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‘Ulysses was a large stomachful.’ How The Irish Times reviewed James Joyce in the 1920s

Our original review of Finnegans Wake said the book was ‘exciting in its impenetrability’

A trawl of the Irish Times archives reveals a lot about how "great" literature is seen at time of publication. Here is how the newspaper viewed James Joyce, giant of 20th-century literature, in 1923.

“It is extremely difficult to say exactly what place in literature will be occupied by Mr James Joyce,” ran an appraisal on May 5th, 1923, three years after Ulysses, now his most famous work, was published.

(Reviews of new books weren’t the staple of newspapers they have become since. Nor were journalists’ bylines.)

The critic – credited as “Bruyere” but thought to be RM Smyllie, who would later become Irish Times Editor – said Ulysses was “more than a large mouthful. It was a large stomachful. It was almost as if someone was speaking in a language hitherto unheard, even unthought.”

The writer continued: “That his position is unique there can be very little doubt; but that statement helps us virtually no more than the pronouncement of many, on the appearance of Ulysses, that the book was ‘European’, and that in writing it Mr Joyce had made an entry into European literature. Anything may be unique – in fact, most things are – but the mere giving it that label does thereby make it of any particular worth.

“That Mr Joyce’s work is of particular worth is the firm opinion of many; but, probably for the next generation or so, people will differ very strongly on that question.”

An assessment of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake on June 3rd, 1940, appeared more than a year after the book was first published. “The writing of Finnegans Wake took 16 years, short enough, perhaps, beside the stretch of time that could be spent in trying to understand it. For it must be said at once that, this way at least, Mr Joyce gives full measure to the reader.

“Nothing moves, or appears, or is said as ever before in any book. It is endlessly exciting in its impenetrability. Beside it even his own Ulysses is simplicity itself. Around that work a vast and still uncompleted literature of explanation has grown up, which has made its author a legend that even Finnegans Wake may not diminish.

“He will continue to enjoy his sheltered existence in the region of the unknown; for the attempts to explain Finnegan, which are sure to come, are likely to do nothing more than add to the mystery of Mr Joyce.

The Irish Times was founded in March 1859 but, as Terence Brown observes in his history of the newspaper: "Until the 1880s and 1890s there was little sense that Ireland possessed a literature of its own ... This began to change, however, as what became known as the Irish Literary Revival began to make its impact on cultural life."

In his book, The Irish Times: 150 Years of Influence, Brown credits editor Alec Newman with establishing the weekly books page in the 1930s as “a thing of serious critical account”.

An article to be published on Saturday May 1st will carry extracts from significant Irish Times literary reviews from years past, from WB Yeats's first collection in 1889 to Anne Enright's first novel in 1995, along with links to the original reviews, which you can read in full in the archive section of irishtimes.com.

Click here for the original article on Ulysses and here for the review of Finnegans Wake.