people we hate and love, our tangled personal situations and miscellaneous problems and likelihood to laugh or to refrain from doing so. Every book I re-read is a different experience precisely because I’ve become a different person than I was during my last read. Reading is inseparable from interpreting; rather, reading re-interprets an author’s intent, or his own artistic conception.

In the literary theory section of the book, Hans Walter Gabler contributes a significant, if not important, essay regarding Joyce’s writing processes, which also serves as a sort of rehash and meta-analysis of what’s come before. Gabler begins with Joyce’s own suggestion that he compensated for a lack of imagination with a premeditated hierarchy as intricate as Dante’s, an elaborately reticulate artistic scaffolding and architecture. Gabler develops a theory that Joyce dismantled texts, medieval to recent, broke them down, digested them and recast them in his own image, that he continued to do this with his own texts throughout his life. That he wove a web of interlinked symbols the links of which reinforce and compound the significance of solid objects symbolized. With substantial and accommodating reference to Joyce’s workshop materials, Gabler describes an ouroboros approach to writing and rewriting such as the world has not witnessed previously outside of religion, self-devouring and self-generating, a regenerative form of composition preoccupied not with plot but accentuating numinous whatness for its own sake. Joyce’s scaffolding is not used to support the construction of a preconceived skyscraper and is subsequently removed: the scaffolding itself is the ground upon which the celestial edifice is elaborated. The building is the physical, external manifestation of the occult internal vision.

Gabler’s encompassing portrait of Joyce’s plenary vision is electrifying. He is appropriately awestruck, I think, although he sometimes succumbs to his own veneration when he speculates, for example, that Joyce held vast swaths of text in his head before he ever wrote down a word. There is genius to writing, yes, but there is also craft, and an illusion is spellbinding when the sleight of hand succeeds, leaving only an appearance of magic. That does not make it magic, though. Still, this provocative essay opens a window onto the working of Gabler’s own mind which is useful, if for no other reason, because it helps one better assess the lingering aftertaste of controversy regarding his text of Ulysses. He’s better judged in the light of his intellectual prowess on display here.

Of the two remaining essays, one is extremely irritating for becoming more of a polemic intended to promote a political point of view than for anything it tells us about Joyce, and the other is a helpful positioning of Joyce within ― or maybe alongside ― the doubtable framework of modernism and post-modernism.

With James Joyce, the ambiguity is of no less importance than the precision: most authors write to constrain interpretation, to cut off false readings, but Joyce spurned convergence, always embracing the divergences and multiple interpretations. The hungry human intellect with determination will always find sequence . . . structure . . . relationship. Some seek to solve every equation. Some seek control. Others cry out for the anomaly from which all creativity springs.

The act of reading Joyce is one thing; Joyce’s act of writing was another. Contemplate the processes that must have occurred within the imagination of the artist whose product was the text, conceiving the conceptual shapes of his art, sifting through words and word-clusters known to him in quest of just the right combination of fragments which, when optimally assembled, produced the effect of a sentence packing just the desired amount of precision and ambiguity. The writer too has had to translate an imaginative vision into a fitting word stream and what’s more, he must have done so knowing he was obliged to rely upon his many readers to reconstitute his imaginative vision not in its original form, but in forms unique to every reader’s mind. In other words, he knew we would reshuffle his words in other words. What is it to be an author? To seek absolute control of imagination and chain Andromedan language, or to relinquish authority, to smash the icons, to play the rebellious part of Perseus? To build a text as reliant on ambiguity as on precise meaning? Writing and reading is like integrating and then taking a derivative. All those runaway R values. . .

One cannot read a text without changing that text, and any commentary about a text, such as this hit and miss Cambridge Companion, is an attempt to persuade others to come around to your point of view, knowing that the readers of your commentary must needs once again recast your words into their words, and so on, ad infinitum, worlds without end.





[N.B. The contents of the Second Edition of this book, published in 2004, differ extensively from the First Edition, reviewed here. Whether this is due to dissatisfaction with the First Edition, or because an opportunity for newer voices to be heard was available, or for some other reason or reasons, I don’t know, but this review can only be applicable to the earlier release.]


