James Joyce has been at the same time one of the most influential and one of the least understood figures in our literary scene. Certainly the readers of "Ulysses" far outnumbered those who have any claim to understanding it, just as the parlor critics of "Finnegan's Wake" outnumber its readers. A critical work on this major enigma of our time is therefore particularly welcome, and especially when it comes from the pen of Harvard's most brilliant and penetrating critic.
Harry Levin's study attempts both to place Joyce in proper relation to his literary progenitors and progeny, and to integrate his three major works and various minor productions into a consistent whole. A brief acquaintance with Joyce should convince one of the difficulty of the task, while even a briefer perusal of Levin should demonstrate his success at achieving it. This is not to suggest, however, that the book is not worth a careful reading, for a tightly-written style compresses a multitude of ideas into its relatively small compass. Expansion might make easier comprehension for the layman, but less exciting reading.
Levin maintains that Joyce stands midway between naturalism, and symbolism, and that from this key position arises his significance. By conscientious scholarship, he demonstrates that Joyce's contribution is in development rather than in innovation. The stream of consciousness technique was not original with Joyce but he became perhaps its greater master. His universal knowledge, with which only someone of Levin's stature could cope, enable him to sum up within himself all the threads of his literary past, and his genius succeeded in spinning a web for the future, though the reader may be led astray along the way by the maze, and the spinner himself may become over absorbed in the pattern.
Joyce's three major works are seen by Levin as a progression from the lyric form, in which the creation and the artist are inextricably intertwined, to the epic in which the creation is in mediate relation between the artist and others, to the dramatic, in which it is in immediate relation to others. "Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man" exemplifies the first phase, "Ulysses" the second, and "Finnegan's Wake" the last. If it might seem to some readers that the last two have achieved only the most tenuous relationship with "others," Levin's study does much to strengthen the bond.