James Joyce, A Short Introduction by Michael Seidel

James Joyce, A Short IntroductionThe book is part of the Blackwell Introductions to Literature series, which aim to  introduce novice readers to various literary authors or periods.  Seidel has written a compelling introductory book to one of modern literature’s giants, James Joyce, whose books are anything but simple.  When reading Joyce, I would advise not only knowing sufficiently the context in which his books are placed, but also reading texts like this one parallel to, or just before embarking on the actual books proper.  There is then a richness developed by understanding Joyce’s work more fully – the references, recurring characters, unusual word play, narrative techniques and much more.  Joyce was one of those writers whose every word was calculated to deliver a certain effect and to create multiple layers of meaning.  So while his books are challenging, they are also artistically beautiful and mind-bogglingly creative.  Simply put, they are a joy to read and reread.

Seidel’s introductory text is particularly useful in that it really is accessible.  Its premise is that the reader is reading this text first and then Joyce’s work, but I feel that would be much too challenging.  I would definitely recommend some reading of Joyce, especially the most accessible of the books, Dubliners, before (or simultaneously) reading Seidel’s A Short Introduction.  It is helpful to have first hand knowledge of Joyce’s style and familiarity with his narrative techniques so that Seidel’s explanations then have a greater meaning, even though Seidel uses quotes generously to show his explanations.  What Seidel achieves beautifully here is what the back flap claims:

close attention to Joyce’s words, phrases, and sentences is the best route to reading his works with insight and pleasure

The book is divided into 10 chapters beginning with ‘Introducing Joyce’, which offers background information on Joyce and his published works.  While the book seems like it will offer equal attention to all of his published books, it does not.  Dubliners is given fair attention, no easy feat since the book is itself a collection of 15 short stories that can have a book written on each one of them.  Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is given less critical attention, the information is rather more contextual with how the book came to be and with the links to the other texts, both in terms of theme and character, particularly Stephen Dedalus.  Exiles is given such a compelling critical assessment that I cannot wait to read it. It is, however, the shortest of the assessments.  Then Ulysses, of course, takes up the bulk of the analysis both in its own chapter and throughout other chapters discussing plots, levels of narration, strategic planning and so on.  What surprised me a great deal was the lack of any attempt to do equal justice to Finnegan’s Wake, this title is only mentioned or cited in chapters where it is necessary to draw links or to use an example to drive home a point.  There is no detailed explanations, which begs the question, is it too difficult to be included in an introduction?  Perhaps it is, and Seidel feels that what he has equipped his novice with is sufficient to enjoy Joyce, at least on the first round of reading.  For to truly enjoy and appreciate Joyce, one would have to reread him.

One odd aspect in this book is the abrupt ending.  Not only is there no conclusive chapter that brings all the explanations together, to tie up the discussion, but there is not even a conclusive paragraph in the last chapter itself.  This was quite jarring and spoiled what would have otherwise been a terrific text.  I cannot guess what was going through Seidel’s mind or that of the editor, but the ending does the book little justice.  After the many winding paths from all the links and associations made in the book, and the dizzying amount of characters discussed, a conclusion would have helped me smoothly digest all of the information.

A recommended read for anyone embarking on reading Joyce, or for those who wish to discover more on the themes and style of Joyce’s books.

Samir Rawas Sarayji


3 thoughts on “James Joyce, A Short Introduction by Michael Seidel

  1. Nicely done, Samir. I never felt like I loved Joyce as much as endured him until I got some guidance on how to approach his texts. It’s great to have this Seidel’s text as a further aide to turn to.

  2. Samir! It’s good to hear your “voice!” Where have you been?

    Yes, I think Finnegan’s Wake is far too complex for those interested in an intro to Joyce. The Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist are two great ways to slide into his work fairly painlessly. I haven’t used this intro. The ones recommended in grad school were mostly written by Richard Ellmann. I haven’t read much about “Exiles,” so this one sounds like an interesting addition to what I’ve come across. Thanks!


    1. Thanks Jil! It’s been a busy period. Hopefully I can write a few things here and there though 🙂
      I’ll look into Richard Ellmann as well, if I can find something here in the library or second hand. From what I read in this book about Exiles, I have to say that I, too, really want to read it.
      Good to be ‘in touch’ again!

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