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After reading the chapters in about ten days, she told Lytton Strachey, “First there’s a dog that p’s–then there’s man that forths, and one can be monotonous even on that subject” (L 2: 234).The next day she sounded just a little less damning in a letter to Roger Fry.
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).
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.
(E 3: 33) In the revised version of “Modern Novels” that appeared as “Modern Fiction” in The Common Reader (1925), Woolf defines Joyce’s project more precisely.
“Examine for a moment,” she writes, “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day” to see how the myriad impressions that fall upon it “shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday” with “no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style.” But years before writing these words, when Ulysses was still a work in progress, Woolf had already divined its essence.From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, composing in their sum what we might venture to call life itself; and to figure further as the semi-transparent envelope, or luminous halo, surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.Is it not perhaps the chief task of the novelist to convey this incessantly varying spirit with whatever stress or sudden deviation it may display, and as little admixture of the alien and external as possible?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.She has now much more to say about the virtues of Ulysses. “For all I know,” she says, “every great book has been an act of revolution” (MNJ 644). His “need of dwelling so much on indecency” reveals an egotistical “indifference to public opinion” and “desire to shock” (MNJ 643). We don’t pretend to say what he’s trying to do” (MNJ 644).Joyce, she sees, is “attempting to do away with the machinery”–the deadening conventions of what she will call in her essay “materialist” fiction housed in a “first-class railway carriage”–and “extract the marrow.” Like Sterne, he is trying “to be more psychological–get more things into fiction” (MNJ 643). At the same time, when she starts to sketch out her essay and to prescribe the kind of “life” that she thinks modern fiction needs–“Something not necessarily leading to a plot. Like nearly all beginning readers of Ulysses, Woolf is befogged.About a year later, when she made notes on the first seven chapters of Ulysses in preparation for an essay on “Modern Novels” that appeared in the undoubted occasional beauty of his phrases.It is an attempt to get thinking into literature–hence the jumble. The repetition of words like rosewood and wetted ashes. She is beginning to hear the music of Joyce’s phrasing, to feel the power of his artful repetitions (the words “rosewood” and “wetted ashes” repeatedly evoke the ghost of Stephen’s mother), and to see that he is trying to re-create the unpredictable fluidity of a mind in the act of thinking. Caught between dawning admiration and stubborn aversion to his “indecency,” which she notes repeatedly, she does not know just what to make of him. Something perhaps not dramatic nor humorous, not tragic: just the quality of the day”–she seems to suspect, or fear, that Joyce is already filling the prescription. “And here we must make our position clear as bewildered, befogged.“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).