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Conversations with James Joyce
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B+ : fascinating glimpses of Joyce and his opinions, quite well presented by a man with different views
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Drawn to Paris from the time of his youth, Arthur Power managed to get there after the end of the First World War, quickly settling comfortably in -- soon sub-letting Ossip Zadkine's studio, and landing a gig as a freelance art critic for the New York Herald.
Eager to mingle in the artistic milieu, he was always on the lookout for artists -- though he was more interested in the painters and sculptors than the literary set.
But among the connections he made while there was one with James Joyce, whom he first encountered in the unlikely venue of the Bal Bullier -- "a popular dancehall of the Montparnasse district" -- where he found Joyce with, among others, Sylvia Beach, celebrating the publication of Ulysses.
While living in Dublin I had read Dubliners, and later I had read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but being at that time chiefly interested in romantic literature I had not been greatly impressed by his books.Ulysses similarly is not really his kind of thing -- and it's this honesty, and lack of awe at Joyce's talent (he recognizes it, but it doesn't particularly appeal to him; tellingly, he describes Joyce as: "one of our most important authors" rather than 'best') that add a welcome piquancy to his conversations with the master. Despite their aesthetic differences ("You have odd tastes, remarked Joyce", Power quotes at one point), the countrymen hit it off and a friendship of sorts developed that lasted for a decade or so; it petered out after a bad meal in London in 1931; here as elsewhere Power is also willing to reveal his own occasional boorishness -- he really does not come off as looking good at that particular encounter --, a forthright honesty that suggests a fundamental integrity to his account.
Conversations with James Joyce is not all dialogue -- or all Joyce. Indeed, it is twenty pages into the book before the name crops up, as Power goes to some lengths to place himself and the surroundings -- welcome, too, for the additional slice of Paris-life in the 1920s it offers. But Power does keep coming back to Joyce, and the writer is very much the center of this account -- with a few brief side-trips along the way (though apparently not nearly covering all of Power's mingling among the artistic crowd of the day, which seems to have been extensive).
Power admits: "In our discussions I spoke much more than he", but he does let Joyce have his say; still, as is the case with many writers, Joyce was not exactly the garrulous sort, and even Power has to admit he's a less than ideal subject for a 'Conversations-with'-volume:
In the ordinary sense Joyce was not a conversationalist. In fact he was remarkably taciturn, 'silence, exile and cunning' being his three vaunted weapons, though I must say I never saw any evidence of the third quality, for he was singularly open-hearted and devoid of guileFor all that, Power still manages to weave together a pleasant little book of encounters and exchanges. He suggests: "I think it was my argumentativeness which strangely enough cemented the friendship between us", and it is this which also provides much of the book's best material: rather than a fawning fan-boy jotting down the master's anecdotes and reminiscences (when and if he utters something jot-worthy) Power challenges him (or vice versa) regarding their very different artistic tastes and outlooks, with Power acknowledging the legitimacy of Joyce's opinions, even as he continues to disagree with most of them.
Joyce was not much of a participant in the bustling Paris art-scene of the time -- "the life he lived was, socially speaking, hermetically sealed" -- and so there are few stories of interaction with the other artists and writers; so too, most of the discussions Power records are matters of opinion -- on specific writers and books, as well as more general ideas about writing and literature. (As Power also notes, other than music, Joyce showed practically no interest in arts other than the literary, to the extent that: "he had a contempt for the multiple artistic activities of Paris" (which Power, on the other hand, is completely swept up in and away by); Power's portrait of Joyce-as-bourgeois-philistine (in all matters other than the literary -- including an outright hatred of: "anything to do with bohemians") is amusingly horrified.)
There is, however, quite a bit of insight into matters literary, both Joyce's opinions regarding various writers and works as well as his more general ideas about writing in contemporary times. So, for example, he argues that the 'classical style' (which Power of course believes still: "to be the best form of writing") has outlived its usefulness:
It can deal with facts very well, but when it has to deal with motives, the secret currents of life which govern everything, it has not the orchestra, for life is a complicated problem. It is no doubt flattering and pleasant to have it presented in an uncomplicated fashion, as the classicists pretend to do, but it is an intellectual approach which no longer satisfies the modern mind, which is interested above all in subtleties, equivocations and the subterranean complexities which dominate the average man and compose his life. I would say that the difference between classical literature and modern literature is the difference between the objective and the subjective: classical literature represents the daylight of the human personality while modern literature is concerned with the twilight, the passive rather the active mind. We feel the classicists explored the world to its limits, and we are now anxious to explore the hidden world, those undercurrents which flow beneath the apparently firm surface. But as our education was based on the classical, most of us have a fixed idea of what literature should be, and not only literature but also of what life should be.Joyce points to his own work, aware of the singular significance of his accomplishment:
As for the romantic classicism you admire so much, Ulysses has changed all that; for in it I have opened the new way, and you will find that it will be followed more and more. In fact, from it you may date a new orientation in literature -- the new realism; for though you criticise Ulysses, yet the one thing you must admit that I have done is to liberate literature from its age-old shackles. You are evidently a die-hard traditionalist, but you should realize that a new way of thinking and writing has been started, and those who don't fall in line with it are going to be left behind.So too, Joyce points to the popular choice of the day (and beyond), how: "cities are of primary interest nowadays"; as Joyce recognized -- and utilized, in Ulysses --: "This is the period of urban domination".
