Virginia Woolf on James Joyce’s Ulysses, “Never Did Any Book So Bore Me.” Shen Then Quit at Page 200

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Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Goodreads, that social net­work for the book­ish, recent­ly post­ed on its blog the results of a sur­vey tak­en among its 20 mil­lion mem­bers with the melan­choly title “The Psy­chol­o­gy of Aban­don­ment.” Com­plete with info­graph­ic, the sur­vey gives us, among oth­er things, a list of the “Top Five Aban­doned Clas­sics.” James Joyce’s Ulysses is third on the list, and I’m not at all sur­prised to find it there. One must know Ulysses, it seems, to mer­it con­sid­er­a­tion as a cul­tur­al­ly lit­er­ate per­son. But Ulysses, per­haps more than any work of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture, can eas­i­ly dis­cour­age. It presents us with a land­scape so psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly com­plex, so dense with lit­er­ary and his­tor­i­cal allu­sion and con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al ref­er­ence, that I can­not say I would have known what to do with it had I not read it under the aus­pices of an august Irish Joyce schol­ar and with Don Gifford’s guide­book Ulysses Anno­tat­ed ready at hand. I had nowhere near the breadth and depth of read­ing Joyce seems to assume of his ide­al read­er. Few peo­ple do.

Two of Joyce’s con­tem­po­raries, how­ev­er, had such a grasp of lit­er­a­ture and lan­guage: T.S. Eliot and Vir­ginia Woolf. And the two had quite a lot to say about the book, much of it to each oth­er. Eliot rec­om­mend­ed Joyce’s nov­el to Woolf, and very soon after its 1922 pub­li­ca­tion, she pur­chased her own copy. At the time, Woolf was hard at work on her sto­ry “Mrs. Dal­loway on Bond Street,” which would even­tu­al­ly grow into her next nov­el, Mrs. Dal­loway. She was also immersed in Proust’s epic Remem­brance of Things Past, just begin­ning the sec­ond vol­ume. Accord­ing to Dartmouth’s James Hef­fer­nan, Woolf “chafes at the thought of Ulysses,” writ­ing haugh­ti­ly:

Oh what a bore about Joyce! 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.

Hef­fer­nan chron­i­cles Woolf’s read­ing of Ulysses, which she doc­u­ment­ed in her diary in a “with­er­ing assess­ment” as the work of “a self-taught work­ing man… ego­tis­tic, insis­tent, raw, strik­ing, & ulti­mate­ly nau­se­at­ing.” “When one can have cooked flesh,” she writes, “why have the raw?”

This pri­vate crit­i­cal opin­ion Woolf record­ed after read­ing only 200 pages of the nov­el. Hef­fer­nan makes the case that she read no more there­after. Though she claimed to have “fin­ished Ulysses,” he takes her to mean she had fin­ished with the book, putting it aside like those bewil­dered, bored, or exas­per­at­ed Goodreads mem­bers. Nev­er­the­less, Woolf could not shake Joyce. She con­tin­ued to write about him, to Eliot and her­self. “Nev­er did any book so bore me,” she would write, and many more very dis­parag­ing remarks about her bril­liant con­tem­po­rary.

Over and again she sav­aged Joyce in her diaries; so much so that it seems to Hef­fer­nan and Woolf schol­ar Suzette Henke that hers is a case of protest­ing too much against an author whom, Henke alleges, was her “artis­tic ‘dou­ble,’ a male ally in the mod­ernist bat­tle for psy­cho­log­i­cal real­ism.” This may indeed be so. In the midst of her char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of Joyce as uncouth, bor­ing, “under­bred” and worse, she admits in her diary that what she attempt­ed in her fic­tion was “prob­a­bly being bet­ter done by Mr. Joyce.” While hard­ly any read­er of Ulysses—among those who fin­ish it and those who don’t—can say they are attempt­ing some­thing near what he accom­plished, we might all find some solace in know­ing that a read­er as sharp as Vir­ginia Woolf found his mod­ernist mas­ter­piece either so bor­ing or so intim­i­dat­ing that even she may not have been able to fin­ish it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

On Blooms­day, Hear James Joyce Read From his Epic Ulysses, 1924

Read Ulysses Seen, A Graph­ic Nov­el Adap­ta­tion of James Joyce’s Clas­sic

Watch Pat­ti Smith Read from Vir­ginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Sur­viv­ing Record­ing of Woolf’s Voice

James Joyce’s Ulysses: Down­load the Free Audio Book (also find in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (20)
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  • Steve Lavell says:

    I’ve read Ulysses 3 times & con­sid­er it to be one of the 2 or 3 great­est nov­els ever writ­ten. In con­trast, Woolf’s Mrs. Dal­loway & To The Light­house were insipid grad school read­ing chores that I bare­ly recall any­thing about 15 years lat­er. In all fair­ness to her, how­ev­er, Ulysses is a very dif­fi­cult book with­out sup­ple­men­tary mate­ri­als — the plot sum­ma­ry by Blamires is prac­ti­cal­ly indis­pens­able.

