The Father of Modernism
I started this exchange from my home in Austin; thanks to various small miracles of international trade, transportation, and communication, I'm finishing it from a cyber cafe in Paris. Yesterday, I stopped by Shakespeare & Company, the tiny, battered expatriate bookstore on the Left Bank whose heroic founding proprietress first published the complete Ulysses 82 years ago, in a small, dangerous edition of 1,000. By the time I got there it was June 17—the day after Bloomsday, which seems appropriate, given the sense of belatedness I've been trying to express here; still, I enjoyed the visit.
The store hadn't changed in the decade since I'd last visited; there were the same sloping walls, the same piles of paperbacks, the same lumpen Anglo youth stopping by for a quick fix of literature in their native tongue. As I browsed I eavesdropped on a British kid trying to pick up an American girl by explaining the plot of Kafka's Trial, a copy of which she was leafing through uncertainly. "It's about a man who wakes and finds he's been arrested," the kid said. "And he never finds out, through the whole book, what he's accused of. And neither does the reader."
"It sounds annoying," the girl said.
"It's kind of funny, actually," he replied. "Funny-depressing."
At that point I moved on, so I never did find out how the encounter ended—whether the British kid found a new friend, or whether the bookstore made a sale. The kicker is, when I left the bookstore and hailed a cab, the driver, a young Sikh in a sky-blue turban, was listening to Steve Reich on the CD player.
Now, it may be a false opposition, and God knows I wish them both well, but if I had to bet on who represents the future of culture in the West, my money would be on the cabbie. I've read and admired Kafka more recently than I've heard and enjoyed Steve Reich, but who knows? It never ceases to surprise me how easily art can be turned into kitsch, and vice versa.
I suspect we're both being a little inconsistent here. Forgive me if I'm putting words into your mouth, but it seems to me that you harbor some regard for the avant-garde, yet appreciate a world in which Joyce is widely and publicly celebrated. I, on the other hand, find the very idea of an avant-garde bankrupt, but remain deeply suspicious of anything that too many people too overtly admire.
The issue, I hasten to say, is not popularity; anything great deserves the widest possible audience. And yes, of course Ulysses is a great book, but the "global worship" you mention troubles me. It's getting very close to Disneyfication. I'm waiting for the snow globes, and the whole thing feels like a prayer service in a football stadium. A crowd is not a community, and not everything worthwhile can be enjoyed in public. Besides, this kind of celebration reeks of the self-congratulation of the transnational enlightened classes—a smugness which, however well-intentioned it may be, invariably sucks the life out of everything it touches.
I found your invocation of the novel-as-refuge touching and true, but Bloomsday makes Ulysses feel more like an obligation, like the ceremony one endures upon graduating high school. And while this isn't, of course, Joyce's fault, it says something unflattering about the fate of modernism. History is harsh that way, as we shall all surely discover the hard way.
I hate to end on such a gloomy note, but my Euros are running out and this machine is about to shut done on me. I'll save all my arguments for good cheer for another day. In the meantime, my best to you and yours, and thanks for taking the time to ponder these things with me.
Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of The Virgin Suicides and, most recently, Middlesex. Jim Lewis is the author of Sister, Why the Tree Loves the Ax, and, most recently, The King Is Dead.