James Joyce managed to portray what goes on through our heads, moment by moment. His poems, short stories and novels depict the English language as it is “voiced” inside people’s minds. Reading Joyce, one is faced with a literary style in never-ending evolution, which goes from the more traditional narrative of Dubliners to the extremely challenging prose of Finnegans Wake. Let us now briefly consider Joyce’s major publications.
The city that Joyce loved and hated provides the set for all of Joyce’s works, beginning with this collection of short stories. Quaint, tragic, ridiculous and bizarre characters alternate on the stage of this literary mosaic work. Catholic oppression and political pressure from the British Empire are revealed in some of these stories – two of the main themes that will come up in later works as well, such as Ulysses.
Thus depicted as a universal city, Dublin is the backdrop to stories such as “The Sisters” or “The Dead”, where a gloomy atmosphere hangs heavily over tales dealing with death. Motifs of celebration and festivity are explored in more cheerful stories like “Clay”. The recurring theme of paralysis is to be found in stories such as “Eveline”, where decisions like following one’s true love into the sea of the unknown are too much for a young woman who can’t flee with her beloved sailor.
After being rejected 22 times by publishers, Dubliners is now considered a classic of English literature and an excellent starting-point for readers eager to get to know this Irish author.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1915)
American poet Ezra Pound helped Joyce have his first novel serialized. In this remarkable novel, Joyce portrays the first years in the life of Stephen Dedalus, his own literary alias. After this focus on Dedalus’s student years, curious readers will meet again this young artist in Ulysses. Only this time, he is donning the mantle of the son in search of a long-lost father (or father-figure, whom he will find in Leopold Bloom).
Ulysses (first serialized from March 1918 to December 1920)
The book that turned June 16 into more than a summer day for the city of Dublin – indeed, for readers of Ulysses, wherever they may be – had no easy start. After a long and troubled time, when this novel was not greenlit by censors owing to its salacious and occasionally racy depictions of common life, Ulysses is now available in most bookshops and libraries worldwide.
Far from being an easy read, Joyce’s masterpiece can be a very rewarding book. Literary critics are still divided on the thorny question of attributing meaning to its pages, and there are about 1000 of them, to boot. A political satire aimed at the British crown? A celebration of ordinariness? A religious critique to the Catholic Church? All of it at once or maybe none? Ulysses baffles us all.
And that may be exactly Joyce’s point, the head-scratching puzzlement of critics.
Finnegans Wake (1939)
Whereas Ulysses’s plot can somewhat clearly be defined, the same cannot be said of Joyce’s final novel. The elusive nature of Joyce’s stream of consciousness is at this point so experimental that one is left with wondering whether the author himself hadn’t intentionally devised too personal (not to say puzzling) a piece of art to be understood by anyone but himself.
Language is twisted and remolded in Finnegans Wake, so much so that it resembles a veritable tower of Babel of English. Sometimes the words on the pages look foreign, but were one to sound them out, then would one perhaps see through the mystifying appearance of Joyce’s spelling. Words jammed together, such as “heweareagain”, or “funferall”, into portmanteaus form an intricate maze wherein the reader wonders and true meanings are left to one’s imagination.
Like a wise man once said, if you finish reading Finnegans Wake, they should give you a prize.