Plotting Against James Joyce

If someone recommends a novel to you, what’s the first question you ask?

“What’s it about?”

Nothing wrong with that. Still, it’s interesting that we don’t ask first about genre, or about characters, or about setting, or about the time period in which the story unfolds. All of those matters can help us decide whether we will or won’t attempt to read the book that’s being recommended. Some people will read only science fiction, or will never read a Western. Some would never read a story featuring a rock star; others would never consider a book about a politician, or a detective or a spy. An Elizabethan England setting might be a turn-off for some and an absolute requirement for others.

Yet we’ve all been conditioned from infancy to gravitate to plot. What happens next? “What’s it about?”

b986d-jamesjoyceWhat fascinates me about James Joyce is that, while coming to understand the plot is important and always extremely helpful, in the end the plot is not what appeals to us most as readers. I find this to be the case regardless of whether we’re considering Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. And so when I’m talking to someone unfamiliar with Joyce about Joyce ― as I often enough am ― and they ask me the inevitable “What’s it about?”, I always find myself struggling for an adequate answer to what is, after all, a quite reasonable question.

What is Ulysses about?

Of course there are some pat answers. Ulysses is about this guy who wanders around Dublin all day doing not much of anything. To a degree Ulysses is a sort of sequel to A Portrait.

My auditor then asks: “Oh, should I read that book first then?”

The answer to that question generally is a shrug. If you like.

“Would it help me understand what’s happening?”

Another shrug. In a way it might.

Why the evasiveness?

Because the plot is not why we recommend Ulysses, or anything else written by Joyce. But how do you explain that to someone who has never found cause to go beyond that question? Someone who can’t conceive of reading a book in which plot is a secondary, or tertiary, or a quaternary, or maybe even a lesser concern?

The first time you read Dubliners or A Portrait you are almost certainly going to focus chiefly on trying to decipher and tease out lines of plot. I had read a few stories from Dubliners in high school and had not been terribly excited about them, and when I was an undergrad in college I was assigned A Portrait to read. I failed to do so. Why? The plot, interesting as it is, did not fire my imagination, and my unchallenged assumption was that I was to read the book for plot. More than two decades would pass before one day, eyeing Ulysses on the shelf (I’d bought it a few years earlier), I decided to give it a try.

I’ve been reading and re-reading and re-re-reading Joyce ever since. And so on.

But not for his plots. For the architecture of his works.

I’ve never encountered anyone else who writes like this. Discovering this business of architecture in Joyce was (and continues to be) a revelation, far more than a simple epiphany. When you make the breakthrough that a book doesn’t have to be about something, then how you think about books changes radically on a deep, fundamental level: in fact, you find yourself fumbling around in unanticipated sub-basements beneath what you had always assumed to be impenetrable, foundational bedrock. Reading Joyce causes you to re-imagine what reading itself means. That is why I admire reading Joyce: not for his plots, but for his architecture.

This too I have found almost impossible to explain to people who are unfamiliar with Joyce. Why? Mostly because it fails to answer the imperturbable and demanding question: “Yes, but what is it about?”

Because I spend so much time writing fiction of my own, I find that my thinking about Joyce is not always concordant with that of academics. Call me an applied Joycean. Running through my mind is always a rumination on how I can put into practice whatever I can learn from Joyce in my own writing. I’m actively looking for clues, for techniques and for methods. Why, from the point of view of someone who writes, did Joyce make textual decision A and not decision B or C? I bear in mind questions like: How did he do that? and Why did he do that? And I also bear in mind something I suspect that academicians sometimes forget, which is that novels don’t spring directly from the minds of their authors as perfect pieces of art. How heavily the act of writing leans upon chance and luck and editing and changing the manuscript, stroking it, sculpting it. When pedagogues and professors attribute so much to Joyce’s genius ― and I do not dispute Joyce’s genius ― I find myself wondering how Joyce managed to load the dice in order to maximize the pay-off. I suspect those professors aren’t always thinking that way, which is the way that a practical writer thinks.

Joyce’s method appears to me to be largely a matter of architecture. But what do I mean by architecture?

