Among so many other things, what we have seen so far of Work in Progress appears to be a “divertissement philologique”, if I may borrow the pat expression of a lover of such entertainments, M. Valery Larbaud. A glittering, mysterious show, ringing with laughter, yet somber, poetic, and fundamentally sad, like all the spectacles born of an artist’s disenchanted brains.

A vast company of actorwords — not only of the English, but of many languages, both dead and alive- cavort here in a whirlwind dramatic ballet to a polyphonic orchestral accompaniment, while the eyes of the audience are dazzled and soothed in turns by a display of colours which runs the gamut of a lavish palette. Each one a character in costume -— some recognizable at first sight, others inscrutable in a novel garb, perhaps a wilful deformation of their lawful vestment — these words skip and prance, shout, lisp, sing or speak their lines, Hit like birds of ravishing or disconcerting plumage in and out ofthe purposely darkened stage, while multicoloured beams of light play intermittently upon the boards flashing upon a fragmentary scene, disclosing a stiff tableau vivant, or aiiording a glimpse of some sprightly cavalier seul suspended in mid-air, only to turn away from him at once, so that we shall never know whether the boid performer did land upon his feet or break his neck at the end of his pirouette.

To increase our mystilication, the virtuoso stage director sends in at times his words by pairs or trios, so interlockd and arbitrarily matched, that we are puzzled at First, as though we saw some three—headed monster, never before beheld. We scrutinize the phenomenon, level our lorgnettes, crane our necks and peer at the freaks. Why, it’s only a German root sandwiched in between two stolid English rnonosyllables, or perhaps a vagrant Portuguese noun marshalled up for our judgment between two French gendarmes.


To venture an opinion on the other aspects of Mr. Joyce’s latest work would be premature. Yet those aspects no doubt are the essential ones. The problem of style, for instance. One cannot help but feel that this new work will advance the technique of writing far beyond the point where it has been marking time since the publication of Ulysses. Another aspect is the mode of presentation of the story – or rather of the prose epic. Another yet the fine restraint with which a stupendous erudition is made use of to give colour, body and  perspective without ever being allowed to intrude purely as encyclopaedic matter — a true miracle of artistry.

Whatever may be the ultimate scope of the work -——·possibly a panoramic view of human story — the fragments we have so far are gigantic. Given the perfectly balanced craftsmansip of Mr. Joyce, the size and density ofthe parts are a sure indication as to the proportions of the whole.


The handling of language by Mr. Joyce presents such obvious innovations, that it has drawn the attention of the critics almost to the exclusion of all the other features of his new work. Here criticism is entirely permissible, for surely the clues we have so far may serve to give us an insight into what is to follow.

The embodiment of foreign words into a given language is by no means a new departure. The practice has been, and still is, resorted to, both spontaneously by the people and deliberately by the writers, especially at such times when the language has reached a point in its development where it must be fashioned into a literary vehicle, or when it sorely needs rejuvenating. In other words, both when the language is born to artistic expression, and when it has to be given, artificially, a fresh lease of life.

But never was the procedure indulged in on such a scale, with such determination — so radically, in such a revolutionary manner.


Rabelais, to whom Mr. Joyce bears much more than a surface likeness, did it. The father of French prose literally coined hundreds of neologisms, of which an astounding number are still heartily alive. A proof that language can be made by a writer. [1]

On the other hand, in order to coin his neologisms, Rabelais drew mostly from Latin and from Greek -— a little (vicariously) from Hebrew and Arabic — but I have never seen an instance when he forged compound words made up of, foreign roots or syllables pieced together with roots and fragments of French words — which seems to be the most startling innovation in Mr. Joyce’s handling of the English language.

Rabelais’ daring never went so far as that. Perhaps this artifice never occurred to him. Perhaps there were other reasons for this reticence on the part of one who dared so much.

First of all, the author of Gargantua was French and used French, his own language by right of birth, for which he had perhaps a much greater reverence than Mr. Joyce, an Irishman of revolutionary tendencies (in literature, at least), could possibly entertain for the King’s English. Another — and perhaps weightier —— reason, is that the French tongue, at the time Rabelais used it, was still in the formative period. It was a sturdy infant — as sturdy a baby as Gargantua himself ——— not the worn out methuselah we have with us today.

Consequently no such drastic innovations were required to give life and zest to Rabelais’ vehicle of expression.

To these reasons may be added a third. Prof. Sainéau, in his enlightening work, Le Langage de Rabelais, has proved beyond discussion that Nlaistre Francoys really knew very little of the foreign languages of his day.

“What strikes one”, he says, “when perusing the novel, is the great number of idioms which are met with therein. Some enthusiastic commentators have made of Rabelais the greatest polyglot of the Renaissance.

“This judgment must be toned down. This polyglottism is but a purely literary contrivance. Our author really knew only the classical tongues (Latin and Greek) and ltalian. He had but a pretty superficial smattering of Hebrew, and knew nothing, like everybody else in his time, of Arabic and Spanish, as well as of the idioms which are encountered here and there in his work.”

