03 October 2014

George Orwell about James Joyce's Ulysses

In 1933, George Orwell had managed to borrow a copy of Joyce's Ulysses which was only published in Paris, and  was being watched out for eagerly by those custodians of public morality. His Majesty's Inspectors of Customs and Excise. And in December he wrote Brenda Salkeld a huge letter, almost two thousand words, answering her 'What do you think Joyce is after?'. It could have been printed almost as it stood, a highly perceptive and interesting piece of critical writing. The book moved him deeply.

[to answer your question] one has got to decide what a novel normally sets out to do. I should say that it sets out first... to display or create a character, secondly to make a kind of pattern or design which any good story contains, and, thirdly, if the novelist is up to it, to produce good writing which can exist almost as it were in vacuo and independent of subject... I think Ulysses follows this scheme fairly closely, but the queer and original thing about it is that instead of taking as his material the conventional and highly simplified version of life presented in most novels, Joyce attempts to present life more or less as it is lived. Of course he is not trying merely to represent life. When Ulysses first came out one heard it said on every side that it was an attempt to describe a day in somebody’s life, leaving nothing out, etc. etc. It is not that. If one thinks, a complete description of a day, or even of an hour, would be simply an enormous omnium gatherum, quite formless and probably not at all interesting, and in any case would not convey the impression of life at all. Art implies selection and there is as much selection in Ulysses as in Pride and Prejudice. Only Joyce is attempting to select and represent events and thoughts as they occur in life and not as they occur in fiction.

Orwell shared Joyce’s scorn for those who write novels through reading other novels. He appreciated the formal structure of Ulysses more than most (many could not see it at all) and yet ‘quite apart from the different styles used to represent different manners of thought, the observation is in places marvellous.’ Some of the passages ‘have haunted me ever since reading them. If you read them aloud you will see that most of them are essentially verse.’
This Ulysses letter, while mainly it shows an enthusiast trying to define and convey his growing absorption in the mechanics and craft of fiction, yet also shows a potentiality for real critical ability — as came later in the great essays on Swift, Dickens and Henry Miller. But Ulysses proved nearly fatal to his own development as a novelist. Self-consciously and mechanically he wrote A Clergyman’s Daughter with ‘different styles used to represent different manners of thought’; and there are still elements of this, though less gross, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A year later he confided to Brenda:

I managed to get my copy of Ulysses through safely this time. I rather wish I had never read it. It gives me an inferiority complex. When I read a book like that and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production ... but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever.

The novel he was working on at that time which ‘instead of going forward goes backward with the most alarming speed’ was A Clergyman’s Daughter. Joyce stimulated Orwell as a critic but could have been disastrous to him as a writer, if his documentary plain style had not already emerged in Down and Out and was there to fall back upon, even to extend and still further purify.

(Source: Bernard Crick - George Orwell - A Life - Little, Brown and Company, Boston - 1980)

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