A literary charlatan of the extremest order

Today marks 80 years since the death of James Joyce, the influential Irish novelist whose works, such as the once-scandalous Ulysses and forever impenetrable Finnegans Wake, seem either to be loved or loathed by those who pick them up. Literary Marmite. Earlier today, in honour of Joyce and his difficult books, 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


Oh what a bore about Joyce! Just as I was devoting myself to Proust—Now I must put aside Proust—and what I suspect is that Joyce is one of these undelivered geniuses, whom one can’t neglect, or silence their groans, but must help them out, at considerable pains to oneself.

Virginia Woolf | Letter to Gerald Brenan, 5 Jun 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


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