A Matter of Meaning It

“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” James Joyce once said of his oeuvre, “and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” It wasn’t only professors, however, arguing about Joyce—along with George Eliot, Henry James, and Jane Austen—at this past week’s “Forms of Fiction: The Novel in English” conference at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center, spanning three days of lectures, discussions, and book readings, all hosted by UofC faculty.

The four novels the series focused on were Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” James’ “The Golden Bowl,” and Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” English novelists A. S. Byatt and Tom McCarthy both made the transatlantic trek to lecture—McCarthy on the materiality of “Ulysses,” Byatt on Eliot’s modes of allegoric expression in “Middlemarch”—in addition to giving readings from their own novels.

For all of his fast-talking glibness, McCarthy succeeded in approaching a level of interpretive richness—focused not on Joyce’s narrative structures but on his language—which advanced a particular reading of the book while resisting reductionism. His answer to the slightly obnoxious titular question of his talk, “Why Ulysses Matters,” was that “‘Ulysses’ matters most because it makes everything matter.” McCarthy’s notion of the necessity and materiality of language in Joyce affirms the innovation of Joyce’s masterwork, and its nearly limitless capacity for meaning.

Later, McCarthy and Byatt shared their personal thoughts on the novel as a genre, and hearing them occasionally diverge from each other—in what seemed to emphasize their generational differences—was a reassuring proof of the robust nature of the form. “The point of the novel isn’t communicating: it’s being there,” Byatt said. “Or elsewhere,” said McCarthy.

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