On 23 November 1928 HG Wells wrote to Joyce about their differences.
Joyce and Wells met in Paris at the beginning of November and Wells followed up with a letter to Joyce in which he pointed out what he saw as the differences between them. Though he felt that Joyce’s work was that of a genius, he also felt he could not support or promote it.
Wells had been one of Joyce’s earliest and most important supporters. Though he thought A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ought to be locked up so that impressionable people might not get at it, he also thought that it was a very important book, one that ought to be bought and read, and then locked up!
Wells and Joyce met and lunched together in Paris at the beginning of November 1928, at the same time as Nora was admitted to hospital to be treated for cancer. Joyce’s concern for Nora left him in a confused state that he later thought had affected Wells’ view of him and his work, and he hoped he’d meet Wells in the future to rectify this.
On 23 November, Wells wrote to Joyce from Grasse in the south of France, and told Joyce that he had been studying him and thinking a lot about him since their meeting, and had come to the conclusion that he could not promote Joyce’s work. He added that he had enormous respect for Joyce’s genius, dating back to his earliest works, and that he had a great personal liking for him. But he also felt that they were set on different courses.
Wells saw himself as being scientific and constructive, and that required him to be as simple and as clear in his writing as possible. Joyce, he thought, was obsessed with a system of contradictions because of his Catholic upbringing (something that Wells had emphasised in his review of A Portrait…), and this led to Joyce’s enthusiasm for the sewer and the foul aspects of life. For Wells, these things were transitory and therefore of no concern to him. While Joyce saw defiance and breaking things up as a good thing, Wells could not see it that way.
Going on to Work in Progress, Wells wrote that it demonstrated Joyce’s genius for expression, but that it was going nowhere. He felt that Joyce had turned his back on common men and the result was just enormous riddles. He suspected that Work in Progress was more amusing and exciting to write than it was to read but, taking himself as a typical reader, there was no pleasure in it for him and he felt Joyce’s quirkiness made too many demands on his time.
Wells ended by admitting that he might well be wrong and Joyce might well be right, and that it was possible that both of them were wrong. But whilst he thought Work in Progress was an extraordinary experiment that should be defended, he, personally, could not follow Joyce any more than Joyce could follow him.
Joyce, in a letter to Harriet Weaver at the beginning of December, said that he wasn’t sure what to make of Wells’ letter, but that he felt that future conversations would help modify Wells’ opinion. He also told Weaver that he didn’t think Wells’ attitude to language was as scientific as he made it out to be, and that there were many comments in the letter that he agreed with.
Sources & Further Reading:
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957.
Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.