  • Ed Higginbotham says:

    I think I would go the “protests too much” route here. A major chunk of _Dalloway_ reads like the “Wan­der­ing Rocks” episode in _Ulysses_. I’m cer­tain­ly not accus­ing Woolf of pla­gia­rism, but nas­ti­ness towards Joyce could indi­cate defen­sive­ness over the clear sim­i­lar­i­ty.

  • Christian Einshoj says:

    In his excel­lent and rec­om­mend­able book “Old Mas­ters and Young Genius­es”, David Galen­son makes the case that the rea­son Wool got “puz­zled, bored, irri­tat­ed & dis­il­lu­sioned as by a queasy under­grad­u­ate scratch­ing his dim­ples” when read­ing Ulysses, was that she were an exper­i­men­tal artist, and Joyce an con­cep­tu­al one. Two, in Galen­son’s opin­ion, incom­pat­i­ble views on art.nnHis idea in short:nn

  • Margaret Rose STRINGER says:

    In my VERY hum­ble opin­ion, Ulysses is one of that range of books that can only be claimed as ‘enjoy­able’ by intel­lec­tu­als. Define the word as you will.nMy own def­i­n­i­tion has me well on the out­er: hav­ing read excerpts, I would­n’t even pick it up.nI like my read­ing to chal­lenge me, yes (although not always): but there are chal­lenges and there are con­fronta­tions. I hon­est­ly don’t see how a per­son of nor­mal intel­li­gence, or even above, can get through Ulysses and claim to have com­pre­hend­ed it.

  • Mr. Higgs-Bosun Blues says:

    Her books will be (and basi­cal­ly are being) used as doorstops, while every scrap of paper that Joyce used to wipe his ass is saved as a rel­ic. In a hun­dred years nobody will even care who she was, and basi­cal­ly thatu00b4s the real def­i­n­i­tion of poet­ic jus­tice.

  • Mrs Breen says:

    Well she did read 200 pages you have to give her cred­it where cred­it is due.

  • John Conolley says:

    I man­aged a few pages of Ulysses. I agree with Wolfe. Raw, even ama­teur­ish. Unread­able.

  • John Harrison says:

    This is an infu­ri­at­ing attempt to rob Woolf of the author­i­ty of an opin­ion and sit­u­ate her as jeal­ous and rev­er­ent of Joyce. This is such macho bull­shit. Why is it nec­es­sary to under­take this project of prov­ing that Vir­ginia Woolf did not mean what she said about Joyce but rather was as ador­ing as the author of this arti­cle and the com­menters on it? I love Ulysses but I accept her author­i­ty and respect her intel­lect and believe that she does­n’t love Ulysses.

  • april month cruelest dead land says:

    I’m afraid you know noth­ing about Vir­ginia Woolf or her posi­tion in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture if you think her books are being used as doorstops. Please desist from think­ing your opin­ion is worth a damn.

  • Bovary says:

    ‘Ulysses’ by is a work of a man with under­ly­ing schiz­o­phrenic for­mal thought dis­or­der . He man­aged to con many peo­ple into believ­ing that he was that super genius and they were just not intel­li­gent enough to com­pre­hend it.
    Just a trick­ster he was, that’s all. This emper­or has no clothes! His daugh­ter paid the ulti­mate price and went mad for both of them.

    Noth­ing wrong with your intel­li­gence, man.

    Gvhufgfghvjc­n­hghh, Joyce

  • Kelly Anspaugh says:

    I promise you Woolf did not quit read­ing at page 200. She fin­ished the book. It was like an atom bomb going off in her world. She was extreme­ly threat­ened by it, by the immen­si­ty of its genius. She made a series of demean­ing com­ments about Joyce, imply­ing he was vul­gar, low class (“Like a queasy under­grad­u­ate, scratch­ing his pim­ples … ”) and worst of all IRISH. Then she wrote “Mrs. Dal­loway” which, struc­tural­ly and the­mat­i­cal­ly, is a “Ulysses” in minia­ture, as many a schol­ar has observed.

