H.G. Wells Reads Finnegans Wake & Tells James Joyce: It’s “A Dead End,” “You Have Turned Your Back on Common Men” (1928)


Images via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I first heard the phrase “ter­mi­nal aes­thet­ic” in a class on T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who col­lab­o­rat­ed on the final ver­sion of Eliot’s post World War I edi­fice, The Waste Land. That poem, went the argu­ment, trav­eled so far out on the edge, with its frag­ment­ed lan­guage and incon­gru­ous lit­er­ary and his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences, that it couldn’t pos­si­bly serve as a basis for new forms of writ­ing. Instead, Eliot had walked to the end of a promon­to­ry, and plant­ed a flag to mark a cre­ative and, per­haps, spir­i­tu­al dead end.

I’m not sure I agree, but the idea has always fas­ci­nat­ed me, that a work of art could be so rar­i­fied, so ahead of its read­ers, so idio­syn­crat­ic, inac­ces­si­ble, and strange, that it might escape all attempts at imi­ta­tion and domes­ti­ca­tion. There may be no greater exam­ple of such a project than James Joyce’s final work, Finnegans Wake. For all the admi­ra­tion and obses­sion it has inspired, for the many artists who have learned from this strange book (includ­ing, notably, A Clock­work Orange’s Antho­ny Burgess), it remains for near­ly all of us, in the words of H.G. Wells, a repos­i­to­ry of “vast rid­dles.”

Wells wrote to Joyce in 1928, regard­ing what was then sim­ply known as the Irish author’s “Work in Progress.” Excerpts were just then appear­ing piece­meal in jour­nals and being “passed around in lit­er­ary cir­cles,” writes Let­ters of Note,” to a large­ly baf­fled audi­ence.” It seems that Wells had been asked—perhaps by Joyce himself—to offer pub­lic com­ment or a blurb of some sort. He declined. “I’ve been study­ing you and think­ing over you a lot,” he begins. “The out­come is that I don’t think I can do any­thing for the pro­pa­gan­da of your work.”

Wells pro­fess­es a “great per­son­al lik­ing” for Joyce, but then details the “absolute­ly dif­fer­ent cours­es” their lives and thought had tak­en: “Your men­tal exis­tence is obsessed by a mon­strous sys­tem of con­tra­dic­tions,” Wells writes, and elab­o­rates with some dis­taste on Joyce’s scat­o­log­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal obses­sions. Then he turns to the work at hand, which would become Finnegans Wake:

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… 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. 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?

A fair enough ques­tion, I sup­pose, and fair enough critique—one we might expect from the self-described “sci­en­tif­ic, con­struc­tive” mind of Wells. “To me,” he writes, “it is a dead end.”

Finnegans Wake con­tin­ues to baf­fle and frus­trate con­tem­po­rary read­ers, and writ­ers like Michael Chabon, who once described it as “hulk­ing, chimeri­cal, gib­ber­ing to itself in an out­landish tongue, a fright­en­ing beast out of leg­end.” Does Finnegans Wake speak to us com­mon read­ers, or does it “gib­ber” only to itself, leav­ing the rest of us behind? Like Ulysses, it’s best to tra­verse the book with a guide. Burgess has writ­ten a few (and has even auda­cious­ly abridged the nov­el). We must also remem­ber that Finnegans Wake is as much about sound as sense, and should be heard as well as read. (Hear Joyce him­self read from the nov­el here.)

Then there are the “frac­tal” expli­ca­tions of the nov­el, like Ter­rence McKenna’s and that of a recent sci­en­tif­ic study of its “mul­ti­frac­tal­i­ty.” I doubt any of this would have moved Wells, who demand­ed a clar­i­ty of thought and expres­sion that was anath­e­ma to the lat­er Joyce, immersed as he was in a project to dis­as­sem­ble the roots and branch­es of lan­guage and his­to­ry and repur­pose them for his own means. For all his puz­zle­ment over Joyce’s “exper­i­ment,” how­ev­er, Wells does seem to have found exact­ly the right word to cap­ture Joyce’s rad­i­cal lit­er­ary aims, describ­ing the writer of Ulysses and the inscrutable Finnegans Wake as “insur­rec­tionary.”

Read Wells’ full let­ter at Let­ters of Note, who also bring us a let­ter from a “Vladimir Dixon,” writ­ten in imi­ta­tion of Finnegans Wake, and pos­si­bly penned by Joyce him­self.

via The Paris Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Joyce Reads ‘Anna Livia Plura­belle’ from Finnegans Wake

Hear All of Finnegans Wake Read Aloud: A 35 Hour Read­ing

James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Gets Turned into an Inter­ac­tive Web Film, the Medi­um It Was Des­tined For

H.G. Wells Pans Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis in a 1927 Movie Review: It’s “the Sil­li­est Film”

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

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