Politics & Policy

Kenner in Bloom

From the March 14, 2005 issue of National Review.

Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians, by Hugh Kenner (Dalkey Archive Press, 107 pp., $12.50)

When Hugh Kenner died in 2003, the English-speaking world lost a master stylist, one of its best literary critics; National Review lost a longtime friend and contributor. Dalkey Archive has just released a new paperback edition of his 1962 masterpiece, Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians (107 pp., $12.50). Kenner makes characteristically worthwhile observations about all three writers, and his prose is a delight.

The following, from his discussion of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, is a good example not just of Kenner’s style but also of his wide-ranging intellect: “Before encyclopaedias were invented, facts had to be invented, the very concept of a fact: fact as the atom of experience, for the encyclopaedist to set in its alphabetical place, in dramatic testimony to the realization that no one knows in what other place to set it, or under what circumstances it may be wanted again. The [dictionary] does not find the word ‘fact’ used in this way before 1632. Before then, a fact was a thing done, factum, part of a continuum of deed and gesture.” The bourgeois-intellectual heroes of Flaubert’s wonderful satire thus provide, Kenner demonstrates, an epitome of history: “Having commenced, like the first men, tilling the fields, they were to end like the last men, making Encyclopaedias: inheriting, so, the new heaven and the new earth of the Enlightenment.”

Joyce, too, he considers an avatar of the modern, because Joyce’s stories are in their essence creatures of the printed page; the spoken-word echoes of traditional literature have been replaced by a text that its author views very self-consciously as a text: “Joyce is acutely aware that the modern Homer must deal with neither an oral culture nor a manuscript one, but with a culture whose shape and whose attitude to its daily experience is determined by the omnipresence of the printed book. He was very careful, therefore, to reproduce in his [writing] the very quality of print, its reduction of language to a finite number of interchangeable and permutable parts.”

One of my own favorite moments in Ulysses is when Leopold Bloom’s cat meows–and Joyce reports to us precisely what the cat said: “Mrkgnao!” Kenner explains why this is so effective and captivating: “Let an intelligible sound which the dictionary has omitted to register be transcribed according to approved phonetic rules, and the result is taut, arbitrary, and grotesque: something living has been imperfectly synthesized out of those twenty-six interchangeable parts to which every nuance of human discourse can allegedly be reduced: as though technology were offering to reproduce Helen of Troy with an Erector set.”

Kenner is equally incisive on Samuel Beckett, characterizing him in swift strokes as “the non-maestro, the anti-virtuoso, habitue of non-form and anti-matter, Euclid of the dark zone where all signs are negative, the comedian of utter disaster.” Beckett’s approach to writing novels, Kenner reports, is “subtracting from the methods of Ulysses all the irreducible realities of Joyce’s Dublin, and so transposing the novel to a plane of empty but oddly gripping construction.”

To read this brief, joyful book is to experience a great mind at work–and, finally, to rediscover hope for the future of literature. The “dead end” of Beckett, Kenner assures us, may prove a fecund beginning.


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