canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: TIM CONLEY

Michael Bryson interviewed Tim Conley by email in October 2003. Read a review of Joyces Mistakes on The Modern Word.


Okay, Tim Conley, tell us something about yourself (your biography, I mean, however you choose to interpret and present it) and how JOYCES MISTAKES came to be.

Ever since I learned to read, at age four or whenever it was, I have loved it. Now Iím not going to veer onto the crowded highway of anecdotes about escaping into fiction, being transported to distant times and imaginary places, and the like, though of course thatís all good fun; but lately Iíve preferred to take the naturalistís woodpath when it comes to talking about reading. On this path I am studying the very fact of my motion forward, noting my relation to and perspectives of the trees and land around me. My interest lies in the cognitive feat of reading, what happens when we open a book, in the same way that we might prefer to think about what it means to be transported or go from place to place rather than just hop in the air-conditioned SUV and try to forget or ignore that youíre moving, never mind wonder how it happens. Doubtless this will sound simple-minded or remedial to some readers, but to me itís fundamental: how and why we read are at least as interesting as what we read. When I came to write JOYCES MISTAKES, I was wondering very seriously about all sorts of bizarre questions about reading (e.g., does every book have to "make sense?" Can I be said to interpret a book without reading it? Is "meaning" best understood as a noun or a verb?) and that book represents an attempt not to answer those questions with any finality but to understand their value.

JOYCES MISTAKES was originally my doctoral dissertation, written at Queenís University and completed in 2001, but the whole thing was written as a book, and was conceived of as a book and not simply as a "dissertation" from the beginning. The University of Toronto Press accepted it for publication the next year.

JOYCES MISTAKES explores mistakes (or "mistakes") in the work of James Joyce, but it is also an attempt to articulate a larger literary issue: the aesthetics of error. Could you describe briefly what it was you were attempting to grapple with in this book?

Youíre right that the book is only partly about Joyce, and that other word in the title is the larger site of investigation. Is there such a thing as an error in a work of art? Thatís the question, the drive of the book. The structure of the book points to a two-sided approach, a writerís perspective and a readerís perspective, and Joyce, whose work in my view raises the stakes on this question so high that in fact his work depends upon our inability to say absolutely "yes" or "no" to the question, is kept as primary focus, though I do occasionally give some attention to the aesthetics of error in works by other writers Ė Melville, Proust, Marianne Moore, and so on. The narrative of a book like ULYSSES isnít just about a single day in Dublin, as a reader will discover the moment he or she discusses the details of the day with another reader of the novel who holds another edition. ULYSSES as a book, as a reading experience, is also about the editing history of ULYSSES, and the significant differences between editions and absence of an absolutely "correct" or authoritative text exacerbate problems we face when, for example, we read Marthaís letter to Bloom and she writes (or Joyce writes?) "world" where we may expect "word." FINNEGANS WAKE is the extreme, the furthest limit and, as Terry Eagleton once said, one of the ultimate tests for any literary theory one cares to advance. When you open the WAKE and come across a word like "cyrcles," can you even assume or hypothesize that itís a typo for "circles" or "cycles" or some other word? For that matter, do we dare take that strange word as it is, and have a word we acknowledge is "correct" but without a dictionary-supported meaning? At nearly every word Joyceís book dares us to answer. Some of the grappling in JOYCES MISTAKES is with our desires as readers to ignore, accept, or shy away from this dare. With every page I turn and every word I read Iím still grappling.

How many times did you read FINNEGANS WAKE during the process of writing JOYCES MISTAKES? I'm tempted to ask (teasingly) what the WAKE is about (so, like, what's the story, man), but I'll settle for asking you what has revealed to you in your confrontation with it.

Jacques Derrida has remarked that it is naive to speak of "having read" Joyce. Thatís not a gesture of intellectual intimidation, suggesting that nobody can make any headway with this notoriously difficult author, but a valuable insight into the design of a book like FINNEGANS WAKE, which begins in the middle of a sentence, ends in the middle of what may well be the same sentence, and is simultaneously full of possible meanings and void of any fully demonstrable ones. When Iím asked how many times Iíve read ULYSSES, I feel I can give a numerical answer, because itís a novel with more or less sequential events and is read front to back and line by line, but with FINNEGANS WAKE the only sincere answer to make is that Iím still reading it. I first climbed aboard Joyceís merry-go-round in 1995 and Iíve been going in circles since. That statement also answers the other (equally popular) question, "whatís the book about?" Samuel Beckett wrote one of his few essays on the WAKE and very perceptively and concisely said that the book "is not about something; it is that something itself." The WAKE is about reading the WAKE: thatís how I appreciate a lovely phrase like "as you sing it itís a study."

