In the mid-1920s, a decade prior to the release of James Joyce's final novel, Finnegans Wake, extracts of what was then known as his “Work in Progress” were being published in journals and passed around literary circles, to a largely baffled audience. (If you’ve never read, or attempted to read Finnegans Wake, a quick look at its opening episode is advised.)
Below are two equally interesting letters written in response to those early glimpses, the first sent to Joyce in 1928 by an unimpressed H. G. Wells; the second written in the style of Finnegan’s Wake a few months later by a Russian MIT graduate named Vladimir Dixon, a mysterious figure who for decades afterwards was believed by many, including Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach, to be Joyce himself.
(Sources: James Joyce’s World & The Oxford Book of Letters; Image: James Joyce in 1934, via.)
November 23, 1928
My dear Joyce:
I’ve been studying you and thinking over you a lot. The outcome is that I don’t think I can do anything for the propaganda of your work. I have enormous respect for your genius dating from your earliest books and I feel now a great personal liking for you but you and I are set upon absolutely different courses. Your training has been Catholic, Irish, insurrectionary; mine, such as it was, was scientific, constructive and, I suppose, English. The frame of my mind is a world wherein a big unifying and concentrating process is possible (increase of power and range by economy and concentration of effort), a progress not inevitable but interesting and possible. That game attracted and holds me. For it, I want a language and statement as simple and clear as possible. You began Catholic, that is to say you began with a system of values in stark opposition to reality. Your mental existence is obsessed by a monstrous system of contradictions. You may believe in chastity, purity and the personal God and that is why you are always breaking out into cries of cunt, shit and hell. As I don’t believe in these things except as quite personal values my mind has never been shocked to outcries by the existence of water closets and menstrual bandages — and undeserved misfortunes. And while you were brought up under the delusion of political suppression I was brought up under the delusion of political responsibility. It seems a fine thing for you to defy and break up. To me not in the least.
Now with regard to this literary experiment of yours. It’s a considerable thing because you are a very considerable man and you have in your crowded composition a mighty genius for expression which has escaped discipline. But I don’t think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men — on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence, and you have elaborated. What is the result? Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. Take me as a typical common reader. Do I get much pleasure from this work? No. Do I feel I am getting something new and illuminating as I do when I read Anrep’s dreadful translation of Pavlov’s badly written book on Conditioned Reflexes? No. So I ask: Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?
All this from my point of view. Perhaps you are right and I am all wrong. Your work is an extraordinary experiment and I would go out of my way to save it from destructive or restrictive interruption. It has its believers and its following. Let them rejoice in it. To me it is a dead end.
My warmest wishes to you Joyce. I can’t follow your banner any more than you can follow mine. But the world is wide and there is room for both of us to be wrong.
A LITTER TO MR. JAMES JOYCE
27 Avenue de l’Opéra, Paris I.
Dear Mister Germ’s Choice,
in gutter dispear I am taking my pen toilet you know that, being Leyde up in bad with the prewailent distemper (I opened the window and in flew Enza), I have been reeding one half ter one other the numboars of “transition” in witch are printed the severeall instorments of your “Work in Progress”.
you must not stink I am attempting to ridicul (de sac!) you or to be smart, but I am so disturd by my inhumility to onthorstand most of the impslocations constrained in your work that (although I am by nominals dump and in fact I consider myself not brilliantly ejewcatered but stil of above Avveroege men’s tality and having maid the most of the oporto unities I kismet) I am writing you, dear mysterre Shame’s Voice, to let you no how bed I feeloxerab out it all.
I am uberzeugt that the labour involved in the compostition of your work must be almost supper humane and that so much travail from a man of your intellacked must ryeseult in somethink very signicophant. I would only like to know have I been so strichnine by my illnest white wresting under my warm Coverlyette that I am as they say in my neightive land “out of the mind gone out” abd unable to combprehen that which is clear or is there really in your work some ass pecked which is Uncle Lear?
please froggive my t’Emeritus and any inconvince that may have been caused by this litter.
Yours veri tass