On this day…31 May

On 31 May 1927 Joyce complained about misconceptions of his work.

The latest fragment of Joyce’s Work in Progress had been published in transition in April 1927. This fragment consisted of the opening 27 pages of what would become Finnegans Wake, but it was greeted mostly with incomprehension. On 31 May 1927 Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver complaining about the way some of these critics had misconceived what he was doing.

Joyce was writing from the Grand Hôtel-Restaurant Victoria at The Hague where he had been staying from 21 May. Joyce’s visit to Holland was not going well. On 25 May, while Joyce was lying on the beach at Scheveningen reading a guide book and trying to figure out where the Hook of Holland was, he had been attacked by a dog. The dog’s owner and his wife took 15 minutes to get the dog away from Joyce and during the attack Joyce’s glasses were broken. The owner helped Joyce find the remains of his glasses in the sand, but the experience was unnerving.

Joyce was also thinking over the reviews of the April issue of transition and wrote to Weaver about the way some of the critics got things wrong. One critic, Yale University Professor Henry Seidel Canby, had reviewed transition in the Saturday Review of Literature on 30 April, under the title ‘Gyring and Gimbling: Lewis Carroll in Paris.’ He claimed that Ulysses was a night book while the new work was a book of the day with the rivers of Ireland as the heroes – a very confusing set of notions!

Using words from the opening stanza of Carroll’s Jabberwocky and referring to Joyce as a Parisian Lewis Carroll also annoyed Joyce. Joyce claimed that though he had heard of Lewis Carroll he hadn’t read anything by Carroll until Helen Nutting gave him one of Carroll’s books, though it was not Alice in Wonderland. But he added that no one would believe that he had never read Rabelais either, and now he had both Rabelais and Carroll on his list of authors to read.

Another review of transition came from Laurens County, Georgia, which, along with its river Oconee, is mentioned on the first page of Finnegans Wake. The bemused reviewer claimed that only Joyce and God could know why the county and its river were mentioned in his work at all. Yet another critic said that Joyce was writing as a lunatic for lunatics. Joyce also mentioned a young man he had met before he left Paris who knew parts of Work in Progress by heart and who recited it to his friends. As it turned out, however, the young man didn’t understand many of the words.

Perhaps to add to his sense of weariness at the incomprehension with which Work in Progress was being greeted, Joyce wrote that he had no inclination to read or write. In the last five years he had suffered three eye attacks, seven operations, nine editions of Ulysses, the piracy of Ulysses by Samuel Roth, the French and the German translations of Ulysses, the completion of parts I and III of Work in Progress, not to mention constantly changing addresses. It seems that Joyce, on holidays in The Hague, felt entitled to be weary!


Sources & Further Reading:

Deming, Robert H: James Joyce – The Critical Heritage, vol. I, 1907-1927, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I, edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957.