It is interesting to hear Joyce's opinions on various writers and works -- though it's a rather select few Power mentions, and his presentation is occasionally a bit sloppy in some regards: just a few pages after he claims that André Gide is: "the only French writer, or indeed the only modern writer, whom I ever heard him admire with any real enthusiasm" he quotes Joyce telling him that Proust: "is the best of the modern French writers, and certainly no one has taken modern psychology so far". (Power's mixed messaging in this particular case may have to do with his own opinion of Proust, whose work he apparently struggled to make any headway in, finding it: "much over-written".)
The disagreements with Power help bring many of the specific issues and criticisms Joyce has nicely to the fore, as when Power praises Synge's "splendid language" only to have to hear:
-- It is his language that I object to, replied Joyce, those long overweighted sentences, through which the actors have to stumble painfully, wondering, as they seem to do, if they will ever get to the end of them -- long flowery speeches which hold up the action. It is a misuse of the stage. Take a dramatist like Sheridan. Look at his quick short sentences, primed and witty. There is no drooling about him.Hemingway -- also in town -- gets some mention but overall Joyce finds:
the real American writers so far have all been minor writers, such as Jack London, Bret Harte, Robert Service in Canada and such like, and it will take a long time before they produce any art which is worthwhile. What they want in my opinion is a few more wars. Nothing matures a nation like war(Apparently Joyce hadn't read any Melville yet .....)
Many of the works and authors discussed are those that Power admires, including, at some length, Lamartine's Graziella, of all things (dismissed by Joyce as: "a well-sugared piece of sentimentalism in which they continually fondent en larmes") as well as Ivan Turgeniev -- beautifully summed up by Joyce:
His interest was in isolation and not in action, and his world is a faded world of water colours.Power still clings to romanticism, which Joyce has long left behind him ("I cannot understand your admiration for the romantic", Joyce shakes his head). As Joyce insists:
(I)n realism, you are down to facts on which the world is based: that sudden reality which smashes romanticism intoa pulp. What makes most people's lives unhappy is some disappointed romanticism, some unrealizable or misconceived ideal. In fact you may say that idealism is the ruin of man, and if we lived down to fact, as primitive man had to do, we would be better off. That is what we were made for. Nature is quite unromantic. It is we who put romance into her, which is a false attitude, an egotism, absurd like all egotisms. In Ulysses I tried to keep close to fact.This too is reflected in Joyce's subdued lifestyle, glimpses of which Power also offers. Among the amusing-revealing anecdotes comes with Joyce looking for someone to paint a portrait of his father; he doesn't respond to Power's first suggestions, but is on board with Patrick Tuohy, whom Power describes as: "a competent realist, but in truth nothing more" (though Joyce's reason for selecting him seems to have had more to do with him having known Tuohy's father back in Dublin). The portrait "turned out to be surprisingly good" (so Power), and Tuohy came over to Paris to paint the rest of the family, spending considerable time in the Joyce household, which did not go so well. (The portraits, of Joyce and of his father, are quite well-known; bizarrely, they're apparently in the James Joyce Collection at the University at Buffalo, of all places.) Tuohy committed suicide in 1930, and Joyce still clearly remembered the experience, as his reaction to Power breaking the news shows -- one of a humor so dry and icey that it shocks.
Power ties in a few of the events of the day into the conversations, but they are, for the most part, surprisingly time-less: neither the politics nor the publications of the time seem to be of much interest to Joyce, at least in his interaction with Power. Some media events do register: the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb ("Joyce seemed very interested in the religious aspects"), for example, or the Thompson-Bywaters murder case (fictionalized in, for example, F. Tennyson Jesse's A Pin to See the Peepshow). Beyond that, the conversationalists find only limited common ground in their actual time and surroundings, with Power much more actively immersed in Parisian (art-)life, and Joyce much more withdrawn and focused on his own, more interior work.
A slim work, Conversations with James Joyce is nevertheless both entertaining and revealing. If anything but exhaustive, it nevertheless gives a good impression of Joyce, at least at that point in his life, and is a welcome counter-piece to the far more extensive works on the man and his work, beginning with the Ellmann biography.
The picture of Joyce here might not be a full one, but the fundamentals, at least of Joyce-the-writer, at this stage in his career -- with Ulysses just behind him, his 'Work in Progress' -- Finnegans Wake -- very much in progress, and (though it is rarely mentioned and hardly at the forefront) obviously consuming him -- come across very clearly. So also, for example, in Joyce's explanations such as:
The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. In Ulysses I tried to express the multiple variations which make up the social life of a city -- its degradations and its exaltations. In other words what we want to avoid is the classical, with its rigid structure and its emotional limitations. The mediaeval, in my opinion, had greater emotional fecundity than classicism, which is the art of the gentleman, and is now as out-of-date as gentlemen are, classicism in which the scents are only sweet, but I have preferred other smells.Somewhat of a grab-bag, much of Conversations with James Joyce only scratches the surface, but there's enough here to easily make it worth the reader's while. Power's own opinionated self makes a good foil of sorts for Joyce, and adds a welcome layer to the book as a whole; that Power so easily avoids veneration helps a great deal (and from the sound of it, it's a shame he didn't write a proper memoir; his life -- even just in these years covered here-- sounds like it was more (conventionally) 'interesting' than Joyce's)
Conversations with James Joyce is of obvious interest and value to anyone curious about Joyce, but has considerable appeal beyond that; certainly recommended.
- M.A.Orthofer, 27 July 2020
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Irish author and critic Arthur Power lived 1891 to 1984.
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