25 Writers, Artists and Critics on James Joyce


In case you haven’t been trolling the literary blogs in the past week, we are happy to inform you that today is Bloomsday, the unofficial international holiday dedicated to canonical Irish writer James Joyce, and more specifically, to his most famous work, Ulysses. Though he has many enthusiastic fans (the man died over 70 years ago and still has young ladies dancing in the streets once a year to celebrate his life), he has always been a controversial figure in critical and social circles. For our own mini celebration of Bloomsday, we’ve put together a collection of some of our favorite quotes about the great writer and his work — some so flattering they read like silver-tongued worship, and some, well, significantly less flattering. Click through to read a cacophony of famous figures sounding off on James Joyce, and then get out there and decide on his merit for yourself.

“Joyce has a most goddamn wonderful book. It’ll probably reach you in time. Meantime the report is that he and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week…The damned Irish, they have to moan about something or other…” — Jack Kerouac, in a letter to Sherwood Anderson, after reading Ulysses

“Mr. James Joyce is a great man who is entirely without taste.” – Rebecca West

“As for Joyce, he treated people invariably as his equals, whether they were writers, children, waiters, princesses, or charladies. What anybody had to say interested him; he told me that he had never met a bore.” — Sylvia Beach

“And Joyce was a poor sick fucker who probably died with his balls somewhere up around his navel. None of that for me, thanks.” — Hunter S. Thompson, in a letter to Lionel Olay (16 February 1962)

“I guess the man’s a genius, but what a dirty mind he has, hasn’t he?” – Nora Joyce (née Barnacle), Joyce’s wife

“Joyce is always in my mind, I carry him everywhere with me.” — Salman Rushdie

“I declare to god, if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob.” — Flann O’Brien

Ulysses, of course, is a divine work of art and will live on despite the academic nonentities who turn it into a collection of symbols or Greek myths. I once gave a student a C-minus, or perhaps a D-plus, just for applying to its chapters the titles borrowed from Homer while not even noticing the comings and goings of the man in the brown mackintosh. He didn’t even know who the man in the brown mackintosh was. Oh, yes, let people compare me to Joyce by all means, but my English is pat ball to Joyce’s champion game.” — Vladimir Nabokov [It’s worth noting that Nabokov simply hated Finnegans Wake]

“He’s a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” — Virginia Woolf

“James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can.” — Samuel Beckett

“Shakespeare said pretty well everything and what he left out, James Joyce, with a judge from meself, put in.” – Brendan Behan

“If our society should go to smash tomorrow (which, as Joyce implies, it may) one could find all the pieces, together with the forces that broke them, in Finnegans Wake.” — Joseph Campbell

“Why don’t you write books people can read?” — Nora Joyce, to her husband.

“You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.” — Samuel Beckett on Finnegans Wake.

“[Joyce] had the necessary courage, perseverance, inner strength, and energy of mind — any one of which might easily have been insufficient — to overcome all obstacles, all suffering, and to attain perfection. When his work comes to be judged according to its true value, as posterity will judge it, it will appear overwhelming, if only because of the crushing labour that it obviously represents, and one man’s life will seem to have been conceived on too small a scale in comparison with the immensity of the effort involved.” — Paul Leon

“James Joyce — an essentially private man who wished his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognized.” – Tom Stoppard

“He single-handedly killed the 19th century.” — T. S. Eliot, after reading Ulysses

Ulysses is not mainstream, nor was it ever meant to be. When people claim Joyce had his eye on posterity, that is true, but it was intellectual posterity he was after, not mass approval.” — John Banville

“That James Joyce is indeed a black Irishman, wreaking a vengeance, even wilder than the I.R.A.’s, on the English language from within, invading the territory of its sanitary ego-presumptions with a flood of impure, dark languages flowing from the damned up sources of collective speech, savagely drowning the ego of the traditional speaker and depositing the property of words in everybody, in the total human community of those who speak and have spoken and shall speak.” — Carlos Fuentes

“People say of of James Joyce that he looks both sad and tired. He does look sad and he does look tired, but it is the sadness of a man who has procured some medieval permission to sorrow out of time and and in no place; the weariness of one self-subjected to the creation and over abundance in the limited.” — Djuna Barnes

“To call this man angry is too temperate a word, he was volcanic.” — Edna O’Brien

When he reads Ulysses “and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production and can pass himself off fairly well as a bass or a baritone, but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever.” — George Orwell

“My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.” — D.H. Lawrence

“Joyce is good. He is a good writer. People like him because he is incomprehensible and anybody can understand him. But who came first, Gertrude Stein or James Joyce? Do not forget that my first great book, Three Lives, was published in 1908. That was long before Ulysses. But Joyce has done something. His influence, however, is local. Like Synge, another Irish writer, he has had his day.” — Gertrude Stein. (Joyce’s response after hearing about this comment: “I hate intellectual women.”)

Ulysses could have done with a good editor.” — Roddy Doyle

Finnegans Wake is “a 628-page collection of erudite gibberish indistinguishable to most people from the familiar word salad produced by hebephrenic patients on the back wards of any state hospital.” — Hervey Cleckley

“A poor dotty Irishman called James Joyce, who was thought to be a great influence in my youth… wrote absolute rot.” — Evelyn Waugh