10 Authors on James Joyce


Happy birthday to literature’s modernist master, James Joyce. Writers are still finding devastatingly beautiful ways to describe the impact that the Ulysses author continues to have on their work, paying homage to one of the most innovative writers of the twentieth century. Here are ten authors on the Irish novelist’s work, life, and enduring influence.

Vladimir Nabokov

The Lolita author once called Joyce’s 1939 novel Finnegans Wake, “Punningans Wake,” and described it as “a cancerous growth of fancy word-tissue,” citing that the story “hardly redeems the dreadful joviality of the folklore and the easy, too easy, allegory.” Nabokov famously had mixed feelings about Joyce’s canon, but considered certain works, most notably Ulysses, brilliant. “You will enjoy the wonderfully artistic pages, one of the greatest passages in all literature, when Bloom brings Molly her breakfast. How beautifully the man writes!” Nabokov gushed in Lectures on Literature . The author even drew a map (below), tracking the paths Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom took through Dublin on June 16, 1904. To those who teach literature, Nabokov had a blunt suggestion: “Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.”

Martin Amis

The British novelist and Booker Prize A-lister believed Joyce was “blest with exquisite touch, with sumptuous feel, the drop shot that that drops dead on the clay,” but Amis was critical of the author all the same. “Joyce is a huge genius and no talent,” he said when visiting Pashkov House in Moscow last year. He elaborated on the scribe’s lack of love for the reader:

If you go to Nabokov’s house, metaphorically speaking, you get his best chair, in front of his fire, with his best wine. If you go to James Joyce’s house, you come into this big drafty edifice, and there’s no one there. And then you find him tinkering around in some scullery. And he offers you two slabs of peat around a conger eel, and a glass of mead.

Samuel Beckett

The Irish writer and playwright met Joyce when he was teaching in Paris. He considered Joyce a mentor. Beckett transcribed part of Finnegans Wake when Joyce’s eyesight started to fail, and his first published work was an essay defending Joyce’s writing. Beckett spoke extensively about his relationship with Joyce in an interview with James Knowlson, touching upon their first meeting, Joyce’s relationship with his father, and tending to him in the hospital:

When I first met Joyce, I didn’t intend to be a writer. That only came later when I found out that I was no good at all at teaching. When I found I simply couldn’t teach. But I do remember speaking about Joyce’s heroic achievement. I had a great admiration for him. That’s what it was: epic, heroic, what he achieved. I realized that I couldn’t go down that same road.

Joyce Carol Oates

On Ulysses, which Oates considers the greatest novel in the English language:

Many voices, many intonations; many narrators struggling to impose upon the world their own interpretations; an opera-like work that is best appreciated if read and reread, aloud if possible, with an awareness of the ‘jocoseriousness’ that underlies each passage. What does Ulysses mean… ? A fabulous artifice. A stratagem. A novel to complete the tradition of the novel. As Stephen instructs himself while trying to impress his skeptical audience in the National Library: ‘Local color. Work in all you know. Make them accomplices.’ Magnificent as it is structurally, it lives in its passages, its speeches, its moments of harmony and collision. Perhaps it is a masterpiece of gossip; Joyce might have been most pleased to hear his readers, so many decades later, still asking questions about his characters. Out of the din of so many voices there arises, irresistibly, a sense of the hilarious nature of the universe. Much is suggested, very little is actually stated. We come away from the novel as we are likely to come away from life itself, with numerous teasing, maddening, unanswerable questions.

Salman Rushdie

In 2001, Rushdie was interviewed by Dutch literary critic Margot Dijkgraaf about the book that most influenced him. He was more than happy to extol the beauty of Joyce’s Ulysses. “Joyce is always in my mind, I carry him everywhere with me,” he told Dijkgraaf. “In short, he built a universe out of a grain of sand. That was a revelation to me: so that is the way one could also write! To somebody who wanted to be a writer, like me, it was so perfect, so inspiring, that it made one need to recover. I have thought for some time: I quit writing, I become a lawyer. Later I thought that there may be some little things still worth doing.”

Cormac McCarthy

If Cormac McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation drives you batty, blame Joyce. When speaking to Oprah in 2008, McCarthy credited the author for his minimalist approach to “weird little marks.”

James Joyce is a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.

Watch the interview over here.

Zadie Smith

In an interview with Foyles, Smith spoke about Joyce as the ultimate realist and how it relates to her own work — particularly her 2012 novel, NW, which critic James Wood described as a work of “clear, realistic genius.”

Everything I do is an attempt to get close to the real, as I experience it, and the closer you get to the reality of experience the more bizarre it SHOULD look on the page and sound in the mouth because our real experience doesn’t come packaged in a neat three act structure. For me, Joyce is the ultimate realist because he is trying to convey how experience really feels. And he found it to be so idiosyncratic he needed to invent a new language for it. All I was trying to do in NW was tell fewer lies than last time, and it came out the way it came out.

Jacques Derrida

The French philosopher, who spent a year reading and studying Joyce’s Ulysses at Harvard, discussed the “paradoxical peculiarity of Joyce’s effect” and his enduring influence in the essay, Two Words for Joyce:

Here the event is of such plot and scope that henceforth you have only one way out: being in memory of him. You’re not only overcome by him, whether you know it or not, but obliged by him, and constrained to measure yourself against this overcoming. Being in memory of him: not necessarily to remember him, no, but to be in his memory, to inhabit his memory, which is henceforth greater than all your finite memory can, in a single instant or in a single vocable, gather up of cultures, languages, mythologies, religions, philosophies, sciences, history of mind and of literatures.

T. S. Eliot

“I hold [Ulysses] to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”

William Faulkner

While he was a student at the University of Mississippi, the Nobel Prize laureate met Joyce through his mentor, Philip Stone. Joyce became a huge influence on Faulkner’s work, perhaps most notably with the author’s high modernist epic, The Sound and the Fury. In early interviews with Faulkner, the As I Lay Dying author coyly opposed the notion that Joyce’s work fueled his own. Later in his career, Faulkner paid the father of modern literature his due: “James Joyce was one of the great men of my time. He was electrocuted by the divine fire.”