To be sure, there are those who want a story and look for a story and find one among the WAKEís "plotsome to getsome" mess of broken words, and I wouldnít begrudge them whatever pleasures or treasures they find. Yet itís that synonymy with experience Joyce is reaching for that is most amazing. As readers (especially readers of fiction, but all readers generally) we can get all too complacent in our understanding of the relationship between words, symbols, writing, and the allegedly "real" world with its "real" people and places and events. Somewhere Northrop Frye remarks that all reading is allegorical Ė that is, every word we read we understand is something other than that word. I remember how as a young man I used to marvel at the crystalline quality of that idea, until I arrived at the WAKE, which defied me to say what definite "other" meaning the impossible words found therein might be. Consider any act in the "real" world other than reading: having sex, say, or washing dishes. Few people (apart perhaps from the most occult and pedantic sort of psychologists) would say that when theyíre having sex they are doing something other than having sex, and those who enjoy having sex enjoy it for itself, as it happens, not for what it represents. The WAKE is for me less a representation than an experience.

This might take us on a bit of a tangent. It seems to me that the aesthetics of error that you articulate in JOYCES MISTAKES might well be the antidote to the aesthetics of the politically correct, which might also be phrased as the aesthetics of perfectionism or the aesthetics of idealism. I'm thinking, for example, of the PC critics who took writer X to ask for writing about something outside his or her immediate experience, as if writers ought to have a zone within which they must operate and not stray beyond. Comments?

I hadnít really thought of it that way before. Well, first of all, youíre too generous in assigning the term "critic" to this pusillanimous way of thinking. Every act of writing is presumptuous, not just because of the anxiety of representation ("will she write him correctly?") but also because writing presumes reading; an audience is invoked and expected. There are and will probably always be people who are affronted by the fact that someone else is telling the story. In some ways this response strikes a significant chord, points to the innate "wrongness" of art. All representation is misrepresentation, every fiction by definition an untruth, every song an imposition against honest silence. Thatís the rule. However, tolerance begins at the same point art does, by striving to take or make exception, and then greater and greater exception, to any such rule. Courage and compassion are needed to violate the rule, to be "wrong." So, if you like, errors are what make us human.

The Danforth Review published one of your short stories. I'm wondering how your academic work has affected or interlaces with your creative writing (if you can accept the division of those two categories).

A couple of years ago, Viking published a handsome set of Borges in three volumes. For reasons known only to the editors, they separated "fictions" and "non-fictions" despite the fact that Borgesís work emphatically defies the division. For example, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is simultaneously a wondrous fabrication and a deeply meditative essay on historicity, translation, and writing. I am in complete accord with Borges when he calls literary criticism just another branch of imaginative writing. Saying that criticism is secondary to "creative" work, which does get said by a surprising number of otherwise very intelligent people, is like saying the egg is secondary to the chicken. "Academic" is a social qualification, though, and bespeaks professional status and an institutional mandate. The word often gets used as a pejorative tag, and while there is certainly no lack of dreadfully written books by professors and itís often fair comment by non-academic writers who want to criticize their critics in turn, the fact that a writer works at a university is hardly sufficient reason to reject the writing. I suspect that attitudeís symptomatic of a romantic conception of the writer, whereby the noble, often male writer is a loner against the world, as heedless of respectability as of regular income, but itís also part of a pronounced anti-intellectual streak in North American culture today.

I teach literature and enjoy it immensely. My students compel me to rethink everything I understand about literature on a yearly basis, and thatís very good for a writer. When I write an essay or story or a poem I am trying to question what those forms are and what they can do. The best novel redefines what a novel is, and a writer, critical and creative both, is at best a lover of possibilities.

Joyce is obviously a literary giant and a fit figure for your study of literary error. Because TDR is a CanLit mag, I feel I should ask you how you might approach an exploration of error in CanLit? Any writers or book leap to mind as readily relevant folks or works to study?

To the extent that a study of literary error is, or at least ought to be, a material concern with production, the editing history of a given text, any writerís work is fair game. If youíre looking for writers whose poetics specifically address that concern at any level of sophistication, of course, you have to be choosy. And by that I mean itís a subjective matter. For my taste, the work of bpNichol would be an obvious choice (even though I think he misunderstood Joyce). Just look at the "Probable Systems" series of poems and youíll see why. Although it doesnít get as much attention as it should, Helen Weinzweigís novel Basic Black with Pearls asks a lot of good questions about misreading and the desire for meaning. Jay Millarís poems of ghosts and fungi beg questions of origins and roots as well as of ends: when is a mushroom finished? But, like I say, such choices are subjective Ė in fact, from my point of view, Joyce asked me the question, not the other way íround. If Joyce is a "giant," itís because enough readers have found his mis-takings of the world enriching enough to try to engage with and respond to them. Error, like beauty, is where you find it.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.

 

 

 

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