Review: James Joyce: the citizen and the artist

by C.H. Peake (Edward Arnold, London, pp.369. £9.95)

 

Bernard Benstock

 

The one reviewer who has forfeited the right to groan at ‘still another book on Joyce’ is the reviewer who has recently published one—and frankly intends doing so again. The less committed reader of Joyceana may express astonishment, and even disgruntlement, that more books on that presumably exhausted subject have been published in 1976 and 1977 than in any two previous years, although not all of them were worth publishing. C.H. Peake’s James Joyce: the citizen and the artist fortunately is—fortunately because it consists of 369 tightly packed pages. That Joyce is worth the fuss is evidenced by his scope and range and depth, by unlimited possibilities and new perspectives. Other writers abide their time, and one goes on to something else. Charles Peake invades the presumably crowded Joyce territory with gusto, and although at times he repeats material well known to the specialist, often enough his insights and overviews make this a publication of importance to every reader of Joyce.

 

The citizen and the artist is actually three books in one, the most commonplace of which is a ‘reading’ of the Joyce canon, meticulously done, although redolent of déjà vu. The second is a thematic study of the interaction of Dublin citizen and rebellious artist that reaches its state of balance in Ulysses, an approach I find particularly welcome since I have recently ventured upon a similar investigation. Peake employs his central thesis like a clothes-line on which to hang almost the entire Joyce wardrobe, but it proves a strong line that carries the weight of its burden. Yet even more impressive are the hundreds of instances where Peake attacks the most difficult cruxes in Ulysses, explicating with incisiveness aspects usually overlooked by less exacting commentators. Wherever the knot is particularly thorny, Peake dissects with surgical skill, from Stephen’s theory of aesthetics to the conundrums of Cyclops and Circe, Oxen of the Sun and Ithaca.

 

Nor are the cruxes limited to the primary texts: Peake explores the creative process as well as the created product, scrutinizing the many scraps of Joyce’s skeletal materials. Notebook fragments are applied to the finished work; suggestions in letters and conversations are mined for clues; and the schemas slipped to Linati and Gorman and Gilbert by the worker-in- progress, ladders that have led some critics nowhere and others to false paradises, are tested rung by rung. Peake often finds that they do not carry the weight attributed to them by those who apply them too literally, but postulates a working artist who drew up his blueprints, revised as he went along, discarded as the work of art developed a dynamic of its own. And throughout his scrutinizations Peake dismisses the overly ingenious interpretation for the commonsensical, a refreshing asset that, nonetheless, has its concomitant liability.

 

Excessive attention to symbolism among Joyceans emerges as Peake’s particular bête noire, and he regards symbol hunting the way some regard fox hunting: the pursuit of the untenable by the unthinking. Although on occasion he does quote them with respect, William York Tindall and Marvin Magalaner are singled out for a dressing down as head hunters of the elusive Dame Symbol. Yet Peake’s cold protest against the Lady is eventually modified into warm attraction and even hot pursuit, once he has succinctly qualified his own approach. Referring to ‘The dead’ he comments, ‘The snow, the cold, and the darkness contribute importantly to the story’s significance, but by suggestion and not as a kind of code: they contribute to the general bearing, and influence and reinforce the image of Dublin as a moribund city.’ Whereas earlier he preferred such terms as image and reflection and reference and suggestion, Peake becomes increasingly more comfortable with symbol and symbolism, even acknowledging that the dying fire in ‘Ivy Day’ is symbolic—pace Magalaner. (To those of us unabashedly committed to symbolic readings of Joyce, Tindal and Magalaner as overreachers are preferable to such under-achievers as the literal-minded Warren Beck: entrusting Dubliners to Beck is like entrusting Miró to the colour-blind and Milhaud to the tone deaf.)

 

The strongest negative statement on symbolistics appears in Peake’s preface where he objects that ‘symbolic’ and far-fetched criticism continues to dominate, and to flourish on Joyce’s works as on the works of no other writer, familiarizing readers with kinds of evidence and argument that would not be accepted in other contexts and establishing an eccentric orthodoxy: many unlikely and wild interpretations of particular stories or passages are now treated as recognized truths, and repeated unchallenged.’ Happily, Peake’s book outgrows its preface, and although he reasserts regarding A portrait that ‘wholesale symbolic interpretation obscures and confuses,’ he does acknowledge that the Portrait ‘is heavily charged with imagery, symbol and allusion.’ The key to his own symbolic system is in his important phrase, by suggestion and not as a kind of code.

