Review: ‘James Joyce: the undiscover’d Country’
by Bernard Benstock (Dublin, Gill and MacMillan; New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1977. 201 pp. £8.50)
The opening pages of Bernard Benstock’s new—that is, second—book on James Joyce give unfortunately little foretaste of what is shortly to come. In a Preface which is an Introduction and an Introduction which is a Preface we read that ‘I have narrowed the perspective of this study of the Joycean creed [—a little later, ‘the gospel according to Joyce himself’—] to Joyce’s own words.’ This iteration of ‘creed’ and ‘gospel’ seems ominous, as though the critic was content to pose as acolyte, servilely offering us Joyce’s Joyce. Then we are told, ‘I tend to conclude my discussion short of Finnegans wake, since I assume that Joyce’s attitudes had become well established by the time he had completed Ulysses.’ and that Stephen Dedalus ‘voices attitudes held by Joyce as a “young man” . . . ‘ Joyce’s attitudes? Is that what Professor Benstock is after?
In fact, no. Or if yes, only as redefined with a saving complexity. No ‘attitudes’ but in things—in achieved texts. The critic quickly guards himself by careful reference to contexts, so that we are cautioned that we cannot take either Stephen or Joyce’s narrative voices as that gospel. Nor does he intend to pass beyond these, to some ideal Joyce deducible behind the fiction. The wonder is, why Professor Benstock started off so cackhandedly, only to show us that he knows better, and better still in his critical practice.
For what James Joyce: the undiscover’d country really provides are many and consistent local felicities based on careful and exact reading, sensitive contextualisation, and comprehensive—even creative—cross-referencing to images and even individual words.
At his best Professor Benstock works a constantly accumulative process, moving in five chapters from one finely-crafted subsection to the next, extending, qualifying, generalising or particularising the moving but firmly controlled argument. When most successful, as in chapter one on the Irelands within and without the Pale of Dublin, the critical text, as it moves from topic to topic, provides pleasure near that elusive epiphanic enlightenment Joyce postulated for fictions. That chapter moves from claims on the soul of the artist to the idea of the West (of Ireland) to the Irish Woman to the ‘soul’ of the race to the priest and policeman as symbols of that race and to its embodiment in peasant Ireland. The associative movement can on occasion become somewhat mechanical, as when chapter two drops into a march through Irish social history as it appears in Joyce’s work, diverging to Stephen Dedalus’s and then Leopold Bloom’s ‘attitudes on the subject.’ And if the final chapters, on the growth of the artist and the nature of his art, have touches of this pedestrianism, chapter three, on Europe, rises to the developmental sophistication of chapter one, moving from dreams and fantasies of escape (in Dubliners and beyond) to ‘the lure of the European mainland’ to Dante as an influence and example (an identification more than an appreciation’) to Libraries—a master-stroke, this (‘Intellectual cunning was operative at the National Library . . . while contemplative silence was in effect at Marsh’s . . .’)—to Ibsen and other dramatists.
The critical prose style is generally ‘practical.’ and always in close touch with the pages of the texts. It treats characters as persons but knows when not to stretch that assumption too far. Professor Benstock does rather conflate the Stephen Dedalus of Stephen Hero—of whom he gives the best account I can recall—with the Stephen Dedalus of A portrait of the artist as a young man. He can note specific differences but otherwise assumes their identity : the two seem to be alternative ‘presentations’ of the same entity, as though there was some ideal story behind the actual texts. This composite Stephen is perhaps the only dubious feature of a superior exegesis.
Professor Benstock’s knowledge of the data of Joyce’s texts can hardly be faulted. (He does make much play with the absent word ‘reality’ in the telegram Dedalus sends to Buck Mulligan, ‘cribbed out of Meredith.’ but I understand from Hugh Kenner that some editions of Meredith also lack the word, and so speculation may be out of place.) He also knows Joyce’s criticism, has absorbed its usefulness and does not obtrude it upon his readers. And, once out of the reach of Prefaces and Introductions, he writes awfully well.