Although it’s rarely evident to the new reader of Joyce, his books have grown the way crystals precipitate out from seeds. The seeds are elaborate systems of symbols and iconic emblems. Joyce builds up sophisticated and subtle relationships between recurring, if continually mutating, symbols and emblems in order to produce a three-dimensional lattice with no beginnings and no endings. Already this is unusual, since most writers are focused tightly on the evolution of entropy through time, on orderly beginnings and middles and endings. The story, or the plot, appears to emerge organically from Joyce’s symbolic framework, and not the other way around. It is the architecture that is most compelling, not the story itself. It is almost as if Joyce has discovered a formula for combining fertile symbols out of which plot naturally germinates and differentiates according to ontogenetic necessity. Sussing out such an approach to writing is very exciting to a writer-as-reader who views himself as a student of Joyce’s texts.

Also fascinating about Joyce ― and it may take years before one begins to notice and appreciate this ― is that the extended relationships between and among symbols and emblems protract across all conceivable scales. Each story in Dubliners provides us with a microcosmic example of the process of plot radiating out from symbols and emblems and their colligate linkages. We can see analogous parallels within the chapters of A Portrait too. But also there must be similar intra-connective links between the individual stories of Dubliners which eventually cause us to wonder whether we have read a collection of short stories after all, or instead a kind of more integrated, albeit subtle and strange, novel whose characters happen to be different in each story. We are tempted, and maybe more than tempted, to revise and extend what we mean by the word novel. Although the feel, or the flavor, or the ambiance of every chapter of A Portrait is individualistic (as are constituent stories in a more typical collection of short fiction), this is nevertheless obviously a novel and not “merely” an anthology of short stories. James Joyce keeps us asking strange questions as he toys with our assumptions of how (or whether) and why stories and novels are, by convention, allowed their similarities and differences. The chapters, or episodes, of Ulysses grow so peculiar in their singularity we may begin to doubt that we are still reading a novel at all, or whether Joyce has assembled something akin to a collection of scrolls which all deal, more or less, with the same story; i.e., with what it’s about. By the time we make it to Finnegans Wake, if ever we do, we may discover to our surprise that the same kinds of patterns and connections still exist, only by now they’ve achieved a truly soaring eminence, and we’re confronted with a text that is radically removed from whatever we once naively believed were the constraining limits on books and novels. Finnegans Wake, it seems to me, is built upon the same kind of iterative rules that inform Dubliners, only now they’re more intricately embroidered. Such rules can be discovered, I think, not so that Joyce can be duplicated, but so their implications can be pursued and explored by other writers practicing in their own voices.

All of these books are collections of symbols and emblems bound together at the highest architectural level: Joyce’s entire oeuvre has become recognizable as a single, unified repertoire. There’s only one song Joyce has been singing, and it goes on forever. I can’t speak about the architecture of one book without pondering the interconnections of them all. I am in awe of Joyce, but I’m also always trying to figure out how he achieved the effects he did without simply chalking it all up to genius and slinking away.

How do you enfold these ideas into an answer to the question about what a book is about?

You don’t, of course. Joyce transcends our assumptions of what both writing and reading are, reducing the question itself nearly to absurdity. He shows us just how feeble our imagination has been all along, but he also opens the door to ever-expanding horizons. Joyce’s books are “about” re-conceiving what writing and reading mean. They show us ways of portraying worlds in extreme detail that other books fail to achieve or, for the most part, even attempt to approximate. They demand that we work, but the pay-off is far more vast than we can anticipate.

Is it worth it? If you’re willing to do the work, it’s worth it.

Do the work.

San Xavier del Bac.

Trip yesterday to the Mission San Xavier del Bac. (Click on images to view full-size.)

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James Joyce: The Critical Writings (Mason and Ellmann, Eds.).

The first thing to know about this book is that its title is deceptive. A collection of 57 essays written by James Joyce between c1896 and 1937, it’s not so much “critically-important” reading for Joyceans, but Joyce engaged in writing critiques and critical essays. But is it essential reading for Joycean completists? Inasmuch as anyone who gets as far into Joyce as Ulysses generally becomes a completist (excepting some few who are scholastically-compelled to read it), the answer is probably yes. That doesn’t mean you’ll find yourself returning often to this book, even if you happen to be a professor who specializes in this author.

