Wednesday, July 09, 2014

July 9th: James Joyce
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now finished re-reading: "The Metamorphosis"/"Die Verwandlung" by Franz Kafka
now reading: Sophie's Choice by William Styron

Kafka, Styron, and Joyce...someone might call these guys "writer's writers," if that weren't such a weird way to talk about creative people. (Not that it stops the critics. "She's a real songwriter's songwriter," you sometimes hear. We understand what it means, but it still seems like a phrase to use when you can think of no other words to describe the artist -- truly no other words, so you just use "artist" again.)

Today's Story: "Clay"
Author: James Joyce
My Rating: B

Reading this story, "Clay," puts me in mind of the eternal question I ask myself as a writer (well, one of them): do I want any and all readers to understand my work? Do I care if they don't get it? Does it matter if I refer to things that are clear and obvious now, or known to many people, but that in the future will be confusing, or baffle some folk?

In short, do I want to be one of those annoying pieces in the Norton Anthology where the footnotes take up more of the pages than the actual text? No, I do not. But will I be?  ???  Over time, the things which we find so familiar will be altered beyond recognition. And even now, I know some people have a hard time keeping up with my allusions, although I don't say that in a literary snobby way, just an "I-talk-a-lot-and-throw-in-a-lot-of-random-Clue-and-Designing-Women-references" way.

Then again, even a one-footnote story puts forth this eternal question, because were it not for the footnote in this particular case, and despite the story's title, I wouldn't have known that Maria had stuck her hand into the clay, nor known that choosing the clay is ominous. Is this an Irish thing? A 1915 thing? I have no idea. Never heard of it. Never heard of the Hallowe'en game they're playing, in fact. So maybe I'm just unimpressed because I'm confused, but James gets a deduction and the grade is a B. Not fair? (Who ever said I was a fair grader? It's my freakin' blog, after all.) Well, I hardly think that anyone coming to the defense of James Joyce's writing is going to try, "You're just ignorant; he doesn't make any obscure allusions" for the thrust of their argument.

Oh, James Joyce. Good writer, that boy. Are his short stories deceptively simple? Are his deft turns of phrase like Forster's, with more than meets the elegance-beholding eye? Is he as wise as Tolstoy about the human condition? (OK, no on that one, sorry.) Is he the Dante of his generation? The Da Vinci? The Bono?

In AP English my senior year of high school, we were all set to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We knew this was coming, because as I previously mentioned in my Kafka entry, my sister and several of my classmates' older siblings were two years ahead of us and the English department pretty much kept the biggies of the curriculum the same, at least not altering them in just a couple of years. Now, it wasn't to be our first time around the James Joyce block cul-de-sac, as we had studied "Araby" the year before, but anyway, the novel loomed. And then our teacher, who had taken over AP English that year from our sisters' teacher who departed in the wake of a messy life/divorce incident, discovered that we had not yet read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. She was incredulous. At first she thought one student was saying he alone hadn't read it, like, he had blown it off sophomore year or whatever. No, we explained, to this teacher who had in previous years taught the "average" and remedial English classes and wasn't familiar with us, the accelerated/Advanced Placement crowd who'd gone through our four years of high school together, we didn't read that in sophomore year American Lit. None of us read it. We read The Scarlet Letter  and Moby Dick that year and assorted other things, but no Huckleberry Finn. She immediately scrapped Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and hauled out her set of Huckleberry Finn  classroom copies, which we AP seniors surely eyed with disdain, as they were normally handled by, you know, sophomores. And not even advanced  sophomores. Do I now look back on her decision approvingly? Do I agree with her that any self-respecting English student must study Huckleberry Finn in American Lit?  Yeah, sure. But we hated the very idea of being senior AP English students reading the same book as the average sophomores. What a delicious whirlwind of meta-pretentious thought, no? Joyce should be proud.

Before you can become an artist, you must rid yourself of all the baggage of your "influences." But what games did you play on All Hallows' Eve, James Joyce, that now haunt Maria and me? What twists of fate await us, blindfolded, when we try to reach for our destiny? And when the hell will I ever get around to reading Ulysses?

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