Woolf's Reading of Joyce's Ulysses, 1922-1941

In February of 1922, just after James Joyce‘s Ulysses appeared, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister Vanessa, who was then in Paris: “for Gods sake make friends with Joyce. I particularly want to know what he’s like.”[1] So it is not surprising to learn that by mid-April of 1922, ten weeks after the publication of Ulysses in Paris, she had bought her own blue-bound copy for the (then) hefty sum of £4 even while working on a long story–“Mrs. Dalloway on Bond Street”–that would eventually become part of her next novel.[2]

Woolf’s writing plans thus intersect with her reading agenda. On April 14, in the same letter to T.S. Eliot in which she reports her purchase of Ulysses, she tells Eliot that she hopes to finish her story in three to six weeks, that she wants him to edit it mercilessly when it is done, that Leonard has started reading Ulysses, and that as soon as she herself does likewise, “your critical reputation will be at stake” (L 2: 521).  With all its archness, this statement has telling implications. While eager to trust Eliot’s judgement of her own work, she will now test his judgment of Ulysses.  Furthermore, though she had already read its first four chapters twice and its next four chapters once and briefly assessed all eight of them in print, she sounds like someone plunging into Ulysses for the first time.  At some level, one suspects, she seems to be asking Eliot to stop rhapsodizing about Joyce and start paying more attention to her. But in any case, her statement about Eliot’s “critical reputation” plainly reveals the mindset that she now brings to the novel as a whole. She is predisposed to find it undeserving of Eliot’s praise. On the same day of her letter to Eliot about it, she writes more candidly to her brother-in-law Clive Bell: “Leonard is already 30 pages deep. I look, and sip, and shudder” (L 2: 522).

Later in this same April, Ulysses was reviewed by two literary figures whom Woolf knew well: John Middleton Murry and Arnold Bennett. Whether or not she saw these reviews, each judged the novel an amalgam of lead and gold.[3] Murry thought Joyce’s intention “completely anarchic” but also hailed “the intensity of life” to be found in the book and Joyce’s “very great achievement” in rendering “all the thoughts” of his characters with the comic force of “transcendental buffoonery.”[4] Bennett found the novel pervasively dull and “more indecent . . . than the majority of professedly pornographic books” but also “dazzlingly original,” and for all its indecency, Molly’s monologue struck him as “immortal” and “magical” in its “utterly convincing realism” (Deming 1: 220-21). Meanwhile, Woolf saw Joyce as nothing but an irksome distraction from her reading of Marcel Proust. On June 5, having started reading the second volume of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, she chafes at the thought of Ulysses: “Oh what a bore about Joyce!” she writes, “just as I was devoting myself to Proust–Now I must put aside Proust–and what I suspect is that Joyce is one of those undelivered geniuses, whom one can’t neglect, or silence their groans, but must help them out, at considerable pains to oneself” (L 2: 533).

The task of reading Ulysses has now become an obstetrical ordeal, with Woolf herself as midwife for a book that–she seems to think–cannot be born without her help. Perhaps she is thinking of what she has already written about its early chapters in “Modern Novels.” But for now, the only further help she can offer is simply to read the book. “Thank God,” she tells her diary in late August, “I need not write about it.”[5] But shortly before, on August 16, when she was “laboriously dredging [her] mind” for her story about Mrs. Dalloway, she confided to her diary her own withering assessment of the two hundred pages she had read so far:
I . . . have been amused, stimulated, charmed interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters–to the end of the Cemetery scene; & then puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom, great Tom, thinks this on a par with War & Peace! An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating. When one can have 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. (D 2: 188-89)
Thus the critic plants her stick. Since page 200 of the first edition of Ulysses ends a few pages short of the end of Chapter 9 (precisely at line 906 in Gabler’s edition), not even Stephen’s impassioned vivisection of Hamlet led her to read further, much less to Chapter 13 and the wooden stick with which a glum Leopold Bloom starts to write in the sand a message about himself for Gerty McDowell; when he stops after “I AM A” and throws the stick away, it falls in the sand, “stuck,”[6] a grim sign of the psychic paralysis that threatens him as he thinks: “Better not stick here all night like a limpet” (U 13. 1211). Woolf is no Bloom, but her late-August letters show that she herself remained stuck at page 200 until at least the 26th (ten days after writing the above), when she told Lytton Strachey what she thought of “the first 200 pages”:
Never did I read such tosh. As for the first 2 chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th–merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges. Of course genius may blaze out on page 652 but I have my doubts. And this is what Eliot worships . . . (L 2: 551)
Ten days stuck on page 200 of Ulysses have sharpened not her critical sagacity but her animus against its author. Having snobbishly fabricated a picture of Joyce (who held a university degree in modern languages) as a raw, egotistical, self-taught, underbred workingman, she now sees him as a pimply-faced bootboy oozing tosh. Forgetting or discarding her public praise of Ulysses and particularly of Chapter 6, she treats it with nothing but scorn–or at best pity. A few days before writing the above, she had told Lady Ottoline Morrell that “the poor young man” (precisely eight days younger than she, as already noted) “has only got the dregs of a mind compared with George Meredith” and that beside Henry James he is an intellectual featherweight. “They say,” she went on, “it gets a little heavier. It is true that I prepared myself, owing to Tom [Eliot], for a gigantic effort; and behold, the bucket is almost empty” (L 2: 548).

She had already used this trope of her own work. A few days earlier, she had told her diary that in her “laborious dredging . . . for Mrs Dalloway” [her story, that is] she was “bringing up light buckets” (D 2: 189). Having begun to suspect–as noted above–that Joyce was probably beating her at her own game, how could she avoid measuring herself against him or, more precisely, wanting to find his buckets just as light as hers? And could she finish her story or turn it into another novel of her own so long as this strange new giant of literature cast his shadow before her? The answer, I think, is no. To go on writing, she had to stop reading Ulysses. I believe that she stopped at page 200 and then did all she could to drive it from her mind. On August 26 she tells her diary: “I dislike Ulysses more & more–that is think it more & more unimportant; & dont even trouble conscientiously to make out its meanings. Thank God, I need not write about it” (D 2: 195-96). By this she clearly meant that she would write no more about it for publication, since she did indeed have a few more things to say in private. On September 3, eight days after last reporting that she had read just 200 pages, she tells her diary, “I should be reading the last immortal chapter of Ulysses: but I’m hot with Badmington [sic] in the orchard . . . we dine in 35 minutes; & I must change” (D 2: 197).[7] And three days later she tells her diary, “I finished Ulysses” (D 2: 199).

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