These essays are something of a mixed bag. You can certainly trace flashes of the evolution of Joyce’s critical thinking here, from childhood on. This is a matter of interest, of course: we garner new insights from a direction external to his fiction. Some of the journalism he produced which is reprinted here is so topical that it’s hard to relate to it now, and it’s probably not worth the amount of legwork that would be required to do so. Likewise for many of his book reviews of now forgotten works, and which he usually panned: no need to exhume those sub-literary corpses.

Still, there are occasional gems to be unearthed from the surrounding clayey strata. Joyce’s early preoccupation with the drama of the stage and his relegation of fiction to second-class status is made abundantly clear. We start getting to the “good stuff,” specifically to the “Aesthetics” section (1903/04), about half way through. Here we’re given access to entries from his Paris and Pola Notebooks in which he originally set down his aesthetic theory, featured prominently especially in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (There are some distinctions, but in truth most of this is laid out in that novel and is probably more readily digested there.) In 1907’s “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages,” we begin to understand (as if we didn’t know already from his fiction) just how deep Joyce’s knowledge of Irish history and society extended. Later, some of his suggestions about Fenianism suggest we might revise our assumptions about Joyce’s celebrated pacifism; at a minimum we must conclude that Joyce-the-man was more complex than Joyce-the-myth. As of course every person is. “From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer,” from 1932, is rather fascinating, as it is written in a style which might be dubbed Finnegans Wake-lite: a charming piece which by any other author’s standards hardly constitutes “lite” reading at all.

If you are a Joycean completist, and if you’ve bothered looking at this review then I’m sure you are, by all means you’ll want this book. You’ll probably be surprised to discover, even despite my review here, that it won’t be what you’d imagined it would be.

Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights Explained

Here the description from YouTube:

Published on May 22, 2013

Adam McLean analyses and explains this important painting by Hieronymus Bosch in great detail in a series of four videos lasting for a total of two hours.

McLean looks at the painting through an artist’s eyes. He does not impose some external interpretation as most other commentators do, but instead forensically investigates the structure and the imagery used by Bosch to form his painting.

McLean thus, perhaps for the first time, has been able to cut through the seeming enigmatic nature of this painting, and shows that it is structured around a coherent pictorial narrative. Each symbol, each group of figure, the strange forms and metamorphosed animals are shown to fit into this narrative which McLean has found in the structure of the work.

These four videos provide a clear explanation of the painting based on its internal structure, without recourse to importing external interpretations.

Adam McLean is currently creating a facsimile copy in oils of The Garden of Earthly Delights. This will take thousands of hours of work and will not be completed till late 2014 at the earliest.

My comments:

Mr McLean makes a valid point about the projection of modern misperceptions upon this painting resulting in anachronistic interpretations; however, in my opinion he overemphasizes the degree to which scholarly consideration has been negligent in this regard. Nevertheless, this is his primary thesis from which all his arguments spring, and as his arguments unfold, one cannot help recognizing the pertinence of the claim.

The rhetorical technique of Mr McLean’s verbal performance strikes one as artificial and, indeed, annoying . . . at first. However, as his exegesis unfolds, his slow pacing, coupled to the magnificent visual presentation of enlargements from the painting, steadily work their magic. The story that slowly emerges becomes completely compelling, and we become thankful for Mr McLean’s larghetto presentation, which allows us to take in the entire work at a pace conducive to a new understanding and appreciation.

What emerges is an understanding of The Garden of Earthly Delights much more as if one were encountering the characters in a novel rather than the figures one is accustomed to dealing with in a painting.

While I was watching this series of videos, toward the end I began thinking that in this age of special effects, someone could easily bring The Garden to life in the form of a full-length feature film that would be utterly fantastic: imagine something like a combination of Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful as well as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland hybridized with Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Someone should do this right away.


James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays (Hart and Hayman, Eds.)

