To set the context for discussing this slim but fascinating book, we need to know about the subject of its all-too-brief discussion, the author who offers that discussion, and the series in which it appears, for what we have in Joyce’s Voices is a special coming together of author, subject, and format to create a special kind of critical work.
We might deal with the subject first, for James Joyce is clearly the premier novelist of the modern age in English literature. He is known chiefly for four works, each one of which broke major new ground in terms of its treatment of subject and style. His Dubliners, a collection of short stories, chronicles in a series of sharply drawn vignettes the lives of a variety of residents of Ireland’s capital city. His Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a brief novel, recounts the early years of Stephen Dedalus, Irishman and aspiring artist, as he seeks to break free of personal and cultural childhood restrictions and find his own literary voice. Joyce’s next and most famous work, Ulysses, describes at great length one day in the life of Dublin and of three of its citizens—Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, and Stephen Dedalus. Finally, Finnegans Wake records the unconscious activities of a single mind during a night’s sleep. This last work is an enormously difficult one, and is probably one of the least read of all works by a major modern author. Ulysses, on the other hand, though also difficult in its way, has been found endlessly readable and fascinating by several generations of readers and critics who have subjected its pages to the most painstaking and careful sort of analysis. Much of this work has been done in the light of the novel’s supposed parallels to Homer’s Odyssey, or in terms of the book’s efforts to record in minute detail the events of a single day in Dublin. It is this work of Joyce that is Kenner’s special concern in Joyce’s Voices; in the brief compass of one hundred pages, he has set out to reverse the major trends in literary criticism of the novel.
Hugh Kenner is one of America’s most influential critics of the modern age in literature. A number of his earlier works, including his two studies of Ezra Pound, The Poetry of Ezra Pound and The Pound Era, are classics of modern criticism and cultural history. What makes Kenner’s work so appealing is his breadth of reading and his ear for nuance, the wide range of literary and cultural material he can hear echoed in any given passage and bring to bear on its explication. He is also noted for the readability of his style and the associative quality of his thought. All these traits are fully on display in Joyce’s Voices, with the result that it is a highly enjoyable as well as truly informative work of literary criticism.
The book appears in the “Quantum Books” series of brief critical studies from the University of California Press. Deliberately limited to one hundred pages or so, the books in this series are intended...
(The entire section is 1257 words.)