James Joyce: Not a fan

9 Oct


I had to visit a bookshop earlier today, to buy a birthday present for a friend’s soon-to-be 4-year-old daughter. Now there’s a challenge. What do 4-year-olds read? They’re too young for Harry Potter, a teensy bit too young for much of Roald Dahl, and a tiny bit too old for The Gruffalo. See, if it was up to me I’d have bought her Jane Eyre and have done with it.

“There you go, my sweet. Come back to me when you’re 4-and-a-half with a 2000 word essay on Gothic and Byronic influences on the works of the Bronte sisters. Off you go.”

Anyway, in the end I settled for some sort of activity book because it was pink. At the checkout, the man in front of me was tapping his credit card impatiently on the counter, waiting for a member of staff to return. A minute or so later, said member of staff came bounding back, brandishing a weighty-looking green hardback.

“This is the only one we’ve got,” she said. “Is this okay?”

The man in front of me nodded, and then I saw what he was buying. The Complete Novels of James Joyce. I almost laughed.

I almost laughed because a gigantic, hardback doorstop containing the complete novels of James Joyce isn’t really a book; it’s a trophy. It’s doubtful the owner of said book will ever pluck it down from the shelf and, while sitting presumably in a wing-backed leather armchair, say to themselves, “Ahh… Finnegans Wake. ‘Riverrun, past Adam and Eve’s, from swerve of shore to bend…'” Firstly, because people don’t tend to read aloud to themselves, and secondly, because if you really wanted to actually read Finnegans Wake (and it’s quite beyond me why anyone would) you’d buyborrow or download Finnegans Wake. You know, so you could take it on the bus or the Tube, or on holiday, or to your nearest franchised coffee outlet. Unless you are built like a mid-1980s Jesse Ventura, there is no way you are taking The Complete Novels of James Joyce anywhere. Not when just picking it off the shelf could give you a hernia.


Jesse Ventura – “I ain’t got time to read.”

The practical difficulties of reading such a massive, weighty tome aside, I really can’t think why anyone would want a “complete” James Joyce anyway. Not when Finnegans Wake is unreadable tosh and Ulysses such a chore.

Now, enough people who I respect rate Ulysses very highly, so I’m not about to go slagging it off. Even though I’ve tried – and failed – to read it twice now, and on both occasions came to the conclusion that life is just too short. There are too many great novels that I will almost definitely enjoy for me to waste time wading through Joyce’s experiments, however many gems they may produce along the way. If there are so many little nuggets of genius in Ulysses, it’ll be the first Great Work of Literature I’d be happy to see abridged (or adapted into a Manga.)


Trans: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

So I’ll give Ulysses a free pass. I’ll write that one off as something I just don’t get, like The Smiths and most of Bob Dylan. Enough sensible people like it for me to sometimes think it’s my fault I don’t get it. Sometimes. But then, I remind myself that in his next novel (the aforementioned Finnegans Wake), Joyce lost the plot completely and produced something utterly unreadable, thereby birthing a cottage industry of literary critics all desperate to be the one who “gets” it. Or, in other words, the one person in the crowd who can see the Emperor’s golden robes.

“It’s meant to be read aloud…”

“It’s actually very witty, if you get it…”

Please. Fuck off. If I want to read something aloud, something spiky and experimental, I’ll opt for T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (it’ll take me about half an hour) and not 650 pages of James Joyce vanishing up his own arse. If I want something witty I’ll read P.G. Wodehouse or early Evelyn Waugh. There is nothing witty about “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoodenenthurnuk!” (That is an actual line from the first page of the novel.)

That line is one of three things:

  1. The sound of a famous novelist losing his mind.
  2. The sound of a famous novelist taking the piss out of critics and readers alike, chuckling to himself and saying, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this shit.”
  3. The sound of a famous novelist intentionally turning away his readers.

“What’s that?” I hear you ask. “A novelist intentionally turning readers away? Why would any writer do that?”

To answer this question, you have to understand something of the world, and the literary scene that James Joyce occupied. Joyce’s writing (like that of the other Modernists) comes from a time when the average bloke (or blokess) was becoming more literate. Education was improving. Publishers like Penguin were mass producing cheap copies of classic works. The Fortress of Bookchat was under siege from the great unwashed.

