Who The Hell is This James Joyce?
The HG Wells letter to Joyce after reading Finnegan’s Wake is a model of criticism crossed with humanity and humility.
James Joyce’s literary experiment, Finnegan’s Wake, gave the world a surreal composition that confounded most but fascinated all who opened a page (any page will do). It intrigued Herbert George Wells (or H.G. as he is better known). Still, after reflection, he felt the need to express his disappointment to Joyce without righteousness or disregard for Joyce’s talent (it appears Joyce was hoping for an endorsement from the great author).
Wells was no literary slouch. He was a best-selling author, social critic, scientist, futurist, who foretold the coming of aircraft, tanks, space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite television, and a primitive concept of the internet. Wells also wrote history, satire, biography, and was the father of science fiction (along with Frenchman Jules Verne) and wrote The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Wells was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times.
After reading, or as my Joyce teacher used to say, “studying,” Finnegan’s Wake, Wells wrote the following letter, an act of surrender, contrition, and criticism rolled into one.
Wells was a man of inestimable talent, but he knew his limits, and Joyce was either off his rocker or exceeded Wells’ ability to comprehend, but not appreciate. It is an astonishing self-reflection devoid of righteousness. We could profit from his approach today.
Letter from H.G. Wells to James Joyce
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.