If we want life itself, here surely we have it” (E 4: 161).
But—and there is always a but–Woolf never praises Joyce without faulting him at the same time, even if she has to “fumble awkwardly” to do so.
Unlike the materialists, she writes, “Joyce is spiritual”–by which she evidently means a realist of human psychology rather than of the material world.
“At all costs,” she says, he aims to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its myriad messages through the brain, he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, though it be probability or coherence or any other of the handrails to which we cling for support when we set our imaginations free. with [Joseph Conrad’s] ‘Youth’ [Thomas Hardy’s] Jude the Obscure.
Faced, as in the Cemetery scene, by so much that, in its restless scintillations, in its irrelevance, in flashes of deep significance succeeded by incoherent inanities, seems to be life itself, we have to fumble rather awkwardly if want to say what else we wish; and for what reason a work of such originality yet fails to compare . It fails, one might say, because of the comparative poverty of the writer’s mind.” (E 3: 34).
What she missed in the work of Richardson—searching light on Miriam’s “hidden depths”—is precisely what she finds in the work of Joyce, who “aims to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its myriad messages through the brain” and who offers us “flashes of deep significance.” In the “Modern Fiction” version of this passage, Woolf amplifies her praise for what she calls the “brilliancy” of the “Hades” chapter: “on a first reading at any rate,” she says, “it is difficult not to acclaim it a masterpiece.The “Hades” chapter seemed to her “perhaps the best thing” (MNJ 643), but she was also struck by Joyce’s manipulation of sight, sound, and sense in “Aeolus.” Comparing the chapter to a slow-motion film of a jumping horse, she says that “all pictures were a little made up before,” and also that “here is thought made phonetic–taken to bits” (MNJ 643), possibly referring to the passage in which Bloom translates the “sllt” of the printing press and the creaking of a door: “Almost human the way it sllt to call attention, asking to be shut. She thinks that Bloom is the “editor of a paper” (MNJ 645) rather than an advertising canvasser repeatedly insulted by the editor, and she is still so revolted by Joyce’s indecency– especially by what she takes to be his implied claim that “indecency is more real than anything else”– that she asks herself, “Why not in fact leave out bodies? But she dimly perceives that what she calls indecency is precisely where the road of complete psychological realism leads.“So much seems to depend,” she writes, “on the emotional fibre of the mind it may be true that the subconscious mind dwells on indecency” (MNJ 643).We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives.” Was Woolf simply blind to such passages?In the magnificent garden of Joyce’s prose, could she see no more than a few noxious weeds? Even in writing to Fry she admits that Joyce is making an “interesting” experiment by replacing narrative with a stream of thoughts.Finally, though she thinks it “unfair to approach Joyce by way of his ‘method,’” which she calls “on the surface startling,” she thinks he is quite right to focus on the “big things” that must “perpetually” be seen and felt again: “love, death, jealousy and so on” (MNJ 645).To compare Woolf’s reading notes on Ulysses with her account of it in “Modern Novels” (TLS 10 April 1919) is to see her still struggling with her ambivalence–but doing so more artfully.Setting aside A La Recherche, which unequivocally captivated her, the long trail of references that Woolf made to Joyce and his novel in her letters, diaries, essays, and reading notes–up to 1922 and beyond– leave no doubt that the thought of his novel stalked her for years and made her feel acutely ambivalent. But shortly after Miss Weaver gave them the chapters, Woolf balked.It was not only far too long for their small press to manage–an “insuperable difficulty” for them, as she told Miss Weaver (L 2: 243); it was also–as she told others– indecent and boring.“Its interesting as an experiment;” she writes; “he leaves out the narrative, and tries to give the thoughts, but I don’t know that he’s got anything very interesting to say, and after all the p-ing of a dog isn’t very different from the p-ing of a man.Three hundred pages of it might be boring” (L 2: 234).