 

As Devil’s Advocate I am tempted to lure Charles Peake closer to the symbol hunter’s camp—nearer to the dying fire. Having recently perpetrated symbolic studies of both Dubliners and A portrait, I cannot ignore Peake’s reluctance to grant full symbolic rights to Joyce’s earlier work: ‘I find the attempts to trace in Maria,’ he notes, ‘the Blessed Virgin, a witch and the Poor Old Woman quite unconvincing, contributing nothing to the story and demanding further tortuous explanation; yet the title ‘Clay’ is itself clearly symbolic.’ Leaving aside the Shan Van Vocht to those closer to that persuasion, I would campaign tenaciously for the Halloween witch (whose workmates bear such evocative names as Lizzie Fleming and Ginger Mooney) and the Virgin whose name echoes the Hail Mary in the last line of the preceding story, just as the title echoes the clay in the Byron poem quoted at the end of ‘A little cloud.’ This sort of parallel structuring gives Dubliners a persistent unity, and when Peake stresses the repetition of the word ‘frank’ in ‘Two gallants,’ he might recall the important name given to the sailor in ‘Eveline.’ And when he faults Hugh Kenner for spying infertility symbols in plumstones dropped by superannuated virgins from Nelson’s Pillar in Ulysses, he ignores anticipation in ‘Clay’—the lost plumcake of the infertile virgin bought within a stone’s throw of the Pillar. The death symbolism abounding in commonplace expressions in Hades (‘a few bob a skull,’ ‘I was in mortal agony,’ etc.) applies as well to the skull on Conmee’s desk and the head of the director of Belevedere (A portrait) and Gretta taking ‘three mortal hours to dress’ (‘The dead’). What’s sauce for Ulysses is sauce for Dubliners and A portrait of the artist as a young man.

 

Two facets of symbolism in A portrait are especially fascinating to me (I have recently written about the birds and am at work on cattle—which extends into Ulysses), yet Charles Peake dismisses both as having no consistent pattern, so our battle-lines are obviously drawn in that sector. But in another part of the forest I find myself Peake’s enthusiastic ally. He reads the Joyce texts with an uncanny precision, gauges political values where most commentators have given up in despair, measures the overall range of the Joyce canon as a single work, and extracts sword after sword from the unyielding stone. Peake is at his best when the going is the roughest. The problem of Circe, for example, has often been glossed over or flagrantly fudged, and only recently has the function and nature of hallucination been adequately essayed by Hugh Kenner. Peake takes it a good step further, refusing the crutch of ‘psychological phenomena’ to account for the locus of the hallucinatory materials. ‘Bloom is clearly not in an hallucinated state,’ he argues; ‘while he recalls in later chapters what he said, did and thought during his adventure in Night-town, he does not remember any of the “hallucinatory” material, even as something which passed through his mind.’ Unsettling as it may be, I would suggest that absolutely nothing transpires or is apprehended in any way in Circe by either Bloom or Stephen that is not corroborated by them in the succeeding chapters. Peake’s clinical reading of Circe encourages just such a contention.

 

Peake earns additional high marks in an area of Ulysses criticism that one is embarrassed to admit even exists: attention to correct evidence. That he makes so few errors is an aspect of his careful testing of every detail, which cannot be said of every Joyce critic (a recent book on Ulysses averaged a blunder per every other page). After fifty years of Ulysses study one might assume that at least the basic facts have been agreed upon, yet some mistakes have never been corrected and many corrected ones are still persistently repeated. Peake apparently lets no-one do his reading for him, but he does make a few familiar mistakes (Bloom did not buy Sweets of sin but rented it; Boylan sent Molly a letter not a postcard—Peake gets it right the second time; Bloom is not looking for Boylan in the Burton—one does not search a restaurant hoping not to find someone there when he has already decided not to eat there; and I doubt that Zoe Higgins is Jewish—the evidence for it is hilariously hallucinatory and never corroborated). If these are the only lapses in The citizen and the artist—and the last two are certainly subject to dispute—Charles Peake would be well ahead of the field, and even if these errors are multiplied two or three times over, he has made a contribution to Joyce criticism that would still be eminently welcome.