    Woolf was a great writer (I wrote my Mas­ter’s the­sis on “To the LIght­house”) but was also very human, capa­ble of envy and snob­bery and pet­ti­ness. You see all of that in her let­ters and diary entries on Joyce and “Ulysses.” Her reac­tion to the book and its author a clas­sic illus­tra­tion of Harold Bloom’s “anx­i­ety of influ­ence.”

  • Kelly Anspaugh says:

    Methinks you are con­fus­ing James Joyce with Don­ald Trump.

  • S Chandler says:

    I was unable to read Ulysses until I found myself stay­ing in Sanaa, Yemen for some weeks, where Ulysses become the best escape lit­er­a­ture EVER. I savoured every minute of Leopol­do and Molly’s Dublin. You have to WANT to read Ulysses.

  • Dan Hisir says:

    Must con­fess I havent read either Uly­ses or any­thing by Woolf but intend to. From what I know of Joyce’s “The Dublin­ers” with themes of lost inno­cence, missed oppor­tu­ni­ties and an inabil­i­ty to escape one’s cir­cum­stances, I did like him. Now I must read Woolf start­ing with the much men­tioned Mrs. Dal­loway.

  • Edward Richardson says:

    Hel­lo penis envy… hel­lo Gertrude Stein! Look, you get to be crit­i­cal, and Wyn­d­ham Lewis wrote the best unvar­nished crit­i­cal review of “Ulysses” out there — but you only get to be crit­i­cal once or twice. After that, it’s some­thing else. Women are not made for art, and I think val­i­da­tion issues are at play. Get your first nov­el trashed by crit­ics, your head goes into an oven (Plath). Men han­dle these things eas­i­er, they’re already man­i­cal­ly objec­tive. Here’s how many pub­lish­ers reject­ed “Ulysses,” which Joyce took 7 years to write: ALL OF THEM. Woolf’s dis­missal and lying about “fin­ish­ing” the nov­el is snob­bish. It smacks of the con­sti­pat­ed Edwar­dian prud­ery of the Blooms­bury group that Wyn­d­ham Lewis sav­ages in “Apes of God” (He called Woolf’s inte­ri­or mono­logue an “under­grad­u­ate imi­ta­tion” of Joyce’s). Proust, anoth­er writer to the manor born, was more her speed. Fine wine not whisky. I think the fol­low­ing account of the one time Joyce and Proust met sums up why Woolf admired Proust:

    “The Ulysses author remem­bered that their “talk con­sist­ed sole­ly of the word ‘No.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc du so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’” Proust was asked if he’d read Ulysses, and like­wise replied in the neg­a­tive. “The sit­u­a­tion,” Joyce remem­bered, “was impos­si­ble.” Oth­er guests remem­bered the meet­ing sim­i­lar­ly.”

    Proust and Woolf can name-drop the blue­bloods, but Joyce was the Mod­ernist Prince of Paris. And that can threat­en a woman miffed that he gets all the atten­tion:

    (Gertrude Stein) did not want to talk about Anderson’s works any more than she would about Joyce. If you brought up Joyce twice, you would not be invit­ed back. It was like men­tion­ing one gen­er­al favor­ably to anoth­er gen­er­al.
    – Ernest Hem­ing­way, A Move­able Feast

  • Rebecca says:

    You’re awful

  • Steve Carey says:

    I like the notion of a ‘queasy under­grad­u­ate scratch­ing his dim­ples (sic).’ A much more engag­ing image than the non-pre­dic­tive-text affect­ed ‘pim­ples.’

  • Michael says:

    I have real­ly enjoyed the cut and thrust of the com­ments thus far. I come down on the side of Joyce being a genius. But being Dublin born at the Rotun­da I have to own to some bias.

  • Elizabeth Madden says:

    This woman is severe­ly over­rat­ed as a writer, IMO, and her opin­ions show her to be an igno­rant snob, who was also deeply jeal­ous of those such as Joyce and Tom Eliot, who were far above her in terms of intel­lect and cre­ativ­i­ty. She writes about a nar­row milieu of soci­ety, and her writ­ing of male char­ac­ters is very poor indeed. She was hap­py to bor­row, or steal from her fel­low writ­ers, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dis­miss­ing them and their works. And now, so many of her ardent Fem­i­nist fol­low­ers raise her to the sta­tus of an idol, and say she is a *role mod­el for all women*-but for which women, exact­ly? She was not exact­ly a friend of her fel­low female writ­ers: both the Brontes and Mrs.Gaskell were vic­tims of her waspish dis­missals of their tal­ent. I real­ly wish that peo­ple would wake up to the fact that she is a sec­ond-rate writer, and that is the end of the mat­ter.

  • martin cure says:

    these com­ments are so painful. haven’t read ulysses and nev­er will!

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