Bartholomew Gill: ‘The Death of a Joyce Scholar’

 

Bartholomew Gill: ‘The Death of a Joyce Scholar’, 1989, Random House Avon Books, 299 pages, ISBN:0-380-71129-X

What happened to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett after their death, the one in 1941, the other in 1989? The two great innovators of 20-century English literature have not gone away. They are still around, but in the eyes of the public in continuous metamorphosis.

Because of ‘Ulysses’, Joyce, for the 1920s’ public was a mystifying experimenter, better talked about than encountered on the page. His frankness over sex meant that his 742 page novel had to be smuggled over borders. In the 1930s, ‘Ulysses’ was cleared of obscenity in the courts, acquiring a tincture of heroic nobility. Major critics insisted it was modern writing’s great pivotal novel. But the cliché persisted of its impenetrability. In the following decades, university English literature departments aiding, it was gradually eased into the canon. Familiarity and learned explanations made it seem less difficult. Students were shamed for not reading it.

A the end of the century something new happened. Difficult fiction lost its prestige. Readers no longer wished to invest the time in it. The myth of the impenetrability of ‘Ulysses’ returned. Shame over ignoring it disappeared and one could boast about not reading it. That’s where Joyce’s masterpiece is today.

Beckett has similarly shed several identities in the public eye. In 1953 he came out of obscurity with the success of his play, ‘Waiting for Godot’. But some considered it a hoax, a play where nothing happened. Beckett was a sensation, but as a sensational joke. Notwithstanding, an evening in the theatre was more fun than a month spent with a difficult novel. A peeved theatre goer could simply get up and leave. Beckett, unlike Joyce, was not seen as aggressing the reader. That was because his very experimental novels weren’t known and his plays that cancelled the spark of hope in ‘Godot’ ignored. With the awarding of the Nobel in 1969 he was on his way to grandeur, even lovableness. The beautiful photograph of his lined face in old age became a symbol of noble endurance.

With ‘The Death of a Joyce Scholar’ by Bartholomew Gill in 1989 the two Irish stalwarts assumed yet another identity. Gill—born Mark C. McGarrity—wrote a long series of murder mysteries solved by Dublin’s Chief Superintendent of the murder squad, Peter McGarr. The McGarr books made for neat, intelligent entertainment. McGarrity, born in Massachusetts in 1943, attended Trinity College in Dublin and afterwards became a Dubliner in his imagination while maintaining a workaday home in Morristown, New Jersey where he wrote for the ‘Star Ledger’ newspaper. His penetration of the Dublin ecosphere allowed him to trace the mental wanderings of the inhabitants in terms that strangers to the city could understand. These were more than the tips and tidbits found in handy tourist guides. Gill/McGarrity wielded the insider knowledge of a native combined with a foreigner’s freshness of eye.

A tragic chapter opened for McGarrity himself late on Fourth-of-July night, 2002. Returning to his Morristown home he found he had forgotten his latchkey. Scaling the house to enter an upstairs window, he lost his footing and tumbled to the ground, dying from the fall. A strange fate but right on theme for a specialist in fictional death whose books often described drunken stumbles.

‘The Death of Joyce Scholar’ takes place in late 20th-century Dublin. It concerns academic figures of Trinity College, which is most fitting since both Joyce and Beckett after umpteen identity changes were now most at home in university lecturer halls. It’s June 16, Bloomsday, a commemoration of the twenty-four hours in 1904 that Joyce chronicled from all angles in ‘Ulysses’. The yearly event has become a commercialised tourist attraction. A tour is led around the city with stops at places, pubs in particular, mentioned in the book. This year it is led by Kevin Coyle, a young professor of recent fame for his brilliant writing on Joyce. Kevin looks down on the tawdry job, but like the young James Joyce in Trieste he needs the money to support his family. Here Bartholomew Gill/Mark C. McGarrity reveals his hand. Kevin, in temperament and brain power, will be a latter day Joyce. He thinks like Joyce, lives just as carelessly and drinks just as hard. Now Kevin in a defence of his and Joyce’s world view has been involved in a university dispute with a graduate student and writer, one David Holderness. Unlike Kevin/Joyce, Holderness isn’t expansive, nor all devouring and improvident. He's a cautious, constipated, minimalist whose specialty is the work of Samuel Beckett whose views Beckett/Holderness makes the basis of his own life.

In history the contrasting approaches of Joyce and Beckett, friends and colleagues in life, were a matter of temper and working methods. The author makes these differences into a life-or-death conflict, which allows him to dramatise what each writer stood for and offer us vivid views of two ways of life all within the structure of a murder mystery. What we have is an amusing introduction to Joyce and to Beckett, for those who haven’t got around yet to reading their books.

Peter Byrne

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