Sylvia Beach knew great literature! How wonderful for one of the twentieth century’s most famous authors to have met her in Paris that hot July day in 1920! She was the owner of a small English bookstore at 12 Rue Odéon, which was also a lending library and social gathering place for writers of the lost generation after the First World War.
When she met him at a party, he had just arrived in Paris and was living in a flat with no bathtub or electricity. But when he opened the window at night, he found the charm of the city as he looked out the window into a courtyard once designed for the carriage trade. Of course, he had to borrow furniture and household goods and –money.
She introduced herself to this man who wore an eye patch over his left eye by asking—“Is this the great James Joyce?”
The very next day he entered her bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, and they began a life-long friendship and patronage.
Without Sylvia Beach’s help as editor and patron, the novel, Ulysses, might never have seen the light of day. It was banned in the United States as pornographic. It was Sylvia Beach’s support, encouragement, love of literature, editing and money which brought the novel to life.
SEVEN YEARS LATER another man entered Sylvia Beach’s bookstore where he bought a copy of Ulysses. The very next day, he returned with book in hand wanting to know what it was all about. This was a very young Joseph Campbell who was about to devote his life and career to writing and the study of mythology. Joseph Campbell, mythologist, lecturer and thinker is one of my favourite writers.
He dedicated his career to the study of myth—story which comes from deep within human beings. Frequently I’ve turned to his work in studying what makes for great writing and more importantly–great story-telling. And his work really explores why we tell such tales. His book, BOOK Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, contains much reflection upon the novels of James Joyce.
Ulysses is not an easy read! I must confess I have not made it past the first fifty pages or so. But no trouble. Campbell’s writings on Ulysses is a fabulous guide as it sets out how the story and the manner of its telling relates to our deepest ponderings on human beings and their place in this universe. Myth is simply a fundamental part of our nature.
But don’t feel too badly if you have difficulty with Ulysses. Doctor Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, writer and researcher gave the work a disastrous review. “This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness.” Jung.
Sylvia Beach was of invaluable assistance to both the author, James Joyce and his “interpreter” Joseph Campbell. She provided Joyce with the funds to publish Ulysses and with her aid, Joseph Campbell began his years of scholarship of Joyce’s work. I’d like to think that if I had been able to sit down with Beach, I might actually have read and begun to understand Ulysses better.
But what did Joyce and Beach discuss at her bookshop Shakespeare and Company? Joyce had very definite ideas about what made for great art. I would have loved to sit off in a corner for long hours and just listened to them as they considered these.
I’ll bet they talked about what makes great art whether in writing or painting or musical composition. Joyce speaks of wholeness and integrity, harmony/rhythm and radiance. In order for a painting to be a work of art, it must be one whole thing.
It’s easy to think about putting a frame around a painting or a photograph and deciding whether it is one unified whole, not a disorganized bunch of stuff tossed in without any order. [Composition! That’s where the artistic talent comes in.]
Certainly lots of artists would argue with this. For example, conceptual artists frequently strain at any notion of aesthetics. Beauty or prettiness is a bourgeois conceit. For them, it’s the idea or the concept which is significant. I had a lot of fun in my own novel writing with the clash between landscape art [Alexander Wainwright] and conceptual art, [Rinaldo] in The Trilogy of Remembrance.
How does this requirement of wholeness apply to—say the writing of a novel. My guess is that your plot structure is a big factor in achieving this wholeness. After all, like a frame, it contains all the characters, events and dialogue. It’s up to the novelist to create the best whole form possible.
What about harmony and rhythm? To have a satisfying, artistic harmony, it seems the form or structure of the novel has to be designed for the most effective telling of the particular tale. A happy romantic love story needs to sound, look and feel like a light summer-time confection. A tragic tale of death and destruction must be heavy, dense and filled with dark energy to convey the emotions of anger and hate behind it. How can this be done? That’s where the artistry and skill come in! Perhaps it’s the choice of words and their particular arrangements in the sentences, paragraphs and chapters all giving the story its structure, power and nature. If the prose “clunks” along, leaving you scratching your head, it won’t be very artistic. The artist tries to choose just the right words, sounds and cadences which hit the “ear” with the desired artistic effects.
The third requirement is the most interesting and hardest to define and achieve. It’s the ingredient which separates truly great literature from mere good writing. Radiance, I think, is that extra quality, which shines through the work to such an extent that it overwhelms you. It is the artist’s vision. For some readers, it may be radiant and for others not so much.
As Campbell says, it’s that quality which transcends the ego. In short, something in the work literally tears you out of yourself and onto another plane of perception. You stand in awe. Goosebumps form and the words swim before your eyes.
You are overcome with something the writer was trying very hard to convey. It’s a character, a phrase or event which burrows into your mind and stays there—perhaps for a lifetime—because it has struck a chord. But not just any chord! It’s one so deep and strange, yet familiar, which you probably didn’t realize it was there until now. How often have you read something like that? A Jungian might say you’ve touched on the collective unconscious. You’ve reached that universal.
So, I’d venture to say that good writing must have wholeness, integrity and harmony. Great literature also has that elusive quality called radiance where something of the artist shines through the work and pierces you to the core. Easy to talk about but very hard to do! So hard, in fact, that only a few artists really ever achieve that even after long years of work.
These are the novels we read time and again. We dip back into great literature down the ages because our returning always rewards us with some new and subtle insight. Perhaps what Joyce calls radiance is similar to Harold Bloom’s sublime which I wrote about in the first in this series.
I think that James Joyce and Sylvia Beach must well have discussed these ideas as he finished Ulysses—especially the concept of radiance. I do not know whether Joyce captured that radiance. But I suspect that he tried very hard. For some, like Campbell, he most definitely did. But for Jung, reading it was a perverse form of torture! It’s a novel which so many praise even almost one hundred years after its publication. This is truly remarkable because so few have ever actually read it and even fewer have finished it. The critic lives on! As far as I’m concerned, I love Campbell’s thoughts about Joyce’s writing especially about art of story-telling and mythology. But I cannot get the same pleasure out of reading Ulysses–the work itself.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.
Just click on the coin to take you to the bookshelves of The Osgoode Trilogy and The Trilogy of Remembrance.
Have you ever found yourself disagreeing with a book review? Even if you hate a book can you still argue that it can be great literature even if it isn’t for your taste? Have your say in the comment box below.
The artist who painted this picture is probably my favourite. I simply love his colours. He was one of the artists who frequented Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company. Who is he? He’s Marc Chagall.