Thursday, 27 November 2014

Games Writers Play

From my 1934 Modern Library edition of Ulysses, gift from my stepfather.
Such was Australia’s largely British orientation in 1958 that when I emigrated from the States to Australia in my late teens and enrolled in Sydney University I lost all but two of the credits I’d piled up at UCLA.  I’d been on the semester system but Sydney Uni still operated on the three-term Oxbridge year and that as well other adjustments put me well behind.  I was allowed to progress in English and history on the basis of my UCLA marks in them, but hadn’t the faintest clue about how these subjects were organised here.  There was no continuous assessment then and we were marked for each course solely on the terrifying end-of-year final exam.  Now that Australia’s universities operate on the American system I suspect our many foreign students (those with a good command of English at least) are less likely to experience such radical pedagogic dislocation.
My aim in mentioning this is not to plunge into a discussion of how universities have changed, however vital I believe such discussions are, but to illustrate how the passions of those long-ago days still affect the way we read and write today.   When I came to third-year English, Sydney University’s English department was bitterly divided, although being a part-time student I had no idea there was a schism or the burning issues it entailed.  The catalyst was the appointment of a formidable new professor from Melbourne University.  This was Sam Goldberg, who soon blew the Sydney department apart.  Goldberg, who died in 1991, was a Leavisite, meaning in a nutshell that he emphasised the moral heft of literature and whether any particular work measured up.  Succinctly, this meant interrogating the work’s moral compass above any other consideration.  What it boiled down to in the department was a vigorous championing of D.H. Lawrence over James Joyce.
James Joyce
This was to prove troubling for me, though, as said, I had no idea why.  Blithely unaware of the hidden agenda, I was delighted to be studying Joyce.  The Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man were straightforward if impressive reads for me, but Ulysses was a challenge.  If I accepted that Joyce had written a modern Odyssey, an ambition that itself excited me, many of the classical and Christian references were lost on me, barbarian Angeleno Jew that I was.  And in addition to the Leavisite strictures we were deep into New Criticism then, which firmly dictated that a text be evaluated on the basis of its internal workings only, regardless of the historical, political, or even aesthetic considerations influencing or inspiring its author.  The text was to stand or fall on its own, divorced from any context.  Of course, this was ridiculous, tantamount to trying to understand a person by studiously avoiding any knowledge of her childhood or background.   Though warned against accessing explanatory material when grappling with the novel, I happened upon, buried in the university library, a treasure of a book: Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.  Gobbled up in secret, it was the miraculous Rosetta Stone to my understanding, and, more, to my appreciation of Joyce’s art.
Stuart Gilbert was an English scholar living in France who became friends with Joyce after offering to translate Ulysses into French.  Joyce helped with the translation, providing in detail the intricate substructure of each of the 18  chapters, which he based on episodes in Homer’s epic.  According to Gilbert’s schema, Joyce had assigned to most of these a body part, a colour, a symbol, an art and a ‘technic’, or technique.  There are exceptions. The last chapter, Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy, has only an organ (flesh), a symbol (earth) and a technic (monologue), and the first three have no body part, and some of the middle chapters are missing a colour, but you get the drift.   Take just one of the chapters – Nausicaa which does tick all the boxes.  This is the one where Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s modern Odysseus, jerks off while spying on the beautiful but lame Gerty MacDowell at the Sandymount shore.  The scene is The Rocks (on which Bloom is resting while watching the unsuspecting Gerty), the time is 8 pm (towards the end of Bloomsday, June 16, 1904, when Joyce took his wife Nora Barnacle on their first date), the designated body parts are the eye and the nose, virgin is the symbol, painting the art, and the technic tumescence/detumescence.
I should stress that none of this is essential to a rewarding reading of Ulysses, a novel that works on many different levels.  Nevertheless, the introduction to its arcana set my mind alight.  More, it set my own writing on its own perhaps opaque path.  Because what Joyce’s method impressed me with (through Gilbert’s crucial mediation) is the idea that a story is more than a story, and that everything in it, from its language and physical elements to its characters and plot points, has an underlying often hidden meaning that’s the actual glue binding together its parts.
Joyce was a modernist, arguably the modernist par excellence, and over the years modernism went out of style.  (I think it’s creeping back again – the 2013 Man Booker prizewinner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, has a schema similar to that of Ulysses.)  It was going out of fashion by the time I published West Block, the novel, my first, based on my experiences as a femocrat.  Yet it was only natural for me, impressed as I’d been, to make use of a Joycean template.  My overarching symbol was the Canberra building that in the capital’s earliest days housed the whole of the public service, with the public service itself representing the nation, Australia.  I did restrict myself, though, to merely giving each of my chapters an art.  The opening one, for example, with its central character the mandarin George Harland, has gardening (the abstract his lesbian daughter puzzles him with is heart-shaped like Canberra); the next chapter, with Henry Beeker foregrounded, uses sculpture; the third has music; the fourth, economics (arguably less a science than an art); and painting marks the fifth.  There are other Joycean touches, like the economist Jonathan Roe’s gold cigarette case, based on Lady Denham’s from which she plucked the name ‘Canberra’ and gave it forever her own pronunciation, which in turn was inspired by the cake of soap Leopold Bloom carries throughout a good deal of Ulysses.  And so forth and so on.
It would be wholly wrong to assert that a writer’s work lives because of these quirks of cohesion.  They’re ways of making our work live for us far more than they do for readers.  They’re games we writers play; at their simplest, the names we saddle our characters with, but it often goes further.  Writing a novel is arduous work and there has to be something apart from our egos that pulls us along.  For me, and many others I think, these symbolic keys open doors to greater resonance.  Apart from anything else, they’re fun.
And fun, I now see, was at the bottom of the rift between the Joyce-lovers and the po-faced Lawrentians in my long-ago English department.  For the Leavisites, Joyce just wasn’t serious enough.  The fact that he gave the last word to a woman and the woman said yes to life, with all its imperfections, rejoicing (yes he loved puns too) in the mess ... well, this was somehow deficient.  We could argue the toss about this endlessly, and should.  But the legacy of this is a readership, with its satchel of tools limited for the most part to narrative arcs, how characters behave and respond, beauty of expression and emotional appeal, that isn't quite as rich as it could be.            