A few years ago some Twitter wit, I forget whom, suggested that the eighteen episodes comprising James Joyce’s Ulysses might be conceived of as more-or-less independent scrolls; that the compounded tome represents a collection of said scrolls compiled in a manner like unto how Homer might have aggregated The Odyssey from the efforts of pre-existing raconteurs, imparting his own authorial stamp to the collective work. While I’ve no indication that such was Joyce’s intent, I’ve ever since found the mental image of a disheveled pile of scrolls to be a useful model for thinking about Ulysses and its (in)famously radical shifts of style and emphasis from one episode to the next. This could also account for Joyce referring to said independent components as episodes rather than the conventional chapters.

Taking on Ulysses episode by episode, James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays, edited by Hart and Hayman, is so stuffed with invaluable insights that never before in my life have I filled up a book with so many Post-It notes for later review. Having already been though Ulysses about seven or eight times in the last few years, and beginning ― so I innocently believed ― to acquire a certain panoramic vision and appreciation of its sweeping narrative and vast multitude of characters, Hart and Hayman humbled me, revealing that in some ways I am only just beginning to break down through the superficial crust of the book and to plunge into the true and unexpected allusive ocean of dimly-lit psychopoetics which broods beneath. Some of the episodes I now must fundamentally rethink; others I now suspect I perceive only through the darkest glass most obscurely.

Of course this is the great fun[1] of reading James Joyce, and what you find in no other writer: as soon as the words “I understand” occur to you, the solid earth crumbles from beneath your feet. It’s not so much a matter of coming to understand Joyce’s stories as it is learning how to read, and reconsidering what the act of reading is, or can, or may be.

Some of the eighteen essays to be found in Hart and Hayman ― one essay for each of the episodes in Ulysses ― are more mind-blowing than others. Robert Kellogg on Scylla and Charybdis is something of a revelation. Clive Hart on Wandering Rocks is nothing less than astonishing. Jackson I Cope is a most helpful guide through the musicality of Sirens, providing a number of useful guideposts. David Hayman shows us how the text of Cyclops is nested in a way I hadn’t picked up on before, and also here sets out his critical Arranger theory of narration throughout Ulysses, which by itself makes this particular essay a vital one. Likewise while JS Atherton may not be the last word on Oxen of the Sun, he probably comes close; at a minimum, Atherton’s essay is unquestionably required reading.

Reading and carefully reflecting on Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated and Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study are of secondary importance only to successive re-readings of Joyce’s original text if one hopes to begin to garner something approaching a respectable comprehension of Ulysses. James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays is likewise an important reference work, though perhaps a bit less so for the layman than for the academic scholar, but only a bit. If Gifford and Gilbert and Joyce were required reading for a 400-level course, then you’d expect to encounter Hart and Hayman in a graduate course. It’s not too much for the layman to come to terms with. I am myself such a layman, and I find this book to be masterful and helpful in the extreme.

[1] Some might object to my use of the word “fun” here . . . until they’ve made their first conceptual breakthrough and acknowledged that Joyce’s conception of fiction is unlike anything they’ve encountered before.

Ernie & Bill: Mayday.

Faulkner’s little 1929 book called Mayday languished unknown for half a century before its popular trade edition was finally published in 1976. Carvel Collins’ introduction is almost as long as Faulkner’s text. Which is okay.

Collins’ writings about Faulkner are not always satisfactory, as we saw in his 1962 introduction to William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry. He tends to drop more ramshackle hints here and there about his subject’s life than he provides a chronological and connected accounting of the biographical information that would be most useful to know. On the other hand, when he does finally settle down here, the thoughts and ideas he’s trying to convey about Mayday are interesting, albeit they are not always strictly creditable.

