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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.
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.
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).Let us not take it for granted that life exists more in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small” (E 3: 33-34). which endlessly reflects and distorts the variegated process. This critique of Richardson’s novel appeared in the TLS on February 13, 1919.In this light, we should also beware of taking for granted that Woolf’s turn to stream of consciousness in her fiction was chiefly prompted by her reading of Dorothy Richardson, whose novel Pointed Roofs (1915) introduced to English fiction what was first called “stream of consciousness.” In reviewing Richardson’s The Tunnel (1919), Woolf herself noted that it cuts away all the traditional architecture of narration to reveal “the consciousness of Miriam Henderson . Less than two months later, again in the pages of TLS, Woolf’s salute to Joyce’s way of tracking consciousness shows that she had already found in his work precisely what she missed in Richardson’s—as well as in that of the materialists.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.(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?Though Henke’s transcription of Woolf’s reading notes was published in 1990, and though she and several other scholars have marshalled extensive evidence for the influence of Ulysses on the composition of Mrs. I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.Dalloway, Henke herself has recently reported that in conference presentations at least, scholars still cite Woolf’s letters and diaries “to prove her animosity toward Joyce.” Students of modern British fiction clearly owe a debt to Henke for publicizing Woolf’s reading notes as well as for her untiring efforts to correct a widespread misunderstanding of Woolf’s views about Joyce. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped–and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? The pleasure becomes physical–like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.