Letter from James Joyce describing his writing process

Description

This letter was written by James Joyce to his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver on 24 June 1921. Joyce was responding to a letter from Weaver, in which she explained that she had been told by Wyndham Lewis and Robert McAlmon that Joyce was drinking heavily. Joyce answers Weaver in an incredibly roundabout way, listing a series of wild rumours about him – that he was a spy, a cocaine addict, an owner of cinemas, lazy, mad, dying – to suggest that, somewhere between himself and Weaver, the report on his drinking may have become exaggerated and misunderstood, transformed into another legend. Towards the end of the letter, however, Joyce admits ‘yet you are probably right’.

Joyce also provides a brilliant description of his innovative writing technique:

I have not read a work of literature for several years. My head is full of pebbles and rubbish and broken matches and bits of glass picked up ’most everywhere. The task I set myself technically in writing a book from eighteen different points of view and in as many styles, all apparently unknown or undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen…

Harriet Shaw Weaver Papers

This collection of material belongs to the Harriet Shaw Weaver Papers, which Weaver bequeathed to the British Library in her will (executed in 1970). Weaver was a publisher, editor and Joyce’s patron. Containing a vast number of letters, cuttings and photographs, the Papers shed light on the lives and work of both Joyce and Weaver.

This volume contains other correspondence, mainly from Joyce, relating to Ulysses.

Transcript

Paris V

Dear Miss Weaver: apparently we were both alarmed and then relieved for different reasons. I can only repeat that I am glad it is not any trouble of your own and as for myself having been asked what I have to say why a sentence of death should not be passed upon me I should like to rectify a few mistakes.

A nice collection could be made of legends about me. Here are some. My family in Dublin believe that I enriched myself in Switzerland during the war by espionage work, for one or both combatants. Triestines, seeing me emerge from my relative’s house occupied by my furniture for about twenty minutes every day and walk to the same point the G.P.O. and back (I was writing Nausikaa and The Oxen of the Sun in a dreadful atmosphere) circulated the rumour, now firmly believed, that I am a cocaine victim. The general rumour in Dublin was (till the prospectus of Ulysses stopped it) that I could write no more, had broken down and was dying in New York. A man from Liverpool told me he had heard that I was the owner of several cinema theatres all over Switzerland. In America there appear to be or have been two versions: one that I was


almost blind, emaciated and consumptive, the other that I am an austere mixture of the Dalai Lama and sir Rabindranath Tagore. Mr. Pound described me as a dour Aberdeen minister. Mr. Lewis told me he was told that I was a crazy fellow who always carried four watches and rarely spoke except to ask my neighbour what o’clock it was. Mr. Yeats seemed to have described me to Mr. Pound as a kind of Dick Swiveller. What the numerous (and useless) people to whom I have been introduced here think I don’t know. My habit of addressing people whom I have just met for the first time as ‘Monsieur’ earned for me this reputation of a tout petit bourgeois while others consider what I intend for politeness as most offensive. I suppose I now have the reputation of being an incurable dipsomaniac. One woman here originated the rumour that I am extremely lazy and will never do or finish anything. (I calculate that I must have spent nearly 20,000 hours in writing Ulysses.) A batch of people in Zurich persuaded themselves that I was gradually going mad and actually endeavoured to induce me to enter a sanatorium where a certain Doctor Jung (the Swiss Tweedledum who is not to be confused with the Viennese Tweedledee, Dr Freud) amuses himself at the expense (in every sense of the word) of ladies and gentlemen who are troubled with bees in their bonnets.

I mention all these views not to speak about myself or my critics but to show you how conflicting they all are. The truth probably is that I am a quite commonplace


person undeserving of so much imaginative painting. There is a further opinion that I am a crafty simulating and dissimulating Ulysses-like type, a ‘jejune Jesuit,’ selfish and cynical. There is some truth in this, I suppose: but it is by no means all of me (nor was it all of Ulysses) and it has been my habit to apply this alleged quality to safeguard my poor creations for on the other side, as I stated in my former letter, I removed so much of any natural with I had that but for your intuitive help I should be destitute.

