On this day…5 May

On 5 May 1939 reviews of Finnegans Wake started to appear in the press.

As the reviews began to appear in the days following publication of Finnegans Wake, Joyce had them read to him by friends and family. While some of the reviewers came up with interesting ideas, most simply reiterated what had already been said about the book. More frustratingly for Joyce, many of the reviewers considered Finnegans Wake a private joke that no one but Joyce himself could understand, and this view of the book was unlikely to encourage sales.

Joyce was also concerned that sales would be hampered by the price of the book. In England it sold for 25 shillings, a very substantial amount of money for a book in 1939. Joyce also discovered that English public libraries were not allowed to buy books that cost more than 18 shillings, and he worried that there wouldn’t be any copies of Finnegans Wake available through the public libraries service as a result.

The Irish Times added to Joyce’s frustration by listing Finnegans Wake as written by Sean O’Casey. Joyce wrote humorously to O’Casey about the misprint, but said he wasn’t sure that it was a mere misprint. In reply, O’Casey wrote of his admiration for Joyce’s work, but added that neither of them was liked in Dublin and that the mistake was probably deliberate. When Irish Times editor Bertie Smyllie was in Paris, he met Joyce to apologise and to assure him that no slight was intended. Joyce remained unconvinced.

Nor was the unsigned review in the Irish Times on 3 June particularly encouraging. “It may be a novel to end novels,” the reviewer wrote, “for, if there is shape at all, it is the shape of a superb annihilation – as of some gigantic thing let loose to destroy what we had come to regard as a not unnecessary part of civilisation.” The reviewer also thought that though Joyce had enjoyed writing it, the reader would only experience “an acute bewilderment from the beginning, to the end, which is no end.” The reviewer ended by saying that “although after Ulysses [Joyce] had no more to say, in Finnegans Wake he went on saying it.”

One review that pleased Joyce was written by his old adversary Oliver Gogarty in the Observer on 7 May. Perhaps writing from his experience as a surgeon, Gogarty wrote that the language of the Wake was like the speech of someone under anaesthetic, and he thought that some parts sounded the like chatter one might hear at lunchtime in a Berlitz School. He wrote that one could only admire Joyce for having pursued his writing from early poverty through to the publication of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, but he ended by saying that he thought the Wake was simply an enormous leg-pull.

Paul Rosenfeld, writing under the heading ‘James Joyce’s Jabberwocky’ in the Saturday Review of Literature on 6 May, said that despite its wit and poetry, he had closed the book without feeling any enthusiasm for it, adding that it was cold and cerebral. Louise Bogan, in the Nation on 6 May, compared pieces published earlier with their final form in the book, and said that they seemed to have been changed “out of sheer perversity.” She claimed that the most frightening thing was the feeling that Joyce didn’t know what he was doing, and she added that his delight in making a hash of human culture was also disturbing.

An anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement of 6 May felt that only Joyce himself could appreciate the work, but also wrote that understanding the Wake was akin to appreciating a piece of music, though in this case the notation and the scales were unfamiliar. In the Listener on 11 May, Edwin Muir thought the book read like a long private joke, but he couldn’t tell if it was headed towards meaning or meaninglessness. And Ifor Evans in the Manchester Guardian of 12 May felt Joyce was demonstrating the language of a schizophrenic mind which Joyce alone could explain, and review!

There were some encouraging reviews, however, usually written by those close to Joyce. Padraic Colum in the New York Times on 7 May wrote that a reader might not understand everything on a given page, but would find beauty and humour in the sentences nonetheless. “We have novels that give us greatly a three-dimensional world,” he wrote: “here is a narrative that gives us a new dimension.”

Richard Aldington’s was among the more discouraging reviews. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly of June 1939 he said he was unable to explain either the subject or the meaning of the Wake, if it had any meaning. He referred to it as “ghastly stodge” and said reading it was a penance he wouldn’t inflict on anyone. He added that he didn’t want to discourage any reader who wanted to use a five-dollar bill to buy the Wake, but he felt people would get longer-lasting satisfaction from using the five-dollar bill to light a cigarette!

The reviewer for the Dublin Magazine of July-September 1939 ended the review prophetically by saying that while some Joyce disciples would be disappointed by this “low-brow” work with its limited sense of humour and its trivialities, the more ardent disciples would busy themselves by compiling glossaries and guidebooks.

In June 1939 Joyce wrote to Louis Gillet of his disappointment with the reviews, and said that he could bring the whole “dustbin” of criticism around to Gillet’s apartment if he liked. He would have Giorgio take him in his car, he said, “as criticism is heavy to bear.”


Sources & Further Reading:

Deming, Robert H (ed.): James Joyce – The Critical Heritage, vol. II, 1928-1941, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.