A literary charlatan of the extremest order
Happy birthday James Joyce and Ulysses
Today—2nd February 2022—marks 140 years since the birth of Irish novelist James Joyce and 100 years since publication of his opus, Ulysses—a modernist masterpiece believed by many to be one of the greatest books ever written, and by others to be an exhausting read, to put it mildly. In honour of Joyce and his difficult book(s), I had a flick through some letters to find mention of the man, and I found quite a few, and I discovered that almost all opinions of James Joyce are strong opinions, especially those from the pens of his fellow writers. Below are just a few.
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As an artist, James Joyce has been wrongly subjected to indignity by stupid people.
Marianne Moore Letter to Ezra Pound, 10 May 1921 Selected letters of Marianne Moore
Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. Take me as a typical common reader. Do I get much pleasure from this work? No. Do I feel I am getting something new and illuminating as I do when I read Anrep’s dreadful translation of Pavlov’s badly written book on Conditioned Reflexes? No. So I ask: Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?
H. G. Wells Letter to James Joyce, 23 Nov 1928 James Joyce's World
I found I could write of nothing but my sick loathing for every blighter writing except James Joyce whom I think a pretentious nitwit but who has guts, guts of the moonlight, beautiful guts, as Lewis Carroll nearly wrote.
Rebecca West Letter to Irita Van Doren, 1929 Selected Letters of Rebecca West
He is not of course entirely without talent, but he is a literary charlatan of the extremest order. His principal book, Ulysses, has no parallel that I know of in French. It is an anarchical production, infamous in taste, in style, in everything.
Mr Joyce is unable to publish or sell his books in England, on account of their obscenity. He therefore publishes a 'private' edition in Paris and charges a huge price for each copy. He is a sort of Marquis de Sade, but does not write so well.
There are no English critics of weight or judgment who consider Mr Joyce an author of any importance.... He is not as I say without talent, but he has prostituted it to the most vulgar uses.
Edmund Gosse Letter to Louis Gillet, 7 Jun 1924 Claybook for James Joyce
My God, what a clumsy olla putrida [a Spanish stew—literal translation: “rotten pot”] James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness—what old and hard worked staleness, masquerading as the all-new!
D. H. Lawrence Letter to Aldous Huxley, 15 Aug 1928 The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence
Never did I read such tosh [as Ulysses]. As for the first 2 chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th—merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges.
Virginia Woolf Letter to Lytton Strachey, 24 Aug 1922 The Complete Collection
Did you know Joyce? He was terrible with his admirers; really insupportable. With idolators: worse. But he was the best companion and finest friend I ever had. I remember one time he was feeling fairly gloomy and he asked me if I didn't think that his books were too suburban. He said that was what got him down sometimes. Mrs. Joyce said, “Ah Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.” And Joyce said, “The thing we must face is I couldn’t see the lion.” Mrs. Joyce said, “Hemingway’d describe him to you Jim and afterwards you could go up and touch him and smell of him. That's all you’d need.”
Ernest Hemingway Letter to Bernard Berenson, 14 Oct 1952 Selected letters, 1917-1961
I have read several fragments of Ulysses in its serial form. It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but it is a truthful one; and I should like to put a cordon round Dublin; round up every male person in it between the ages of 15 and 30; force them to read it; and ask them whether on reflection they could see anything amusing in all that foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity.
George Bernard Shaw Letter to Sylvia Beach, 10 Oct 1921 British Library
Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.
…I also don't know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn't help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil's grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn't.
Carl Jung Letter to James Joyce, 27 1932 More Letters of Note