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Bloomsbury On Bloomsday

June 14, 2014

I should be reading Ulysses, and fabricating my case for and against.  I have read 200 pages so far — not a third; and have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested by the first two or three chapters — and then puzzled, bored, irritated, and disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom, great Tom, thinks this on par with War and Peace! An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egoistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating.  When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw? But I think if you are anaemic, as Tom is, there is glory in blood. Being fairly normal myself I am soon ready for the classics again. I may revise this later. I do not compromise my critical sagacity. I plant a stick in the ground to mark page 200.

— from the diary of Virginia Woolf
August 16th, 1922

I finished Ulysses, and think it a misfire. Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water.  It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.  A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts. I’m reminded all the time of some callow board school boy, full of wits and powers, but so self-conscious and egotistical that he loses his head, becomes extravagant, mannered, uproarious, ill at ease, makes kindly people feel sorry for him, and stern ones merely annoyed; and one hopes he’ll grow out of it; but as Joyce is forty that scarcely seems likely.  I have not read it carefully; and only once; and it is very obscure; so no doubt I have scamped the virtue of it more than is fair.  I feel that myriads of tiny bullets pepper one and spatter one; but one does not get one deadly wound straight in the face — as from Tolstoy, for instance; but it is entirely absurd to compare him with Tolstoy.

— from September 6 1922

My great adventure is really Proust. Well– what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped–and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical–like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished– My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10.

— from a letter to Roger Fry, October 1922

I love these passages. They remind you how fun snobbery can be, if done well. Though she is certainly going too far with “illiterate”, even if she had not yet gotten to some the most hyper-literate parts of the book.

I would have to agree that for sheer reading pleasure, you are much better off with In Search of Lost Time than Ulysses (also, just to mention fiction from 1922, Captain Blood and Kai Lung’s Golden Hours provide some real enjoyment). Woolf may have presented plenty of challenges to her readers but she was of the cult of reading, the author of The Common Reader. She thought an author ought to offer up wine and grapes in the sun. Not Joyce, he was of the cult of the writer. Readers receive little service in Ulysses (much less Finnegans Wake). He built the mountain, it is up to us, possibly with the help of the guidebooks that followed, to forge our own paths to explore it. In this it is like life, as Tolstoy’s and Proust’s novels are like life, but in different ways.

Tom, by the way, was T.S. Eliot.

From → Bloomsday

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