Modern Library ranks Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as number one and three on their list of Best Novels of the 20th Century; though in reality they are perhaps the least read and most attempted.
It’s easy to see why. Just casually browse through pages of Ulysses and Finnegan’s wake and feel the frustration and disinterest bursting in reaction to convoluted sentences, dense wordplay, stream of consciousness and whatever it is appearing in Finnegan’s Wake (though I would strongly recommend first-time readers his more approachable (and remarkable) collection of short stories, Dubliners).
Joyce did not write for universal appeal. Such a broad approach in life—not just literature—usually expels a bland product. The reader of Joyce is forced to absorb at a different pace, and even after finishing his works I feel as though I’ve only skimmed the surface of his irrefutable albeit at times, unnecessary, genius. But on the other hand, a lack of praise or interest in his work does not equate a lack of ability or forward thinking.
H.G Wells on Finnegan’s Wake
“Who the hell is Joyce to demand so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”
Virginia Woolf on Ulysses
“I finished Ulysses and think it is a misfire. Genius it has, I think; but of the inferior water. A first rate writer; I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts.”
But I wonder… a scene forms. A work mirroring the magnitude of Ulysses appears at the twilight of my career, when words have been defined, when prose can be spotlessly polished and structured but not reassessed and reinvented—how would I react to such a massive middle finger pointed right at my painfully cultivated foundation?
I don’t know.
Joyce shared with all great writers a common principle—that one must write with the assumption that a mind of equal intellect could extract adequate compensation. It stands the main motor for innovation and its disregard can thoroughly explain the lack of it.
But what of Hemingway, Chekov and Elmore Leonard? Are they mediocre because their prose is too lucid and bare? Of course not. Chekov and writers of his ilk produced such work as a reflection of their literary philosophies. To them it was innovation, the more clean and concise the prose the closer they felt to the ideal, to perfection!
It's common to hear that a person of true genius can make the vast and infinite easily digestible, but this approach to artistry often shackles the artist. As philosophers seek to find answers, it is their fate to only add further webs of confusion, a nuance to be used in second rate undergraduate essays comparing hypothetical points of view. The fate of the writer on the other hand, is one I refuse to explore (or accept).
But there are no answers to be found in literature—only labyrinths of mind unpuzzled by prose. This is why the act of reading is truly a collaborative effort. Moments of intense clarity and terror and bliss can only be discovered through life and things seen but not adequately processed.
James Joyce understood this perhaps more than anyone and used it to wildly push the pillars of prose--adding untold layers of complexity to further intensify the prospect of self-discovery. But some say he pushed too far, and that vast portions of his prose meant more to infuriate than illuminate. I still cannot say. His great shadow still looms over art. Much like Homer or Shakespeare before him; there is Joyce, and there is everyone else.