Collins’ main theme, when he eventually finds it, is that Faulkner used Mayday as a kind of template for his composition of the last section of The Sound and the Fury, which we may refer to as Quentin’s soliloquy. Indeed Collins does cite some intriguing parallels between the two texts. The metaphor can easily be extended beyond the breaking point, however. I recall an argument advanced in Faulkner in the University, for example, that The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying must be closely connected because they both feature a girl with serious life-problems, the girl has three brothers, and the parents have pressing concerns of their own ― a terminally pressing concern in the case of Addie Bundren. Collins makes a parallel argument here. He tells us that, as we find Quentin Compson’s case to be in The Sound and the Fury, the protagonist of Mayday, Galwyn of Arthgyl, is suspended between two brother-figures, the red design of Pain and the green design of Hunger (e.g., Jason and Benjy), while he pursues into futility his idealized woman-figure with long shining hair who reminds him of hyacinths in spring and honey and sunlight (Caddy). Now it’s true that we can look at these fundamental and recurring relationships as some kind of prime pattern that Faulkner kept exploring. But, we may also reflect, a small handful of characters like these are relatively easy for both reader and writer to keep track of and invest with plausible soul and dimensionality. It’s possible that we, or Collins, might perceive connections, or parallels, where no connections or parallels exist. Both perspectives are sound. I am not fully persuaded by Collins’ point of view, but I do find the notion intriguing.

I’m more skeptical when Collins goes on to apply Freud to The Sound and the Fury and extends this dubious theory backward into Mayday, however. Collins asserts that Benjy represents the id, Quentin the ego and Jason the superego. If Jason represents the superego, then either Collins or I have a fundamental misunderstanding of what that term is supposed to signify. I don’t have any problem with a critic analyzing a work from a Freudian perspective, or from a Marxist perspective or from a feminist perspective; I do find it laughable, however, to think that Faulkner deliberately concocted the characters of The Sound and the Fury to represent well-partitioned Freudian chambers of the mind. Nevertheless, it may be that Collins’ theory does make a little more sense in the case of Mayday, which after all is something frankly akin to a medieval allegory, or fairy tale. And yet even here the task of assigning Freud’s terms to Galwyn and his red and green design-companions is hardly a self-evident exercise; indeed, the red and the green are so interchangeable it is in fact impossible to know which one is more like Benjy and which one is more like Jason. Connotations associated with the words Hunger and Pain are probably helpful, but the characteristics (i.e., traits deriving from their characters) of these two bit-players cannot be said to map easily onto their alleged counterparts in that other book.

So Collins does dredge up a few ponderables in his introduction, but what is probably most important is his information concerning the degree to which Faulkner’s text leans heavily on the works of the Virginian James Branch Cabell; so heavily, Collins insinuates, that I feel a bit remiss talking about Mayday without tracking down and reading Cabell’s The Line of Love, and perhaps one or two other novels of his as well. But so be it. The theme of The Line of Love, Collins tells is, is that of the illusions of idealized, romantic love being inevitably overthrown by disillusioning reality. This theme is central to Mayday: I have no dispute with that.

Here I leave Collins for Faulkner.

It’s helpful to know the debt Faulkner owes to Cabell, because absent that knowledge this little book appears to be a real enigma. In style it is nothing like either the hapless poetry we’ve seen before now or the more well known Southern regionalist prose that is soon to come. Mayday is a curiosity, not a text we would expect to find under Faulkner’s name. It’s a rather bizarre fairy tale of uncertain interpretation. It is true that our hero Galwyn appears to be on a quest for the perfect woman ― for his soul mate. One by one, as he effects short-lived liaisons with fetching ladies, Galwyn is disillusioned as the unobtainable is obtained. Each would-be leading lady proves far too human and therefore tedious to him. One by one he leaves them behind. His accompanying sidekicks, Pain and Hunger, seem to offer very little support or insight during the quest: perhaps they should be seen less as sidekicks than as hangers-on. Pain and Hunger are the companions we all have during our various trips through the world, through life.

Bracketing the action of the tale are a pair of curious settings and encounters; or rather, more probably, the story is not linear but circular. Galwyn returns finally to his point of origin, and encounters again the same warden of the quest, Saint Francis, who was there at the beginning. Saint Francis stands as a tree by the River of Life wherein all the history of the world is recorded. Reading of this river I could not keep from conjuring up visions of a similar river in Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel Siddhartha. In the space of these few handfuls of pages it seems that Galwyn has passed his entire allegorical life, moving away from birth and toward death. If for no other reason then with reference to the Canticle of the Sun, Faulkner has selected Saint Francis as the warden of the adventure in order that he may identify the final object of Galwyn’s life-quest as “Little sister Death.”

