Joyce and H. G. Wells

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A little teaser from my Joyce Summer School lecture next week. I’m going to be talking about all kinds of things in my paper – Irishness, Yeats, astronomy, entropy, aliens – but I keep touching on connections between Joyce and Wells, a relationship that might surprise people. What would an obscure modernist author, whose ‘plotlessness’ my students are always reminding me of, have to do with a popular science fiction writer? Turns out, more than you’d think.

Joyce’s fame got its start from Wells’s review of ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. In it, he simultaneously praises the novel ‘as a book to buy and read and lock up, but it is not a book to miss’, criticizing Joyce’s ‘cloacal obsession’ (referring to his twin obsessions with sexuality and with human waste). The book must be read, but also locked up afterwards in case innocents happen upon it.  He also, as Joe Brooker has pointed out, focuses on the Irishness of the work in a way that is both excessive and prescient of the later re-Irishishing of Joyce’s work. This emphasis on Irishness was bold in a period when people like Pound (who had pressed Wells for the review) were emphasising Joyce’s ‘universalism’ – which necessarily meant ignoring its political content. Politics is crucial for both Joyce and Wells – Wells was an outspoken socialist, and Joyce went through a phase of passionate socialism in his youth.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the review opens with a discussion of the relationship of literature and science:

An eminent novelist was asked recently by some troublesome newspaper what he thought of the literature of 1916. He answered publicly and loudly that he had heard of no literature in 1916; for his own part he had been reading “science.” This was kind neither to our literary nor our scientific activities. It was not intelligent to make an opposition between literature and science. It is no more legitimate than an opposition between literature and “classics” or between literature and history.

Why does Wells talk this way about literature and science in a review of Joyce’s book? Though ‘Portrait’ has lots of scientific content, as I’ll discuss in my full lecture, it’s not science fiction in the way Wells’s works are. It suggests a certain amount of identification with Joyce on Wells’s part. The feeling was mutual: Joyce himself valued the review immensely and went on to meet Wells in Paris in 1928, though they clashed over the aims and success of Finnegans Wake. I’ve not been able to find out exactly how much Wells Joyce had read in his youth, but in his Trieste Library, Joyce had copies of 3 of Wells’ comic novels (Bealby, The History of Mr Polly, Kipps) and one of his socialist polemics (A Modern Utopia) but he may have had more at one point.

Joyce’s continuing respect for Wells survived this inditement of his last book:

Now with regard to this literary experiment of yours. It’s a considerable thing because you are a very considerable man and you have in your crowded composition a mighty genius for expression which has escaped discipline. But I don’t think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men — on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence, and you have elaborated. What is the result? Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. Take me as a typical common reader. Do I get much pleasure from this work? No… So I ask: Who the hell is this Joyce who demands 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?

We understand Wells’s defence of the common reader in relation to this difficult book – though earlier in the same letter, Wells makes some quite shocking remarks about how Joyce’s mind is limited by his Catholic upbringing: ‘You began Catholic, that is to say you began with a system of values in stark opposition to reality’.

So quick to offence normally, it is striking that Joyce wasn’t offended by this. His respect for Wells, and his role in making his name, was undiminished. And perhaps teasing Wells, he alludes to both The War of the Worlds and, perhaps more tellingly, to This Misery of Boots, a more obscure socialist tract published in 1907, in Finnegans Wake. Many of the weirder, more scientific sections of the Wake engage explicitly with Wells’s works and claim them for high modernism.

I’ll be back after the lecture with more Joyce/science gems.

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