It seems nearly obligatory to have a police procedural series set in
Ireland, but the adventures of Peter McGarr, head of the Murder Squad of
the Garda Siochana (the Irish Police), are anything but run of the mill.
This installment manages to combine an entertaining murder mystery--a professor
of Literature, specializing in Joyce, is murdered on Bloomsday (June 16)
while dressed in full Joycean regalia--with one of the better explanations
of the novels of Joyce and Beckett that I've ever come across. Here
is how another professor describes their novels to McGarr:
It begins with Joyce and the novel of competence.
In spite of what I just said about him in a
negative way--since we must smash old idols in order
to raise new--Joyce was a man of undoubted
imminence, great imagination, deep learning, and
a brilliant intellect, none of it more obvious than in
the manner in which he 'plotted'--and I mean that
in the strategic, not simply tactical way--all of his
works, but in particular Ulysses, which, to continue
the military analogy, was his breakthrough
About words he once said, 'Why own a thing when you
can say it.' And since with his intellect and
astounding facility with languages, tongues, stories,
and myths, he could say most things, it
therefore followed that he--James Joyce, impoverished
émigré son of a Dublin idler--owned not
only the things he could name in the contemporary
world, but many other things from all recorded
time. That was step one in the grand stratagem
to become the modern Shakespeare.
Step two was to analyze the novel. Some critics
contend that Joyce decided that the novel was the
ideal literary art form of bourgeois society, in
which, of course, people define themselves by the
things that they own. The novel then is like
a container--first word to last, beginning to end, front
cover to back cover--that contains things or at
least words that are references to things.
It follows, then, that that novel is best which,
within the established limits of the container, includes
the greatest number and type of things. Joyce
decided he would set the limits of a single day in
Dublin and write a book about it. He chose
the sixteenth of June, 1904, the day that he first walked
out with Nora Barnacle, the shop girl from Galway,
who later became his wife.
But he would tell every thing about
that eighteen-hour period, such that he would give (and I
quote), 'A picture of Dublin so complete that if
the city one day suddenly disappeared from the
earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.'
And so he poured the names, places, events,
streets, buildings, race horses, tram schedules,
tides, prices, advertisements, weather, a dog, a dead
man, a birthing hospital, a cemetery, music, the
theater, pubs, songs, murder, mayhem--you name
it--along with the story of the day for two men
who, although only partially acquainted, are like
father and son. They are like the hero Ulysses
himself, lost and wandering and trying to make their
way back to impossible homes. Hence the mythic
Of course, how Joyce wrote the book was also new,
an attempt to weave the actual verbal texture
of Dublin--the specific whatness of Dublin verbal
things--into the container. Ulysses is so perfectly
constructed that it takes exactly eighteen hours
to read aloud, the amount of time that one would
have been awake on such a day.
Joyce said, 'If I can get to the heart of Dublin,
I can get to the heart of every city in the world. In
that particular is contained the universal.'
With the Wake Joyce decided to write the ultimate
novel. Instead of exhausting the possibilities of
some other day--or a year or a decade or a century--in
dear, dirty Dublin, he expanded the container
to its final extension. For setting he chose
nothing less than the world entire. For characters all
people, speaking all voices, who had ever lived.
Time? All time, past, present, and--since there is a
belief that certain combinations of words can sometimes
serve as prophecy--perhaps even future
time as well. In conception, at least, it
was an impossible project.
But he made it all into the simple tale of the dream
of a Dublin pub owner. Finnegan, like Jung
claimed all of us can, establishes touch with the
collective unconscious of the race of man. And his
mind, wandering forward and back in time, touches
upon all symbol, myth, and history from the
hieroglyphics on ancient tombs through Vedic and
Norse myths, the Bible in its several forms, sagas
and passion plays and verse, and on to modern literature,
right up to Beckett himself, who was
often sitting across the room from Joyce, and so
appears in the Wake.
During the twenty years that it took Joyce to write
the Wake, he had a team of readers--the literary
groupies of his day--scouring the Bibliotheque in
Paris, reading all the great books he suggested.
They would synopsize each and include a few representative
pages of text so that Joyce could then
add both statement and word to Finnegan's dream.
With a few dozen minds and at least one, perhaps
two--here I mean Beckett--indisputable geniuses
working on the Wake, it became the ideally competent
novel that the ideally erudite reader might
peruse for the rest of his life and still never
appreciate in all its ideal complexity. In other words
Joyce, within the assumptions of his aesthetic,
exhausted the form of the novel of competence.
Another novel more complete probably could not be
produced, since it would require another Joyce,
greater scope, a larger vision, more and better
help, a second Bibliotheque Nationale.
And since the form of the novel as written from Richardson
to Joyce was exhausted, Samuel
Beckett turned around and attempted to exhaust the
form in its 'negative' image, as it were--the
novel of incompetence. By incompetence Beckett
does not mean novels written by incompetent
authors. He means that, unlike Joyce, he cannot
assume the possibility of communication among
human beings, much less between human beings and
the collective unconscious.
For Beckett words don't work. They are an imposition,
given us by others after our births; they
really can't describe our own particular experiences
in our own individual terms. Also, when we
speak words, we need somebody else to hear and acknowledge
them. A witness. In other words,
we can't say us in our own terms for anybody's ears
but our own. And if we were to try, say, by
speaking out all the words of the Others once and
for all, we would find that there's nothing to say,
since Western civilization assumes that we are no
more than what we were when we were born--a
tabula rasa, a void, un neant, a nothing.
And nothing can only be described by silence.
It turns out that Bartholomew Gill is a pseudonym for Mark McGarrity,
an American who attended college in Dublin and wrote his thesis on Beckett.
He makes for a wonderful guide to both Dublin and to the modern Irish novel
in this witty mystery.