In this respect Mr. Joyce is far more learned than Rabelais. His knowledge of foreign languages is as diversified as it is sound. Italian he speaks like a native. German and French he knows as well. He has better than a working practice in Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages.

Words of seventeen tongues have been identified so far in his new work – and every one of them is used with a surety of touch that bespeaks more than a nodding acquaintance.

Yet what judgment may one pass on this widespread weaving of extraneous threads into the fundamental language of a literary work? Does not the author take the erudition of his readers too much for granted P Perhaps he does not care. To quote Stendhal’s “mot” in his Foreword to The Memoirs of a Tourist:

“Mr. L…, accustomed as he was to speak Spanish and English in the colonies, had admitted many words of those tongues (into his writing) as being more expressive.

“‘Expressive ! no doubt’, I said to him, ‘but only for those who know Spanish and English.’”

Here Stendhal talks like one of those pests, so numerous among his countrymen, ” les hommes de bon sens “. Nonetheless the crux of the matter is there. Mr. Joyce expects too much from his readers. Few, if any, will possess the knowledge of languages -·— and other sciences ——- that would allow them fully to grasp the niceties of meaning in this work.

However, he may point out, were he disposed to answer such criticism, that in this departure he but anticipates the trend ofthe times, which assuredly leans to a thorough internationalization in speech as in everything else. The world today is not the restricted, insular province that it still was in Stendhal’s time. The prodigious development of the means of locomotion and ofthe means for spreading thought has brought about a radical change in this provincialism, not to mention the upheaval of the War, the like of which had never been seen in the world on such a scale since the Barbaric invasions which marked the close of the Roman Empire.


When completed, no doubt, Work in Progress will still prove a hard nut to crack for the vast majority of its readers. Mr. Joyce will suscitate a host of commentators who may in some respects smooth the way for the vulgum pecus. These scholars, as is their wont, will tight and squabble over·”bscure” passages, draw up glossaries and indulge in long-winded dissertations as to the esoteric meaning of certain fragments. But Rabelais was sufficiently understood during his life—tirne, for he had launched his giants into a world of true and tried readers. France, in the 16th century, contained, I am sure, a greater proportion of educated men capable of following him upon the roughest paths, than is the case among the English speaking public from whom Mr. Joyce must expect to muster his followers.

Such commentators, however, would have tickled the risible faculties of Rabelais enormously. I hope that Mr. Joyce will live long enough to enjoy the fun of which his literary forbear was so unfortunately deprived, for I suspect that the commentaries of future critics of his new work will not lack in amusing elements.

We would be better inspired if we made an honest effort and tried to see the light by ourselves. Here and there I glimpse in Work in Progress certain gleams, furtive and fleeting, I perceive certain recurring sounds which might give a key to the secret. Thus in a kaleidoscope, the fragments of coloured glass which form the apparently endless patterns are few — and in each fresh and unexpected pattern, we end by identifying the constituting elements, detecting thus the rhythm of the successive pictures. The work still in progress might be of such design, and the dirliculties it offers might be less than it appears at first sight.

Mr. Joyce may have a surprise in store for us. His artistry is so consummate that he may bring order out of apparent chaos by a mere literary artirice. Up to the present, the fragments that have appeared suggest the disordered, illogical imagery of dreams, the babblings and mutterings of human beings upon the brink of sleep. The dreamers may awake and talk coherently Y after their visions during slumber have served to give us an insight into their subconscious souls.

These blurred speeches, moreover, may be intended to represent the Past.

I feel that with the last fragments shall come the revelation.


To me, one of the most striking and illuminating thing in connection with Work in Progress is that it has managed to reverse the consecrated order of things. We commentators simply could not be kept in leash — we had to have our say  in a volume which will grace the stalls in advance of the text under consideration.

I should like to be told of another example of this out ofthe history of literature.

[1]Cf. for their similarity and diiierence Rabelais’ account of the siege of Corinth by Philip of Macedon (book lll, prologue): “Les ungs, des champs . es ionteresses retiroyent meubles, bestail, grains, vins, fruictz “, and so on, an acconnt itmpedimented with military baggage from several lplundered languages, with the description of the Great Dublin Duke (Cf. the account of the battle of Waterloo, Transition I, p. 14,): ” This is the big Sranghter Willingdone, grand and rnagentic in his goldtin spurs and his ironed dux and his quarterbrass woodysyhoes and his magnate’s gharters and his bangkolc’s best and goliar’s goloshes and his pulloponeasyan wartrews.” Where the hero stands horsed under a seven cnbit ” arc de triomphe en ciel ” signed by words of power and battle.

In a Life of Rabelais which the writer of this essay is now preparing, he endeavours to analyse in detail this fascinating subject ofthe literary, imaginative and suggestive handling of language in metamorphosis or in a transitional stage — a problem which today is as urgent as it was in Rabelais’ age.



Publicado on setembro 12, 2012 at 3:04 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] I dont know what to call it but its mighty unlike prose, por Victor Llona […]

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