Let us start in media's res. In early October 1922, more than four years after her first exposure to Joyce's Ulysses, Woolf wrote the following to the art critic and philosopher Roger Fry:
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.This passage clearly suggests that Woolf not only read all of Ulysses but loathed it quite as much as she adored A La Recherche. But the truth is much more complicated-- and just about as fascinating as any episode of literary history can be.
Setting aside A La Recherche, which unequivocally captivated her, the long trail of references that Woolf made to Joyce and his novel in her letters, diaries, essays, and reading notes--up to 1922 and beyond-- leave no doubt that the thought of his novel stalked her for years and made her feel acutely ambivalent. She was probably urged to read it by T.S. Eliot, who admired it as soon as its opening chapters began to appear in the Little Review in March 1918 and who by the following November had told her that Joyce was a great genius (L 2: 296).
Well before then, on April 14, 1918, Harriet Weaver brought her and Leonard the first four chapters of Ulysses in the hopes that their Hogarth Press might publish it. But shortly after Miss Weaver gave them the chapters, Woolf balked. It was not only far too long for their small press to manage--an “insuperable difficulty” for them, as she told Miss Weaver (L 2: 243); it was also--as she told others-- indecent and boring. After reading the chapters in about ten days, she told Lytton Strachey, “First there’s a dog that p’s--then there’s man that forths, and one can be monotonous even on that subject” (L 2: 234). The next day she sounded just a little less damning in a letter to Roger Fry. “Its interesting as an experiment;” she writes; “he leaves out the narrative, and tries to give the thoughts, but I don’t know that he’s got anything very interesting to say, and after all the p-ing of a dog isn’t very different from the p-ing of a man. Three hundred pages of it might be boring” (L 2: 234).
To say the least, this is a startling reaction to the first four chapters of Ulysses, where Joyce makes the dog pee in precisely eight words buried deep in chapter three (“lifting again his hindleg, pissed against [a rock]”), and where-- in chapter four--he narrates Bloom’s defecation (if that is what Woolf means by “a man that forths”) without using a single indecent word, representing an act that is perfectly decent and private as well as quintessentially quotidian: reading a newspaper as his bowels move in his own outhouse. It is particularly startling to compare Woolf’s sole comment on chapter three with what Margaret Anderson wrote about its opening words when the chapter was submitted to her for publication in the Little Review: “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have. We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives." Was Woolf simply blind to such passages? In the magnificent garden of Joyce’s prose, could she see no more than a few noxious weeds?
To be fair, the answer is no. Even in writing to Fry she admits that Joyce is making an “interesting” experiment by replacing narrative with a stream of thoughts. About a year later, when she made notes on the first seven chapters of Ulysses in preparation for an essay on “Modern Novels” that appeared in TLS (April 10, 1919), she wrote much more about the value of Joyce’s work in progress, some of which she was re-reading. Re-reading chapter one, for instance, she notes
the undoubted occasional beauty of his phrases. It is an attempt to get thinking into literature--hence the jumble. Told in episodes. The repetition of words like rosewood and wetted ashes. (Woolf, MNJ 642).She is beginning to hear the music of Joyce’s phrasing, to feel the power of his artful repetitions (the words “rosewood” and “wetted ashes” repeatedly evoke the ghost of Stephen’s mother), and to see that he is trying to re-create the unpredictable fluidity of a mind in the act of thinking. She has now much more to say about the virtues of Ulysses. Joyce, she sees, is “attempting to do away with the machinery”--the deadening conventions of what she will call in her essay “materialist” fiction housed in a “first-class railway carriage”--and “extract the marrow.” Like Sterne, he is trying “to be more psychological--get more things into fiction” (MNJ 643). The “Hades” chapter seemed to her “perhaps the best thing” (MNJ 643), but she was also struck by Joyce’s manipulation of sight, sound, and sense in “Aeolus.” Comparing the chapter to a slow-motion film of a jumping horse, she says that “all pictures were a little made up before,” and also that “here is thought made phonetic--taken to bits” (MNJ 643), possibly referring to the passage in which Bloom translates the “sllt” of the printing press and the creaking of a door: “Almost human the way it sllt to call attention, asking to be shut. Doing its level best to speak. That door too is creaking, asking to be shut. Everything speaks in its own way” (U 7. 177-79).