I must note that while Collins, coming at Faulkner’s allegory from a Christian tradition, makes much of Galwyn’s despair and suicide, I find neither here. Instead, Saint Francis requires Galwyn to make a choice, which strikes me as not being too Christian a concept. One path Galwyn may choose is to undergo an act of reincarnation in which he will retain no memory of his most recent life and its various disillusionments. He will start afresh at birth a tabula rasa. To know what experiences he can expect, one need only return to the first page of Mayday and start reading again. Presumably Galwyn has already made this choice many times at the ends of many previous lifetimes. The alternative path before Galwyn is to put an end to the endless cycling by finally merging with his romantic ideal. I see weariness in our hero, yes, but neither despair nor suicide. Instead, Galwyn chooses to put an end to the karmic cycles of rebirth and, according to another tradition, he achieves nirvana.

My question now is this. Having read Collins’ speculations, and having arrived at tentative conclusions of my own, when next I re-read The Sound and the Fury, will I see Quentin’s choice through the filter of an Eastern tradition?

Tucson Springtime, 2015.

Short hike at the end of Campbell Avenue, 29 April 2015. Every palo verde in Pima County is in bloom for the moment. Also many of the cholla and prickly pear. All images can be clicked on for larger size displays; back arrow to return. HINT: clicking on images is strongly recommended!







































Ernie & Bill: Faulkner in the University: a Review.

So far I’m just a dabbler in William Faulkner, although I’m engaged in a Great Project which involves reading as much of his works, along with those of Ernest Hemingway, all simultaneously and in chronological order. By rights I should have come at this volume close to the end of that Great Project, but I was on a trip through Georgia and a tiny part of Tennessee and I bought this little book somewhere ― I think it was in Chattanooga. I bought so many books on this trip that I had to ship them home, but I needed something small and portable to bring back on the plane, and this was it.

Now when a celebrity is interviewed, say a rock star or an actor, it’s often pretty iffy when the questioner veers off into any area outside the celebrity’s immediate bailiwick. That is, why should celebrity status confer a legitimacy to one particular individual’s private opinions which should influence how we think or feel about global politics, say? Of course I admit the interest may vary quite a lot depending upon the insights, knowledge and wisdom of the person being interviewed ― rare enough qualities within the entertainment industry ― and sometimes the interviewee will offer a refreshingly original point of view which we haven’t heard before. That said, mostly this book is a long series of transcripts of various Q&A sessions conducted at the University of Virginia in 1957-1958, which finds Faulkner more or less at the height of his creative power; he had received his Nobel Prize in 1949. The book generally covers three areas of interest: Faulkner on writing, Faulkner on Southern history, and Faulkner on unrelated matters.

A book such as this may help us to understand Faulkner-the-man, or Faulkner-the-writer. Of course we always have the nagging question: Do we care about the works themselves or about the author who created them? Those are two different Things. Here we are afforded an extended view of Faulkner-the-man interacting with the public on a small scale, so we can hope that his expressed opinions are more candid and unguarded than they might be if he were writing an essay for publication. This is why I feel this book is of value.

So. Faulkner on writing. This is the concern that interests me most. Unfortunately, Faulkner has little insight to offer concerning his writing process. Mostly he gives us a few pat clichés again and again. An author writes from three sources: what he’s read before and steals, from personal experience and from imagination. Faulkner also asserts repeatedly that he is uninterested in writing about ideas but only about characters. This seems to mean he has no conscious ax to grind in a story or a novel, perhaps barely a theme, that if themes or symbols seep in, it is via an unconscious process which readers and critics only infer later, and which he almost always disavows. He also states a time or two that he believes all good writers write like he does, concerning themselves far more with characters than with ideas. I think this assumption of his untrue, although it provides him a useful barometer for comparing himself to other writers: if they write primarily about characters, they are “good” writers. Well, an important writer need not be brilliantly articulate about the writing process. If we wish to learn about how Faulkner writes, I don’t think we’re going to learn much listening to him talk about it.

