I’ve just finished the 2nd volume (of 6) of The Letters of Virginia Woolf 1912 – 1922 and, towards the end, in a letter written to Roger Fry, encountered this assessment of Marcel Proust’s writing (of In Search of Lost Time – see some industrious previous posts on that subject). High praise indeed.

She also boldly states her opinion, by way of comparison with Proust, of James Joyce’s Ulysses. A few months previously, after reading a half-dozen chapters, she had described it as “merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges. Of course genius may blaze out on page 652 but I have my doubts” – language as clear as it might be.  Many years ago, during the era of my callow youth, I packed away a copy of Ulysses on a back-pack tour of Europe and tried, and tried, to read it but was always defeated –  never getting beyond a few dozen pages – finally giving it away to someone, uncharacteristic of my collector’s mentality. I now have it on my Kobo Mini (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4300) and may yet tackle it again someday.

Here is the letter:

Letter 1295: To Roger Fry

Monk’s House, Rodmell, [Sussex]

Oct. 3rd 1922

My dear Roger,

Long ago a slab of nougat arrived without any expression of affection attending it. The label was addressed in a curious forcible crabbed unknown hand. Clive says it is you. But you might have written. It was delicious while it lasted, and now is a memory. I suppose you are at St Tropez – perfectly happy, quite forgetful, painting all day – the sun perhaps too hot.

I haven’t much news, except of the usual English kind – weekends; Clive, Mary; Eliot, Morgan; Lytton, the Sangers. We go back to Hogarth tomorrow, and have at once to beard a crisis with Ralph, which has been brewing some time. I expect he’ll stay on, however; but possibly we shall combine in some way with Mr Whitall, who is coming to see us. (1) Several books are emerging; and I may point out that we’ve sold several copies of Mallarmé by Roger Fry. (2)

Our Murry is back in London: and Sydney who has sloughed his skin for the 20th time and is now a simple, deep, suffering man of the style of Koteliansky, repudiates him, but wobbles. This is all horrid gossip to send out to your purer skies. I write in the horror of packing – I ought to be rolling stockings into balls. My great adventure is really Proust. Well – what remains to be written after that? 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. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical – like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished – My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10. (I see my language is not as clear as it might be – )

But this is only a flourish to awaken your memory, which is I suppose, dissolved in sunshine. They are building up the churchyard wall here, and Mrs Dedman, has I regret to say, stolen 5 face towels.

Ever your

V.W.

(1.) See p. 545, note 1.  [The Hogarth Press was expanding so rapidly that it was monopolizing too much of Leonard’s and Virginia’s time, and Ralph Partridge was proving unsatisfactory as an assistant. James Whitall, an American, offered to take over the whole business management of the Press, but Leonard turned him down.]

(2.) See p. 439, note 1. This was a bait to urge Roger Fry to complete the work. [The proposal to publish Roger Fry’s translations of Mallarmé was postponed from year to year, and they were not published until 1936, after Fry’s death.]

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