  1. I read this post a couple of days ago and decided to let it sink in, before I came back and read it again Sara. A great post but where to start. I won't engage in the university discussion except to say that the prime reason I chose Macquarie University over Sydney University in the very early 1970s was because it was established on the semester and continuous evaluation system. I also like the flexibility in its points system for building up courses of study.

    Funnily though I don't recollect a lot of study of literary theory. I'd heard of Leavis (and read some of his work) but I didn't really hear of New Criticism (as a term) until long after I left university. I suspect our lecturers' approach was a moderate one. They referred to various critics but didn't push any particular barrows as I recollect. We did Joyce and Lawrence. As an older reader now, I'm far more keen to go back to Joyce than to Lawrence and hopefully will before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

    I do like looking at the moral heft of a work, but I don't subscribe to the notion that literature "has" to be anything. It is itself. I've been thinking about this a lot in the wake of "A girl is a half-formed thing". For me the best literary works need to appeal to my heart AND mind. And this brings me to the "games we writers play". I love noticing these games - I'm sure I don't always see them, and I think sometimes I might see them but misunderstand them/what the writer intended by them, but they add a lot to my reading enjoyment. I now feel that I need to re-read West Block. I must have read it in 1988-1989. I'm sure we (my reading group) noticed some of that patterning but, being Canberrans, I suspect we were mostly focused on the other games being played in your novel!

  2. Thanks so much for your attention, WG! I guess the post on Eaman McBride was what inspired me and that Eureka moment when I spotted the Joyce connection. Once I understood what his patient, thorough architecture through Gilbert's mediation it was such a joy! (Here we go with the puns again!) I came to Oz in 1958 and shed credits like dandruff because there were a lot of courses at UCLA that I only took on a semester basis, as you could do that. So switching countries and unis meant that I had to start effectively over again. I enrolled in 1959 shortly after the birth of my first baby and went at night while my mother-in-law looked after him in the pub she and her husband ran. It was a wild time, for sure - sometimes I didn't get home until after 11. I was given credit for English 1 and History 1, so by the time I got to English III the department was changed by Goldberg. Greer left, and another tutor, Noel Purdon - it was part of the exodus to Cambridge. As said, this was all beyond me. By that time I had my second child and all I had time for was to go to the library, snatch what I could and get home. Which is why I came upon the Gilbert - it wasn't prescribed so no one wanted it. In those days students used to throw prescribed texts out the window so they would drop behind the bushes outside the Fisher Library and they could rush out and fetch them before anyone else. A part-timer had buckley's getting anything. I was so freaked out by it all that in all my time at Sydney Uni I only finished one exam - a post taken after a hideous bout of morning sickness with my third child. All the rest I passed even though I never managed to get to the last question. A very undistinguished degree but for the fact that people were amazed that I passed at all after leaving out a fifth of the exam paper. I managed to get into anthropology honours but that was the one I had to sit for the post for and never went back. I finished after four kids and twelve years at ANU, doing Australian history for the first time. That was another experience that changed me.
    As for moral heft - not sure that has ever been a criterion for me. Joyce corrupted me forever. But to make up for this I have to say that my tastes are very catholic, in the sectarian sense though. Else he would have been appalled. And my other great inspiration, John Dos Passos, who influenced the form of West Block, I'll leave for another day.

    1. I have yet to read John Dos Passos. I have a friend who is very keen on him. Clearly a gap in my reading.

      Would love you to expand on your response to Dorothy re Goldberg and reviewing and critiquing today.

  3. This post really took me back, Sara, Sam Goldberg having, as you point out, moved from Melbourne University to Sydney in time for your arrival. When I was studying English at Melbourne, he was still head lion there. It's strange to recall the enormous control those academics wielded, so I can well picture your joy at having discovered and devoured what was considered black heresy.
    I remember you talking about the different arts represented in West Block, of course, but it's good to be reminded of them, and of the fun to be had by playing with a work's underlying structure.

  4. Thanks, Dorothy. It took me back too. I had to look up Goldberg while writing the post and discovered that after a time he ended up in the English department at ANU and was in Canberra during our time there. By that time I would have thought his influence had waned but if one looks at the way reading, critiquing and reviewing is done even today ... maybe not.

  5. We're having trouble again, WG. I think it could be with Firefox. But although I got your message on my dashboard it hasn't appeared here and mine keeps disappearing too.

  6. No trouble on Safari - only on Firefox. What gives? Anyway, WG, if you do get this I'll recapitulate. Leavisite influence via Goldberg. Moral heft above all. A novel is a little world in which the characters get involved in moral dilemmas and we respond to this emotionally. Another approach is to see the novel as a work of art knitted together through devices such as symbolism, form, internal and external referencing, and the creative use of language. The latter is prominent in both approaches but in the Leavisite (lite by this stage) one even this is subordinate to the 'little world/moral dilemma' paradigm. Needless to say, the Leavisite approach privileges realism.

  7. Hope this makes sense to you. And hope it works for me this time, WG.