I’ll skip ahead to Faulkner on unrelated matters, his answers to questions that don’t involve writing or Southern history but instead might be said to follow the form: Sir, you’re a celebrity, so how do you feel about subject X which has nothing to do with your writing? It might be seen as a sort of hero worship. What bothers me most about Faulkner’s handling of such questions is that he never once prefaces his replies with: Well, you know, I’m no authority on subject X, but . . . Instead, he answers these questions as seriously as any other question put to him, which at least implies that he feels that his celebrity status does confer on him some authority to hold forth on any question at all put to him. This is off-putting, but it also reveals how Faulkner sees himself  and his relevance to society. Examples of answers to these questions include Faulkner’s opinions about how Europeans view Americans based on his trips overseas, and what America should do to encourage the rest of the world to like us more. It’s all faintly ridiculous. Maybe not even faintly.

It turns out that the most important part of the book is concerned with Faulkner on Southern history. This can be found in smatterings throughout, but the prime section is toward the end when Faulkner reads an essay titled “A Word to Virginians”  on 20 February 1958. We must consider the date so we can put his words and thoughts in context as best as we can. These were trying times especially in the South as the Civil Rights Movement was well underway but still revving up. So far there had been Brown v Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Central High School at Little Rock. Now, throughout the book, Faulkner comes across as being more liberal than the mean for his region, as we might say. In his fiction he shows equal empathy for white and black, and he is no apologist for the Confederate cause in the Civil War nor preacher of the Lost Cause. One thing his fiction teaches us is how inadequate words like racist and racism and white supremacy and the like can be. It’s not that these words are illegitimate, but we have too few words to try to cover an enormous spectrum of attitudes and behaviors arising from a multitude of causes and personal and shared experiences. And yet . . . And yet. In this essay Faulkner calls for “mother” Virginia to offer leadership to the other Southern states through these trying times. Clearly he seeks for some form of progressive leadership, but just what that leadership role is to be he doesn’t say or really even hint at. One thing he’s not advocating is integration, which he predicts the South won’t “accept” for another fifty (!) years. Sadly, to depict the situation of uneducated blacks living among white Southerners, Faulkner compares them to a herd of wild horses cut loose and raising havoc in the town. He then claims this was a poor analogy he put in his essay, but after all the only reason he is present at the University of Virginia is because he is a respected writer, so this mea culpa is a non-starter. Most sadly of all, he states multiple times that “the Negro doesn’t want to mix with white people any more than white people want to mix with the Negro.”  In the end what Faulkner appears to fear most is that segregation is going to be terminated by the federal government and not by Southern states, and in effect he calls for Southern states to find a solution to this problem before segregation is ended and integration is thrust upon them. And he never offers any notion of what such a solution would look like beyond educating blacks , as he puts it, to stop thinking like Negroes, and by inference to learn to think like respectable whites.

I’m not overly concerned with what Faulkner’s attitudes were for the sake of his personal reputation. I am, however, definitely surprised that his words do suggest such an extraordinary naiveté about the aspirations of black American Southerners who have been his neighbors and subjects of his fiction for his whole life. In fact I think this essay can only be read as professionally embarrassing, as it undermines our faith in his ability to understand the South which he wrote about. And if we start to doubt his grasp of what was going on in the South in his own day, then it may be that we begin to question how representative of authentic Southern history his body of work is.

Not that I necessarily do question this. But my take home lesson from this book is that Faulkner demonstrates at great length that he has little of use to say about writing, that he is profoundly unaware, even ignorant, of the historical tides about to sweep over the South, and that he has no qualms about pontificating on any other matters in which he has little or no expertise. None of which tells me anything about how well he can write fiction. This is a valuable and helpful book for anyone who, like me, is trying to understand Faulkner, in spite of its frustrations. Faulkner in the University paints a portrait of a fellow who was as a rule not a deep thinker; he might well be called a poseur. The greatness of his fiction, if it is great, we must try to comprehend by reading the texts themselves, not by looking to their author for any help.

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