Nowadays, no left-leaning author or artist would dream of slagging off the working classes, but this was a different time. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine provides some insight into how many in the upper echelons viewed their blue collar brethren. Namely, as illiterate, subterranean, knuckle-dragging scum. Letting the Morlocks loose in the library would lead to disaster, surely. What was it Pope said?

“A little learning is a dangerous thing / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring…


“Do you have a copy of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’?”

So… How to bolt the library door, when most of what was inside could be read and understood by the hoi polloi? Any literate person can grasp a decent translation of Plato, or Cicero, or Chaucer. Great writing is never subterfuge. Ambiguity, yes, but never subterfuge. Until the Modernists. Suddenly, obscurity was the name of the game. The more obscure the reference, the more puzzling the turn of phrase, the more labyrinthine the plot, the more disjointed and spiky the prose, the better.

“This’ll show ’em. These grammar school boys and girls who’ve read a bit of George Eliot and think they can play with the big kids.”

And it wasn’t just Joyce or the Modernists playing this game. That creative obscurantism spread to every art form, and lasted decades. It’s still with us now. What else is the vast bulk of conceptual art but art for artists and critics? How often does somebody without an academic background in art, in practice or theory, walk into a gallery displaying a work of conceptual art and “get” it?


Conceptual art. Fucking seriously.

I’m not talking about experimental art. Good experimental art still communicates something, particularly if that experiment is successful. Earlier in his career, and as late as Ulysses, you could argue that Joyce was experimenting, and that sometimes it worked. Certainly, even as somebody who isn’t his number one fan, I’m aware of his influence when it comes to writing a character’s interior monologue, of trying to shift away from the “He thought/She thought” school of writing, of finding new, more subtle ways to get inside a character’s head. For all that, I’m grateful. But there’s a fine line, particularly in writing, between “experiment” and “gibberish”, and clearly Joyce crossed it. After Joyce, and particularly after Finnegans Wake, it became easier for writers who couldn’t actually write to string any old bollocks together and call it “stream of consciousness”, just as after Hemingway it became easy for any writer who couldn’t manage complex metaphors to pass their work off as “economical” and “understated”.

In the great scheme of things, Finnegans Wake is still a young novel. It’s only had a bus pass since 1999. It’s younger than Waugh’s Vile Bodies and Agatha Christie’s first seventeen Hercule Poirot novels. The works of art that survive longest in the public consciousness are often those that broke new ground, yes, but they are never those that tried to slam the door in the audience’s face.

And that is why I’m not a fan of Joyce.


David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.


4 Responses to “James Joyce: Not a fan”

  1. ILikeNotBeing AHugeFag November 28, 2014 at 6:39 am #

    …. and that is why you are a fucking idiot.

    • thedaillew November 28, 2014 at 8:15 am #

      You like not being a huge fag. I like not being a massive troll cunt. It’s as if we were made for one another.

  2. em September 29, 2015 at 5:05 pm #


    Is actually the word “thunder” in about a dozen different languages meshed together. There’s a bunch of them throughout the book to signify events/changes.

    Joyce spent 17 years writing FW with failing eyesight, going over the detail of every sentence meticulously to inject multi-layered puns, double meanings, anagrams, etc. I’m sure in the future when there’s a computer program invented to unscramble/clarify the book there we’ll know for sure if it has true meaning.

    I’m willing to bet it does, spending that much time on a literary joke or “fuck you” to the masses to destroy your legacy after having already written the masterpiece tour de force that is Ulysses just doesn’t make any sense. I think Joyce just got tired of conventional language and wanted to shoot for something entirely new and original. It’s safe to say the results are mixed.

  3. E.M. Cioran February 21, 2016 at 1:09 pm #

    It took Joyce 17 years to write ”Finnegans Wake”, may I ask how many years did you allocate reading his work? Because, if Joyce decided he needs 17 years to write such a novel, why would it take you anything less than that? I’m so tired of readers complaining about the so-called ”unreadable” books when they expect to run through it and comprehend all in a few weeks. Perhaps you should’ve read ”Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress” before giving your opinion on Joyce’s masterpiece.

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