terça-feira, 1 de outubro de 2013

One of the Greatest Failures in Literature By David Kelly

One of the Greatest Failures in Literature

By David Kelly
James Joyce in 1915 (Cornell University Library)

Today is James Joyce’s birthday, and 2009 marks at least two significant Joycean anniversaries: “Finnegans Wake” was published in 1939 — its author was peeved when World War II stole some of his thunder — and Richard Ellmann’s great biography came out in 1959.

Fifty years ago in The New Yorker, Dwight Macdonald wrote about Ellmann’s book, “Here is the definitive work, and I hope it will become a model for future scholarly biographies.” More than two decades later, Anthony Burgess declared it “the best biography of our century.” Is there a better literary biography from the 20th century, or from the first decade of the 21st? Ellmann’s own life of Wilde comes close. “James Joyce” won the National Book Award, but somehow did not win a Pulitzer. Ellmann wound up winning one for “Oscar Wilde,” though posthumously.

In his review of the Joyce biography in The New York Times Book Review, Stephen Spender wrote, “Ellmann seems to accept the view of all good Joyceans that ‘Finnegans Wake’ is Joyce’s masterpiece and not an immense aberration.” That was never the view of “all” good Joyceans. Macdonald put it well: “Perhaps ‘Finnegan’ was a blind alley, but it was his blind alley.” Similarly, in a review of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lectures on Literature,” John Simon wrote, “There is … a disparagement, correct to my mind, of ‘Finnegans Wake’ as ‘one of the greatest failures in literature,’ although the ambiguity of ‘greatest’ in this context, necessary to my mind, was not intended by Nabokov.”

Burgess, as good a Joycean as any, regarded “Ulysses” as the greatest 20th-century novel. Here’s what he said about “Finnegans Wake”:

The world has forgiven Joyce for the excesses of “Ulysses,” but it is not yet ready to forgive him for the dementia of “Finnegans Wake.” Yet it is difficult to see what other book he could well have written after a fictional ransacking of the human mind in its waking state. “Ulysses” sometimes touches the borders of sleep, but it never actually enters its kingdom. “Finnegans Wake” is frankly a representation of the sleeping brain. It took Joyce 17 years to write between eye operations and worry about the mental collapse of his daughter, Lucia. He got little encouragement, even from Ezra Pound, that prince of avant-gardistes; his wife, Nora, merely said that he ought to write a nice book that ordinary people could read. But clearly “Finnegans Wake” had to be written, and Joyce was the only man dedicated or mad enough to write it.

Likewise, Edna O’Brien wrote about Joyce and the “Wake”: “Madness he knew to be the secret of genius. … He preferred the word ‘exaltation,’ which can merge into madness. All great men had that vein in them. The reasonable man, he insisted, achieves nothing.”

Let’s give the final word to John Updike, who died last week having left behind a finished collection of stories and volume of poetry. This is how he ended his review of Ellmann’s “Selected Letters of James Joyce” (1975):

He rereads “Finnegans Wake,” “adding commas.” An old friend and amanuensis, Paul Léon, shows up … fleeing the Germans. He and Joyce together methodically compile the list of 900 misprints in “Finnegans Wake” that is Joyce’s last literary labor. In 1906, he wrote his brother, “I have written quite enough and before I do any more in that line I must see some reason why — I am not a literary Jesus Christ.” In 1941, he writes his brother, in Italian, a list of people who might help Stanislaus survive in Hitler’s Europe, and within the month is dead, of a duodenal ulcer he had been harboring. His desk was clean.

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