I cannot understand the part of your letter about a new circle of friends here. Most of the people to whom Mr Pound introduced me on my arrival here struck me as being, as the elder Mr Dedalus would have phrased it, ‘as I roved out one fine May morning.’ The director of L’Oeuvre theatre who was so enthusiastic about Exiles and bombarded me with telegrams has just written a most insolent letter in slang to say that he was not such a fool as to put on the piece and lost 15,000 francs. My consolation is that I win a box of preserved apricots—a bet I made with Mr Pound (who was optimistic) after a cursory inspection of the director aforesaid. I signed a letter giving him carte blanche to do what he liked with the play, adapt it, put it on, take it off, lock it up etc


knowing that if I refused to sign in a week it would have been said that I was an impossible person, that I was introduced to the great actor Lugne-Poe and given a great opportunity and would not take it. I have been a year in Paris and in that time not a word about me has appeared in any French periodical. Six or seven people are supposed to be translating Dubliners indifferent parts of France. The novel is translated and presented but I can get no reply from the publishers (?) about it though I have written four times asking even for the return of the typescript. I never go to any of the various weekly reunions as it is a waste of time for me at present to be cooped up in overcrowded rooms listening to gossip about absent artists and replying to enthusiastic expressions about my (unread) masterpiece with a polite amused reflective smile. The only person who knows anything worth mentioning about the book or did or tried to do anything about is Mr Valery Larbaud. He is now in England. Would you like him to visit you before he returns?

To return however to the indictment. What Mr Lewis and Mr McAlmon told you is, I am sure, right but at the same time you may have misunderstood what they said. I do not attach the same importance to the “excess” mentioned as you do and as Mr Lewis does, apparently. And yet you are both probably right. This is another reason why your letter relieved me. I suppose you will think me an indifferent kind


of rascal. Perhaps I am. Mr Lewis was very agreeable, in spite of my deplorable ignorance of his art, even offering to instruct me in the art of the Chinese of which I know as much as the man in the moon. He told me he finds life in London very depressing. There is a curious kind of honour-code among men which obliges them to assist one another and not hinder the free action of one another and remain together for mutual protection with the result that very often they waken up the next morning sitting in the same ditch.

This letter begins to remind me of a preface by Mr George Bernard Shaw. It does not seem to be a reply to your letter after all. I hate pose of any kind and so I could not [write] a highflown epistle about nerve tension and relaxation, or asceticism the cause and the effect of excess etc etc. You have already one proof of my intense stupidity. Here now is an example of my emptiness. I have not read a work of literature for several years. My head is full of pebbles and rubbish and broken matches and bits of glass picked up ’most everywhere. The task I set myself technically in writing a book from eighteen different points of view and in


as many styles, all apparently unknown or undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen, that and the nature of the legend chosen would be enough to upset anyone’s mental balance. I want to finish the book and try to settle my entangled material affairs definitely one way or the other (somebody here said of me ‘They call him a poet. He appears to be interested chiefly in mattresses’) And in fact, I was. After that I want a good long rest in which to forget Ulysses completely.

I forgot to tell you another thing. I don’t even know Greek though I am spoken of as erudite. My father wanted me to take Greek as a third language my mother German and my friends Irish. Result, I took Italian. I spoke or used to speak modern Greek not too badly (I speak four or five languages fluently enough) and have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.

I now end this long rambling shambling speech, having said nothing of the darker aspects of my detestable character. I suppose the law should take its course with me because it must now seem to you a waste of rope to accomplish the dissolution of a person who has now dissolved visibly and possess scarcely as much ‘pendibility’ as an uninhabited dressing gown.

With kindest regards

Gratefully and sincerely yours

James Joyce


Full title:
Letter from James Joyce describing his writing process
Created:
24 June 1921
Format:
Ephemera / Letter / Manuscript
Creator:
James Joyce
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
Add MS 57346

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